Na’vi Cognition and Culture

James Cameron's Avatar is about to become the most viewed film in history. While Cameron may deserve this success for his special effects and breathtaking landscapes, Pandora, the world he has created, may seem rather disappointing. It is situated several light-years away from Earth but it looks very much like our world: There are trees, and grass, as well as predators and preys, birds and monkeys and, above all, the aliens called the Na'vis are just like us, except for a blue skin and a long tail (they even have breasts for those who read Playboy for the articles). They also have language, rituals and so on! One may ask: Why such a lack of imagination? Why create a whole encyclopaedia if it is for re-inventing the Earth?

Actually, I may be unfair with Cameron. After all, the convergences between the Earth and Pandora make sense from an evolutionary point of view. Indeed, there are good reasons to expect that life on others planets might evolve as it did on Earth. Everywhere in the universe, living beings would face similar evolutionary problems: They need energy, detectors, and computational systems. And everywhere in the universe, they will discover the same solutions exactly as, on Earth, the same tricks (enzymes, sex, eyes, etc.) have been discovered again and again by different species (see for instance Conway Morris's wonderful book about convergences; see also our old reader at alphapsy).

So far, so good for the biology (as for the physics, see here for the floating mountains!). Everywhere, life is likely to re-invent photosynthesis, sex or echolocation. But what about cognition and culture? Can we expect aliens to be so humanlike? I see no good reasons to be sceptical about the Na'vis' cognition.

In his article "Do extraterrestrials have sex (and intelligence)?", Jerome Barkow argued that intelligent beings need an intuitive physics to make tools, a theory of mind to understand others, a moral sense to cooperate and so on. Actually, some cognitive convergence can be found right here on Earth (see for instance Emery and Clayton's article on cognitive convergences between crows and apes).

And what about culture? Cameron seems quite proud of having recruited a linguist, Paul Frommer, to create a brand new language for the Na'vis (here is the grammar, the phonology and a part of the lexicon). This idea might sound a bit naive, but why not? Again, aliens should face the same constraints while communicating with others and they might well discover similar solutions. In a recent article about language universals, Nick Evans and Steve Levinson have described languages as

"…evolutionarily stable strategies, local minima as it were, that are recurrent solutions across time and space, such as the tendency to distinguish noun and verb roots, to have a subject role, or mutually consistent approaches to the ordering of head and modifier (…). These tendencies (…) result from myriad interactions between communicative, cognitive, and processing constraints which reshape existing structures through use."

It does not seem irrational then to expect alien languages to have such things as "subjects" for subjects are a very powerful tool to solve linguistic problems. As Evans and Levinson write:

"The device of subject, whether in English, Warlpiri, or Malagasy, is a way of streamlining grammars to take advantage of the fact that three logically distinct tasks correlate statistically. In a sentence like "Mary is trying to finish her book," the subject "Mary" is:
(a) a topic – what the sentence is about;
(b) an agent – the semantic role of the instigator of an action;
(c) the "pivot" – the syntactic broker around which many grammatical properties coalesce
Having a subject relation is an efficient way to organize a language's grammar because it bundles up different sub-tasks that most often need to be done together."

Note that the universality of cognitive constraints on the cultural evolution of languages is fully compatible with the variability of human languages, for each language has its own history and its own ecological constraints.

I won't go further in this direction but I guess that we could make similar claims for rituals as, all around the world, human rituals has evolved under the pressure of the same cognitive constraints.

My only reservation is about the cognitive device that allows Na'vis to mentally control animals and plants. I can't see any evolutionary good reason for such a symbiosis. But since it allows the characters to drive horses, pseudo-lions and pterodactyls, I can't really blame Cameron…


  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 19 January 2010 (23:13)

    For the sake of argument, let us grant you and Conway Morris your main point: life on other planets would take the same course of evolution, cognition and culture would be roughly similar to what we know, etc. Let’s say you’re right. Does it follow that Pandora is a probable planet ? No ! It took billions of years for Earth to become Pandora-like. The chances for an Earth-explorer landing on the planet at any moment in that great length of time, and finding Earth Pandora-like (with multicellular life, trees, flowers, animals, cognition, culture, etc.), are exceedingly small. If the universe had 10000 planets exactly like Earth, the chances of one of these planets being Pandora-like right now would still be exceedingly small.

  • comment-avatar
    Nicolas Baumard 19 January 2010 (23:25)

    I fully agree with you. My point was the following: If humans were to discover an intelligent life, it would probably be very similar to us. That does not imply that the evolution of intelligent life is probable. Actually, Conway Morris, who advocates evolutionary convergence, thinks that we are alone in the universe (cf the subtitle of his book: Inevitable humans in a lonely universe). And as you say, even if the universe contains billions of billions of solar systems, most of them are too far away in time and space to make a meeting with intelligent aliens more than improbable.

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    José-Luis Guijarro 20 January 2010 (10:41)

    In the improbable case that we would find intelligent life somewhere in the Universe, would it not escape our perception of it if it did not show a lot of features in common with what we now mentally represent as INTELLIGENT?

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    Pascal Boyer 21 January 2010 (16:47)

    No surprise those blue guys and dolls have, well, all it takes to make the film watchable and the story intelligible (and the images at least minimally attractive). People try very hard to invent new worlds and species – yet they all end up looking very much the same. That is why (at least to some high-brow readers) many science-fiction books and films seem all eerily similar. Despite the authors’ best efforts, the plots turn around warfare, people who wage wars are organised in armies or army-like states, people wear uniforms, etc etc. Was it really worth it travelling through galaxies to discover some purple-skinned version of the US Army? Interestingly, some high-brow authors too have tried, with better success of course, to imagine worlds really different from our own. See for instance Borges’s famous [i]Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius[/i], a country where idealism is true – things only exist inasmuch as people think about them. But, no surprise there – the account stops after a few pages. There is just no way to spin any kind of story in a world like that. Which leads us to the more interesting and anthropological question, What exactly are those limits on imagination? I think we should pursue Nicolas’s questions further. For instance, as he notes, cognition and behavior in the blue-folks film are diasppointingly similar to what we (Western, humans) expect. But I would bet (having not seen the film) that they also have ostensive gaze, gestures rythmically coordinated with speech, turn-taking in conversations, and another million features that happen to be special to our species – and so familiar that we do not even think that they may be different elsewhere. There is no general “cognition and culture” study of the limits of imagination, except the work done by Justin Barrett (see[url][/url]) and a few others on religious concepts. Despite the fact that there is no principled limit to imagining gods and spirits – contrary to tigers and trees, they are not actually around to constrain your ideas about them – supernatural entities turn out to be depressingly similar non-physical agents with slightly counter-intuitive physical or biological properties, but minds similar to our intuitive expectations about people. These are not [i][/i]solid[i][/i] limits to imagination. We can, and sometimes do, imagine beings and objects that really violate our intuitive expectations. But this takes more effort than imagining human-like spirits. It also takes more effort to convey those thoughts, to recall them, to explain them, etc. Which creates “cultural attractors” like spirits and gods. Wittgenstein was wrong about this (as about everything else, but that will be the topic of another post). We are not like flies in a bottle, incapable of overcoming our intuitive expectations. The shackles of intuitive ontologies are elastic – the further away from rest position you want to go, the more energy it takes, and the faster your mind will snap back to its entrenched expectations when the effort is relaxed. The amount of effort that will be expended to sustain a particular fiction is of course dependent on the cognitive effects of engaging in that pretence. Which predicts all sorts of properties of culturally successful artistic traditions – more grants are needed!