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Towards a Blueprint for a Social Animal (2020)

by Stephen A. Butterfill and Elisabeth Pacherie

--- in Anika Fiebich (eds.), Minimal Cooperation and Shared Agency , Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 111-125
--- links: [pdf] external [doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-29783-1_7]


In this chapter, we attempt to answer the question, By what steps could members of a group capable of acting together with a purpose, coordinating flexibly, communicating cooperatively and deceiving competitors be constructed from creatures with minimal social skills and cognitive abilities? The method we use is creature construction: the idea is to adopt the perspective of a designer tasked with specifying a sequence of creatures, where each is independently viable and has the capacities of its predecessors together with some new capacity which enables it to overcome limits its predecessors faced. In creature construction, the aim is not to characterise actual species, nor to describe actual evolutionary or developmental processes. Instead the aims are to understand how various forms (or prototypes) of joint action are related to, and diverge from, each other; and to identify limits on what can be achieved with a given set of cognitive and social skills.

We start with Alphonso and his kin, whose social cognition is limited to tracking the goals of others’ actions. We show that despite little cognitive sophistication, the salience and triangulation heuristics enables them to initiate simple joint actions requiring coordination. One group of their descendants, Beki and her kin, develop abilities to produce pointing gestures and object-directed vocalisations, that enable them to enlist others not yet as partners but as social tools, thus extending the range of situations in which they can rely on the salience and triangulation heuristics. Another group of Alphonso’s descendants, Bemi’s kin, learn the art of strategic deception, acquiring increasingly elaborate tactics for manipulating others’ action possibilities. This advantages them in competition. Finally, the Kimi, who are mixed descendants of both the Beki and the Bemi, inherit the former’s communicative abilities and the latter’s abilities for tactical deception. Progressively integrating the two allows them to develop new capacities of selective deception.

We argue that although our creatures do not yet have all the cognitive capacities classical accounts imply are needed for joint action, they have proxies for some of these capacities. These proxies allow them to coordinate in a limited but useful range of ordinary circumstances. Further, relying on such proxies provide ways of avoiding both omni-doxasticity and omni-intentionality when acting together.