Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The figure in the carpet: patterns and civilization

Owing to my long labors in the vineyards of academia, or so a friend suggests, I am too prone to look for patterns. I seek to detect definite configurations, when in reality there are just random agglomerations.

However this may be, the tendency to detect patterns is a theme that runs through our civilization. In all likelihood it is even earlier, stretching back to the hunting-and-gathering stages of mankind's prehistory.

Let us start, though, with an eminently civilized figure: Leonardo da Vinci, who attributed an interesting procedure to a noted predecessor in painting. "Botticelli said [that] by merely throwing a sponge against the wall there would be left a stain in which there could be seen a beautiful landscape. He was indeed right that in such a stain various inventions are to be seen. I say that a man may seek out in such a stain heads of men, various animals, battles, rocks, seas, clouds, woods and other similar things."

Literalists might take this technique as an archetype of the arbitrary pattern-seeking ascribed to Dynes. There is no doubt, though, that such endeavors are a stimulus to creativity.

They reflect our tendency to projection, a principle that was placed in a new context by early twentieth-century psychology. Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss psychologist, found that subjects would respond to ink blots by indicating that they "saw" various things there: a landscape, an animal, possibly a vagina. As a diagnostic device the Rorschach tests are now discounted in clinical work. Yet there is no doubt that they reflect a basic human propensity. This propensity also appeared in another psychological school, that of the gestalt, a German word meaning "configuration."

Some projections may be fantasies, to be sure. But others lead to the detection of genuine patterns, patterns not immediately evident but actually there. They permit us to discern the figure in the carpet.

Why do we human beings tend to look for pattern when we are presented with a seemingly random array? Reflecting the approach of evolutionary psychology, my approach holds that pattern detection became part of an all-important set of resources that fostered our collective survival. There is evidence that hunting-and-gathering societies, reflecting an earlier stage of human cultural evolution, highly value a skill that most hunters have. These gifted individuals can look at tracks to see whether the animal might represent either food or danger. Some of the hunters can, or so we are told, tell from broken twigs what kind of creature has passed that way, and when.

An amusing, though somewhat fanciful locus classicus of this endowment is Voltaire’s oriental tale entitled Zadig (1748). One day the sage Zadig was out walking in the country when one of the Queen’s servants came to him with an urgent request. "You haven’t seen the Queen’s dog, have you?" To which, the wise man replied: "It is a bitch, not a dog." The servant confirmed this point. Zadig went on to say "She’s a very small spaniel. She has recently had a litter. She limps with her left front paw and has recently had a litter. She limps with her left front paw, and she has very long ears."

The servant said that he must have seen the precious pet. "Not at all," replied Zadig. Asked to give an accounting of himself, he replied as follows (I omit a little of the flowery language). "I was out walking and I saw some animal tracks in the sand; I could easily tell that they were those of a small dog. Long, shallow grooves drawn across tiny heaps of sand between the paw-marks told me that it was a bitch whose teats were hanging down, which meant that she had whelped a few days previously. Other traces going in a different direction, and apparently made by something brushing constantly over the surface of the sand beside the front paws, told me that she had very long ears. And as I noticed that the sand was always less indented by one paw than by the other three, I realized that the animal had a slight limp."

The motif in Voltaire’s tale has been traced to the story "The Sultan of Yemen and His Three Sons" from the Arabian Nights. There are other analogues in world literature.

Anthropological observation provides concrete examples. For the following observations I am indebted to the kindness of the Australian archaeologist Steve Corsini. "The skills of Australian Indigenous Peoples, both men and women, in tracking game and each other are legendary. There are literally hundreds of ethnographic and popular accounts of Australian Aboriginal trackers being able to follow all manner of animals, escaped convicts and lost children and to be able to recognize members of their family or even their wider clan, from their footprints.
I know a couple of guys from the Pia Wadjarri community who can recognize individual vehicles from their tire tracks!"

Mr. Corsini reports the following personal experience: "I was on an archaeological survey once (April 1993) with a few elders from the Mt James (Burringurah) Aboriginal Community recording engraving sites and stone artifact scatters along a tributary of the Gascoyne River (north Branch) when two almost simultaneously said 'there's a wild dog round here with three legs.' Later in the day we came across a dingo hybrid hiding under a rock overhang. It took off along the river and it had an obviously broken left front foot from being caught in and escaping from a rabbit trap (these areas are sheep stations, extensive grazing properties where dogs, both wild dingoes and feral mongrels are ruthlessly hunted, trapped and poisoned)."

Moreover, "[I]n August of 1997 two old men I worked with from the Warburton Community could tell apart the tracks of two different goanna or monitor lizards (Varanus sp) that to me look physically identical apart from their coloration. Their suppositions were proven to be correct because they caught both of the animals, one was dug from its burrow, the other flushed out of a big clump of spinifex (if they had been properly cooked I'm sure they would have been quite delicious)."

All sorts of other examples come to mind. The point, though, is that we naturally look for contexts in which to place individual data. This is true in the visual realm as in others. We may not do so as resourcefully as the Australian natives, but the temptation is hard to avoid. At one stage of humanity’s cultural development this propensity was essential for survival. Today its survival is a gift, on that seems essential for creativity. One should not allow the gift to be smothered by a misplaced logical atomism.

A friend directs me the following important point made by Michael Shermer in his book How We Believe. As the tracker is confronted with a particular twig/moisture situation in the bush, two erroneous readings are possible. 1) False negative. There is a meaningful correlation of elements, but the tracker misses is. 2) False positive. The tracker overinterprets the cues.

It seems that the tendency for humans to see patterns (even when they aren’t really there) was selected in an evolutionary process. The reason for this is that the cost of a false positive (seeing a pattern when one didn't really exist) for ancestral human beings was less than the cost of a false negative (not recognizing a pattern when there is one).

The false-negative situation is the more dangerous one, as the observer could miss an important food source or, worse, fail to notice the imminent danger of a predator. False positives may lead to a wild goose chase—there is no food source; there is no predator. But the hunter survives. And survival is inclusive fitness in the sense of evolutionary biology.

This, it seems, is the explanation of why we are conditioned to overinterpret. And a good thing too.


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