The question of origins

Evolutionary semiotics is a hot frontier in contemporary research. How modern humans reached the cognitive and communicative capacities which characterize us can be traced back through an examination of the archaeological record. Stages of mental competencies can be inferred from the artifacts early humans crafted and used in successive periods of time. This kind of evidence, though, is often ambiguous because sufficient information on the corresponding social behavior and context is lacking. While physical evolution can be reliably described through the partial fossil skeletons which have been discovered to date, assessing cognitive and cultural evolution is a much greater challenge. But the two cannot be totally disconnected since the emergence of symbolic behavior correlates with cranial features which indicate significant changes in the volume and organization of the brain. The three books under review address the question of the evolutionary origins of modern humans and their semiotic capacities among which language is foremost.

Homo Symbolicus: The Dawn of Language, Imagination, and Spirituality. Edited by Christopher S. Henshilwood and Francesco d’Errico. 2011. Amsterdam: John Benjamins (237 pages).


The purpose of this volume is to present a substantial account of the state of knowledge regarding the cognitive evolution of humans over a period of about 200,000 years with occasional probes in much deeper time since there are two chapters on apes which split from the hominin line some seven million years ago. The book’s chapters are written by specialists straddling several disciplines including primatology, archaeology, anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. Most chapters are grounded in empirical research and fieldwork with, expectedly, a dose of speculative hypotheses. But they all rely to various degrees on meta-analyses of the relevant literature, a strategy which is necessary given the constant expansion of knowledge in the domain of human evolution.
The eleven chapters which form this volume mirror the evolutionary dynamic they purport to describe. The first two chapters deal with primates which are construed as pre-humans endowed with nascent cognitive and proto-language competencies, and the last two chapters address the lofty topics of mind and spirituality which are explained through the notion of meta-representations, that is, the cognitive capacity of mentally representing the mental representations of others. Describing and naming a phenomenon, though, does not amount to explaining it. However, clearly formulating a problem is an important epistemological step, something that this volume definitely achieves.
The chapters which form the bulk of the book examine archaeological data from the last 100,000 years, and discuss their interpretation. The novelty of the approach which characterizes this volume is that, in spite of its general organization which implies that evolution is equated with progress rather than adaptation, the evolutionary landscape it ultimately proposes is not a unilinear progress but an ebb and flow process. This is a noteworthy move particularly regarding the re-evaluation of the cognitive status of the Neandertals in the hominin family. It is difficult to keep eschatological narratives at bay in the literature which endeavors to document human evolution. Since the last wave of migration from Africa appeared to have caused the demise of the population they replaced, the “natural” tendency was to assume that the newcomers were superior. Thus, the Neandertals have been fancied in the literature and in the popular media as primitive brutes which were driven to extinction by Anatomically Modern Humans (that is, us) which invaded their European territories some 40,000 years ago, bringing with them advanced stone and bone technology, art, and symbolic thinking. Zilhao and d’Errico marshal a great deal of evidence which suggests, on the contrary, that the Neandertals were far from being technologically and cognitively backwards. Although their morphology was distinctly different from ours, there is increasing evidence that they were matching in many domains the cognitive competencies of the newcomers with which, as the authors contend and DNA analyses seem to confirm, they most likely interbred.
The use of the notion of symbol in the context of this volume, as in countless works which address the emergence of the cognitive competences of modern humans, is a reference to the Peircean category of signs according to which symbols are those signs which are grounded on convention. It may not be, though, the best descriptive term to characterize the emergence of language, thought, and rationality. This view has been popularised by Terrence Deacon’s influential book, The Symbolic Species (1998). But this approach is in need of being reassessed. In the two chapters the editors contributed to the volume, they endeavor to retrace “the origin of symbolically mediated behaviour” (49-73 including 9 pages of references) and to discuss the significance of Middle Stone Age engravings for “the debate on the emergence of symbolic material culture” (75-109). The latter refers to those artifacts which may not have been purely practical but may have embodied information and memory, and represented status, relationships, and deities. In a noteworthy chapter, Joao Zilhao assigns “the emergence of language, art, and symbolic thinking” to the human genus, including the Neandertals, rather than the result of the more recent speciation of Homo sapiens (111-131).
If one is to understand the range of behaviors which semiotics attempts to describe and explain, it is absolutely necessary to understand first why such behaviors evolved and how they transformed their environment in a way which both stimulated and constrained further cultural evolution. The distinctive semiotic competencies we now take for granted were selected over the ages by our ancestors’ natural, social, and cultural environments. Failing to frame them in this evolutionary perspective would prevent us from fully understanding their nature, potential, and limits.

The Human Condition. By Robert Bednarik with a foreword by Dean Falk, 2011. New York, Dordrecht: Springer (207 pages).

The discourse of archaeology is fundamentally a semiotic endeavor. It consists of interpreting the cultural evolution of our species as far as we can identify some past activities which have left factual evidence in the ground or on the surface of exposed rocks. This domain of inquiry is rife with conflicting hypotheses which compete not only between themselves but also with other discourses which offer alternative philosophical or religious interpretations concerning the temporal dimension of the human condition. In principle, the discourse of archaeology obeys the constraints of the scientific method and rests on a range of empirical evidence (dating techniques, climatology, chemistry, taphonomy, DNA analysis, etc.). However, as in any other scientific endeavors, a mainstream discourse can emerge and provide researchers with a comfortable intellectual niche. During its history, archaeology has been dominated by several successive grand narratives which tended to bias the interpretation of data in favor of a particular type of interpretation. But data keep swamping the field and when it becomes no longer possible to make the data fit the theory, new interpretations must be developed.
The narrative known as “the African Eve” which purported to explain the advent of Anatomically Modern Humans some 50 or 40 thousand years ago and the spread of their supposedly more advanced material and symbolic culture is one of the targets of Robert Bednarik’s volume.  According to this story, the Neandertals were construed as primitive brutes which were driven to extinction by their sophisticated successors on the ladder of evolution. They were used in the popular literature as a kind of ideological scapegoat which implicitly justified in the eyes of the Western powers the colonization of Africa and Asia as social Darwinism was prompt to claim. Some contemporary prehistorians still stick to this perception and attribute any signs of symbolic culture associated with the Neandertals to mere aping phenomena.  But Bednarik marshals an abundance of data which not only refute this early perception of the Neandertals and other predecessors or contemporaries of Homo sapiens. He even takes a bolder step than the editors of Homo Symbolicus (the volume reviewed above) by proposing the hypothesis that the Neandertals were actually more advanced than the Anatomically Modern Humans. Equating evolution with absolute progress is indeed an ideological gesture and can blind one in front of evidence. All adaptations bear a cost and Bednarik compellingly points out in concluding his book that all the mental dysfunctions which modern humans are prone to suffer are such undesirable side effects.
Could there be regressions in the game of evolution? Could there be multi-pronged, converging adaptations rather than a single strand which would have eliminated all the others? These are examples of the daring claims, among others, made by the author. Bednarik’s iconoclastic hypotheses boldly propose a paradigmatic shift to replace the narrative which defined the field of Pleistocene archaeology for decades. The claims are all grounded in a plethora of evidence and the encyclopedic knowledge of the author.
The volume is divided into seven chapters, each instalment being of approximately the same length and including its own bibliography. Starting with “a little epistemology” (1-24), the combative tone is set by denouncing the theoretical and methodological shortcomings of current Pleistocene archaeologists. The second chapter endeavors to debunk the African Eve hypothesis (25-45). Chapter 3 reviews the hard evidence, commenting on abundant photographs of artifacts, and concluding by the indictment of the notion of random sampling which cannot be legitimately applied to the Pleistocene archaeological record (57-90). Chapter 4 is provocatively entitled “Seafaring, Beads, and External Hard Drives”. It recounts the author’s re-enactments of prehistoric seafaring by using exclusively Pleistocene means and addresses the cognitive significance of beads and pendants which are associated with early hominin populations which were no strangers to the coding and recording of information (91-121). Moreover, such recordings are overwhelmingly non-figurative, contrary to the impression given by the published literature (159-160). Chapters 5 to 7 (121-193) develop the new paradigm which Bednarik forcefully sketches.  Although the neotenic features of Homo sapiens compared to their predecessors have often been pointed out by researchers, Bednarik explicitly theorises this evolutionary trait and draws radical consequences, contending that the defining characteristics of modern humans result from “unintended self-domestication”. It is well known that domestication privileges phenotypes which are found desirable relatively to some purposes or values. By so doing it replaces natural selection with artificial selection. Bednarik argument leads inexorably to the following conclusion: “The notion that we are the arbiters of defining reality is preposterous, as pointed out by Plato some 2400 years ago, yet individually we remain addicted to it to the point of happily sacrificing our lives to the mirages it conjures up. The human brain is not just an organ susceptible to failing more often than any other; it is inherently a faulty organ” (193). Perhaps the joke often heard in semiotic gathering — “Semiosis? What kind of disease is that?” — holds a kernel of truth. Taken seriously, it could usher in a new, counterintuitive heuristics in semiotic research.
A thorough, enlightening review of this landmark book by Harold Fromm can be found at hfromm.net Readers may also want to peruse the two courses by Robert Bednarik on topics relating to the contents of this book in The Semiotic Institute Online

Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man
By Mark Changizi, 2011. Dallas: BenBella Books (242 pages).

With the collapse of the Chomskyan paradigm which held sway for half a century over linguistic research, a new era is starting for the renewal of unimpeded studies of language. The nature and origins of this uniquely human capacity remains an open question. How it evolved has been the object of countless hypotheses, most of them being “just so” stories. Addressing this issue and providing compelling evidence and arguments is a challenge that nobody has yet successfully met. With his usual zest and intellectual boldness, Mark Changizi confronts the problem and offers a provocative solution whose merit is at least to change the terms of the question and frame it within a deeper evolutionary perspective than it is usually the case. Some might be critical of the tendency of the author to aggressively cultivate counterintuitive statements but this is the way in which the most insightful ideas usually appear at first. The current literature concerning the origins of language is mostly redundant if not tautological, in other words plainly boring. This is not a reproach that can be addressed to Changizi who knows how to wake up his readers and make them react reflexively to his pronouncements regarding the origins of language and music. His style is direct, almost conversational. He avoids forbidding technical jargon while being at the same time precise enough to engage specialists. Whether the empirical and statistical evidence he marshals in support of his theory are sufficient can certainly be questioned but, at least, it makes his hypotheses falsifiable, something which can hardly be said of most other speculations on the origins and nature of language.
The book is divided into four chapters. The first two (7-83) deal with language and expound the thesis that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” (10). The topic of Chapters 3 and 4 is music and claim that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (10) (italics in the text). The introduction recalls that in his previous book (The Vision Revolution, 2009), the author had “provided evidence to support a specific theory of how culture managed to shape writing for the brain”, namely that “writing was culturally selected to look, in fundamental respects, like nature, which is the look our evolutionary illiterate visual system is highly competent at processing” (5).  The gist of the new volume is that comparative phonetics and phonology show that the source of these brain templates is to be found in those distinctive natural sounds which were the most relevant to the survival of the earliest terrestrial ancestors of humans. The metaphor “harnessing” is an image akin to, but perhaps more telling than the neologism “exaptation” which was coined by J.S. Gould and E.S. Vrba in 1982  (“Exaptation – A missing term in the science of form”. Paleobiology 8, 4-15) to refer to the kind of evolutionary strategy which Changizi proposes with a twist in order to explain the emergence of language. This leads to the question which provides a title for the conclusion: “So What Are We?” (197-203). Echoing Deacon in The Symbolic Species (1998), Changizi concludes: “Language and music are evolved, organism-like artifacts that are symbiotic with [the] human apes. And like any symbiont, these artifact symbionts have evolved to possess shapes that fit the partner biology – our brains” (202). This eventual reliance on the memetic hypothesis marks the limit of the author’s argument: it leaves untouched the question of what are these “shapes that fit our brains” and claiming that “they got in by mimicking nature” (203) restates the problem rather than provides a solution. Whether such algorithms are called “signs” or “memes” or whatever other names, they will remain ways of covering our ignorance until their information architecture and the secret of their dynamism are uncovered. Even if Changizi’s extraordinary book fails to deliver this grail, it achieves significant steps toward its goal, a goal which coincides with the long-standing project of semiotics.
Bringing Bednarik’s and Changizi’s books together after the tame appetizer of Homo Symbolicus can cause an invaluable epistemological shock, the kind of intellectual event able to wake us up from our dogmatic sleep. We are currently living interesting times when scientific paradigms are shifting and long-standing models are collapsing. This is occurring in domains directly relevant to semiotics such as research on language and cognition, biological and cultural evolution, theories of mind and meaning. The three books under review bear witness to the emergence of novel approaches which may have far reaching consequences as they increase the pressure on delusional dogmas which are crumbling in the face of new, far reaching data and hypotheses.

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