a-curious-creature asked: Have you heard of Merlin Donald? We had a very interesting lecture and tutorial on his work today, focusing on memetic culture, and the general consensus was 'why hasn't anyone thought of this before?' I haven't made up my mind yet- another lecture next week, and we're relating back to Dreyfus, Gehlen, Herder etc., but the central idea that homo erectus must have had something to facilitate a co-operative society and form a basis for the development of language is intuitively convincing.
Yes I have! And for the benefit of those who haven’t I’ll rehash his ideas below.
Merlin Donald gave us an interesting picture of how the mind could have evolved, and showed how the interplay of culture and biology sculpted it over the last 500,000 or so years. I wouldn’t call it an empirical theory as such, but the ideas are well-worth examining.
He divides human cognitive evolution into four great epochs.
Originally, hominids could only think in ‘episodic’ terms. This is the sort of thinking we see in great apes, and dolphins, and octopus. Their behaviour consists of short-term responses to the environment, lived entirely in the present. Remember though that in Donald’s terminology thinking refers only to conscious thought. So these hominids would still have been driven by instinct to act in the long term (like swallows instinctively migrating), but would never consciously have sat down and thought: we need to leave some of those berries on that bush so it’ll be there next year.
The second epoch is the one you’re talking about. The word Donald uses is ‘mimetic’, not memetic though. (I can understand the confusion, memes are all about culture too!) He says the worldview of Homo Erectus was qualitatively different to that of the hominids that went before. In a way, if we accept that real consciousness requires a self persisting over time and with an awareness of itself doing that, then this Mimetic stage is Donald’s origin of consciousness. Erectus led a social life but I think the distinction is that, while chimps instinctively hunt together, Donald imagined Erectus communicating with each other and handing traditions down the generations in order to uphold the society. He says that this wasn’t based on language, as you know, but on facial expressions, signing, mimicry etc. Information could be exchanged, but slowly, and this is why it ‘took’ Erectus 400,000 years to discover fire.
Donald talks up the symbolic capabilities of the mimetic stage. There’s this lovely quote where he says its “The Great Homind Escape From The Nervous System.” He literally does view Erectus as inventing culture, and it is during this period we see the first crude bone sculptures etc. The crucial point is that mimesis allows skills to be transferred, so they can be ‘inherited’ in a non-biological fashion, as learned behaviour rather than instincts. Again, I think he’s emphasising the conscious nature of mimetic communication because, well, its vastly inferior in its precision to the instinctive bee dances!
So, after mimesis, comes mythic thought. And here lies the origin of true language, he says. He claims from analysis of 20th century hunter-gatherer tribes that the first use of language was in crafting a group identity through storytelling and mythologizing – creating a mental model of man’s place in the universe. I think this is a dodgy assumption. Okay, hunter-gatherer tribes are highly-verbal and have an advanced oral culture, as did all pre-literate peoples. That doesn’t imply, however, that that was langauge’s original use. Why would you go from basic mimesis used in practical situations to using words to tell complex stories? I’d’ve thought the selective advantage went to the tribe who used language to educate their kids better in stone use, or to work together in hunting, or to plan their future movements. Most theories of language origins seems to focus on those kinds of factors – e.g. fostered in-group cohesion by allowing hunters to plan strategies together and thus bring home more food.
Donald’s fourth stage is theoretic thought, in the last 30,000 years or so, and this is the sort that he associates with the development of bows and arrows, ceramics etc. To me, this seems the more pragmantic kind of thinking – the ability to communicate intuitive ideas about physics etc. In a way, I can buy his idea of storytelling before technology – I mean storytelling is useful in that you can communicate directions, and it is obviously crucial to creating a group’s identity in history.
Merlin Donald’s ideas rest however on a non-biological model of the brain. For him, once the mimetic threshold was passed in Erectus, humans had the cognitive ability to do anything: it just took the slow development of society to wake it up. But brain size had been expanding up to 100,000 years ago. There were gross changes in neurobiology, to which any account of psychological evolution must be connected.
Language origins research was famously banned in the 19th century by the linguistic society of Paris on the charge of being nothing more than idle speculation. Mimesis seems intuitively sensible, but to my mind it doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with generative grammar models of language (and hence language origins). The crucial thing in generative grammar is the combinatorial nature of language and the arbitratiness of the sign. Facial expressions etc are neither combinatorial (they aren’t made up of discrete units that can only combined following specific rules) nor are they arbitrary (their meanings aren’t learned as an arbitraty relationship, they are instinctive, and indeed, seen in chimps and bonobos). Donald’s transition to mythic thinking emphasized ‘content’, rather than grammar. If we accept that grammar is what is selected for, then development of grammar is independent of what ‘content’ is up to. We are left with two options. Chomsky’s idea that grammar ability emerged from a general increase in overall cognitive function – (distinct from Donald’s ideas of higher cognitive functioning stemming from cooperation caused by language use). Or we take Pinker and Bloom’s language organ: whereby genetic mutations give rise to specific module of the mind that provides us with a language faculty. This has always struck me as a bit of a hopeful monster – language use is dependent on one random lucky mutation in one person. Think about it – if a mutation gave rise to language in one person, who’s he meant to talk to and accrue the benefits of language?! This is why Donald’s theories that emphasize social factors are worth listening to, and, are indeed, intuitively convincing.
Terrence Deacon’s ideas, however, allow us to rescue Donald’s emphasis on ‘content.’ For Deacon the crucial part of language is its symbolic capacity. He would differ from Donald though in that he sees symbolic learning as existing in great apes – in the episodic, as well as mimetic stages! He thinks symbolic learning is just a version of indexical learning. This is borne out by the way chimps have been taught to associate arbitrary signs and symbols with the real world. This looks scarily like behaviourism so we have to ask ourselves are the chimps associating the idea of the banana with the token, or are they associating the token with the tasty reward? For Deacon, what’s special about language is the way the symbols are referred indexically to each other, rather than out there in the world. This could maybe be incorporated into the idea of a mythic stage, of a language system developing independent of the world.
Finally Deacon skewers Pinker and Bloom. The fact there is a universal grammar underlying all languages is an observable fact. Therefore, these linguistic universals must have a biological origin, namely a language organ. Deacon says instread that language and the brain co-evolved. Language is an evolving system, remember, so Deacon says that the languages or grammars best at getting themselves into human brains (the easiest to learn) were naturally better adapted and so proliferated. As the brain changed, selective pressure on grammar changed. Today, humans are fairly similar in neurological makeup, so languages are basically the same at a basic level. In this way, Deacon envisages that the means of communication best at getting themselves transmitted in brains spread among populations, and the brains best at transmitting these forms of communication, due to the advantage it conferred, had greater reproductive success. In this way, language evolved to be easy for the child’s brain to learn, and the child’s brain evolved to be good at learning language. Deacon’s work is good for Merlin Donald in that it focusses on language as a cultural artefact, ever-changing, and sculpting the brain, rather that being a fixed mental organ.
So, yeah, that was good to get off my chest. What do you study? Linguistics? Anthropology?