The fact that, in any organism, different stimuli cause different responses means that the organism can differentiate between these various kinds of conditions or phenomena. Studies of one-celled animals and plants have led to an understanding of the different classes of stimuli and what responses they produce. Studies of intracellular structure have led to some understanding of the mechanism by which certain stimuli produce certain responses.
Studies of the eye structure and the actions of the nerve cells connected to receptor cells of the eyes have led to some understanding of the responses of house flies, frogs, cats, and humans to various visual phenomena. What is clear is that the nerve cells do not simply transmit a visual scene to the brain; instead, they analyze and interpret the scene. In particular, they report changes in the visual scene, changes usually caused by movements of external organisms or objects.
Studies of the behavior of different species of animals show the subtlety of their powers of discrimination. Lions are quick to spot any member of a fleeing herd that is slightly slower moving or less agile than the others. High flying hawks and eagles can detect the movements of small rodents far below them. And the agility of many birds and mammals suggests the rapidity with which changes in the visual field are processed.
The human brain receives information from the five senses and also from the interior of the body. Especially to be noted is the fact that the processing of this information is largely unconscious. Some processing is done before the information even reaches the brain. The brain can process the information and generate routine responses without any conscious attention being given to the information received. Perhaps the most striking evidence of this is the fact that a person can drive a car over several blocks, even miles, of a familiar route without any conscious awareness of doing so. It is only when something out of the ordinary happens or when there is some special reason for paying attention that we interrupt whatever we are thinking about to consciously notice our surroundings or the state of things in our lives. Of course, people vary in their level of attention to their immediate circumstances, on the one hand, and their preoccupation with other things and the intensity of their concentration, on the other.
As the example of driving a car illustrates, when first learning to do something a person typically needs to give careful attention to external objects and pertinent features of the environment as well as to his or her actions and the results of those actions. As we gain greater and greater proficiency, less and less attention is required. The point to be recognized is that learning to do anything has two aspects to it: learning to recognize and distinguish the pertinent features of the situation calling for action; and learning to execute the action fittingly. Of course, learning what situations “call for” what actions, learning what features are “pertinent”, and learning to “fit” the action to the situation to bring about desired results are all parts of learning to appraise situations. Furthermore, learning about the possible consequences of an action and what can make those consequences desirable or undesirable can be a sizable task in itself. This is not a task that is normally done separately. Acquiring an ability and acquiring competence are usually done together, with many component abilities being broadened and perfected along the way.
The major point to be recognized is that learning is a very general phenomenon that is manifested in many, many ways. Thus, a bear cub learning to get food and a multinational corporation developing a marketing strategy have much in common. Both are learning to fit their behavior to external conditions, and both need to learn to recognize the pertinent features of those external conditions. Additionally, both learn largely by imitation.
The bear cub also has the advantage of being taught by mama bear. Nearly all the higher abilities of mammals (especially human beings), or groups of mammals, are acquired by being taught. Thus associated with each of these higher abilities there is an ability, possessed by another being, to teach that ability. Thus there exists a whole gamut of teaching abilities.
Teaching abilities have components which may pertain to teaching various aspects of the appraisal of situations: classifying situations and their salient features, characterizing different ways of performing responses to the situation, and relating the possible consequences, their likelihood, and their favorable and unfavorable aspects to each of these factors.
Abilities to teach certain skills are themselves components of higher level teaching abilities. Mama bear has a high level ability in that she can teach the whole curriculum of bearhood. Since bearhood is a way of life, it has its own felt needs, its own criteria of desirability, its own decision rules. All these are conveyed by the teacher without being explicitly identified, and all are assimilated by the pupil. The bear cub’s natural aptitude for imitation makes possible the operativeness of a tutorial language, consisting largely of urgings to follow and rebukes for poor or inattentive performance.
The tutorial languages of bears and other higher subhuman mammals supplement and partially replace another remarkable phenomenon known as instinct. The term “instinct” designates all transmission of patterns of behavior from parent to offspring by genetic means rather than by imitation and teaching. Instinct is the more basic and primitive mode of transmitting behavior. In fact, instinct makes imitation and teaching possible, for the imitating done by offspring and the teaching done by parents are primarily instinctive behaviors. Instinctive behavior is typically highly stylized and rigid. Imitation and teaching enable much more flexible and adaptive behavior to be transmitted.
The greater flexibility and adaptability of higher mammals compared to other species can in part be attributed to larger brain sizes. A more specific factor, however, is the higher mammal’s fuller knowledge of its own abilities and of the abilities of other creatures significant to their survival (as predators, prey, allies or kindred). This fuller knowledge consists of a more accurate and more detailed representation of the respective abilities, enabling individual mammals to anticipate the movements of other creatures and to select appropriate tactics in response. This knowledge is not held consciously except perhaps in the highest species–dolphins and apes–but it does enable higher mammals to interact with other creatures, such as their own offspring, with great subtlety.
Even among human beings, knowledge of one’s own abilities and the abilities of others is primarily subconscious. We anticipate one another’s words and actions without being consciously aware of the faculty that enables us to form those expectations.
This largely subconscious knowledge of abilities is a major component of the capacity of mammals, especially human beings, to appraise situations. The mammal’s fuller knowledge of abilities tends to free it from reliance on instinct, affording it instead a notably higher level of self-directedness or autonomy.
Human behavior, of course, is more flexible, adaptive and inventive than the behavior of any other species. Much of this superiority, the discussion above indicates, is due to a very large repertoire of subconscious knowledge about abilities. This repertoire plays a major role in the human capacity for appraisal of situations. This is not to deny the role of culture–the transmitted way of life and system of beliefs of a people. It is only to say that this repertoire of knowledge, based on first-hand experience, acts as a substratum or foundation for being able to assimilate and make sense of what one learns culturally. Still greater levels of adaptiveness, inventiveness and autonomy arise from the fact that human patterns of behavior can be partially self-taught. Still more, the course of acquiring and using abilities can become increasingly self-planned (thus autonomously created) after a certain level of development is reached. Obviously, the required level of development involves an acquisition of language and command of an appropriate vocabulary. Most of us also need the example of other persons who explicitly plan the acquisition and use of abilities as part of their life or career plans.
Up to this point our analysis of the capacity for appraisal of situations has implicitly focused on individual members of various species rather than groups.[ii] Let us turn our attention now to this capacity within groups, especially human groups. The term “group” shall be used broadly to designate any collection of individuals within which there is a recognizable flow of information and a capacity, at least in certain instances, to act collectively, even if the act is only a speaking for the group or a registering of approval or disapproval or divided opinion on some question. A “group” in this sense may be highly organized, as a large corporation, or be quite lacking in organization, as perhaps the refugees from one country who are within the borders of some other country. A group may be very large, such as a “people” or a “population” or consist of as few as two people, such as a husband and wife. Generally, we think of a group as a collection of persons who think of themselves (occasionally) as being members of the group or, in some very small groups, as having a relationship with the other member(s) of the group.
The abilities of a group for appraisal of situations are the abilities that may cause the group to respond, as a group, to certain situations. Typically, the individual members of a group receive and are aware of a great deal of information that is not of interest to the group as a whole and that the group as a whole does not act on. Loosely speaking, what the group as a whole does is to act on the basis of the information that the group as a whole has or that the leaders and spokespersons of the group have. Each group has its own mode of operation, its own implicit rules for receiving information, for making decisions for some component part of the group, and for recasting and transmitting the information to other parts or members of the group. As information is received, recast and transmitted it is being construed to form appraisals from which actions, or decisions not to act, are generated.
Social scientists have generated innumerable descriptions of the operation, behavior, self-understanding and internal culture of multitudes of kinds of groups (families, business firms of various types and sizes, labor unions, religious congregations, and many, many more). What is being suggested here is a different mode of studying and describing groups, one that attempts to identify abilities and the evidence of abilities, the structure of those abilities and their history of development, and the planning of the acquisition and use of abilities. One aspect of this kind of study would be to identify how appraisals or “pictures” or “understandings” of the status of things are formed. Also to be studied would be the accompanying appraisal of what can be done and then the decision of what to do. This kind of study of the appraisal capabilities of groups would need to be done in conjunction with a complementary study of the abilities within groups to carry out the actions decided upon.
This complementary aspect of abilities, for individuals and groups, is discussed next.