Self-response learning and ACiM

by Suspended Reason

Dawkins, interview with Sean Carroll 2022:

Bird song has great aesthetic appeal… As Keats said of the nightingale, My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk.” The nightingale’s song had a drugging effect on Keats’s nervous system. And he would’ve called it an aesthetic effect, but he also likened it to taking a drug. Well Keats’s nervous system was a vertebrate nervous system and so is a female nightingale’s…

And I like this idea because we know that bird song actually does have a measurable physiological effect on the female bird’s hormones. This has been shown in doves and in canaries. It actually… Male song in canaries actually causes the ovaries of a female to grow. So, it’s as though the male is having a direct hormonal effect, [a] physiological effect on the female. A human physiologist could cause a female’s ovaries to grow by injecting hormones, or perhaps he could influence her behaviour by sticking electrodes in her brain. Well, the male bird can’t do that. But he can do something equivalent, which is to sing. So there was a man called Hartshorne who actually tried to make the case that… birds have an aesthetic appreciation of song, that [they] actually [enjoy] song in the same way as we enjoy music. And he was rather ridiculed for that. But, it’s not too far distant what I’m now saying, which is that the manipulative effect of a male bird’s song on the female physiology is kind of like an aesthetic experience.

Now, if we go now to the question of how the male bird learns to sing, it’s been shown in a number of species that… young birds, when they’re developing their song, are teaching themselves to sing by trial and error… And this has been shown by experiments. What they’re doing is kind of burbling around at random. And every time they hear a phrase that they like (I used that phrase advisedly) they repeat it. So they’re learning. They’re teaching themselves to sing by repeating those phrases of burbling, of warbling, which appeal to them, turn them on. Now, a male nightingale or a male canary is the same species as a female. He has a similar brain. So, whatever turns him on might turn the female on. Well, that’s getting perilously close to talking about it as an aesthetic experience, isn’t it? It’s saying, the male teaches himself to sing by singing phrases at random. And the ones that he likes, the ones that turn him on aesthetically, are likely to be the same as the ones that would turn a female on aesthetically and sexually.

There are a couple really interesting things happening in this quote. First, Dawkins is presenting an example of just how strong and physiological the manipulation effects of communication can be. (Recall that Dawkins is one of the originators of the ACiM idea.)

Second, Dawkins is laying out what we might call a self-response learning process for developing a repertoire of effective utterances.

ACiM is a natural extension of cybernetics insofar as it builds off the idea that organisms’ communication patterns are trained, over their lifetimes, through observation of the effects of a communicative utterance. Those speech acts which elicit a positive (desired) effect are preserved and re-deployed in the future; those which elicit negative (undesired) effects are discarded. (One meta-principle I hope to elaborate, going forward, is that we should always understand games, not by the self-representations of their players, but by the actual incentive and selection structures which govern their outcomes and survivorship.)

But an additional mechanism, which I have previously alluded to but never adequately treated or crystallized, is the self-response learning pattern laid out above, in young male nightingales developing a song repertoire. Because our psychologies, as humans, are roughly similar to those of other humans’, we are able to treat our own psychological responses to stimuli as surrogates for the responses of others. When we ourselves feel especially hurt or inspired, angered or saddened, by a remark, we gain data about what sorts of remarks might elicit similar responses in others.