Reading, Writing, Reckoning: The Long View

There is an abundant literature, in philosophy and psychology, which addresses literacy and numeracy from the restricted point of view of alphabetic cultures. There are also comparative studies involving other advanced societies which do not foster the alphabet as the literacy tool of reference. The prime concern of all these studies is how the semiotic competence of children develops and can be harnessed by the social constraints of reading, writing and arithmetic which are specific to the cultures into which they are born. Impairments such as dyslexia, agraphia, and, more generally, illiteracy have been the objects of intense scrutiny. Philosophers, on the other hand, have speculated about the intellectual and social significance of the advent of writing considered to be a semiotic watershed for advanced civilizations. However, all these approaches take a short view of the issues they consider. The empirical research that is conducted in disciplines concerned with education has essentially always been pragmatically oriented. The grand narratives celebrating the advent of literacy typically construe writing as an absolute beginning and take reading for granted as a subsidiary contingency. An evolutionary semiotic approach cannot fail to realize that the roots of the competencies which made drawing, writing, reading, and reckoning possible must be traced back into the deep time when natural selection started molding the primate brain.

The three books under cursory review here do not limit their scope to the usual concerns of primary education or ideological discourse but address the issues of reading and writing in the wider context of biological and cultural evolution. They provide essential material for further advances in the paradigm of gene-culture co-evolution.


Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. By Stanislas Dehaene. 2009. New York: Viking (388 pages).

An experimental cognitive neurologist who specializes in research on language and number processing in the brain, Dehaene published in 1997 a landmark book, The Number Sense (Oxford University Press). His latest work on the evolutionary basis of reading opens new vistas on the semiotic plasticity of the human brain. We read indeed with the visual system of a brain which did not evolve as an adaptation to writing but which was recycled so to speak as a new semiotic tool adapted to the technology of the various scripts which emerged quite recently in human history. The evolution of writing cannot be confused, of course, with the far more ancient emergence of language. The age of scripts, though, is equally defining because of the countless transformations it brought forth into our environment. This has prompted some to claim that it is responsible for shifting the earth from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene era.

Dehaene identifies a number of paradoxes and tackles them in a conceptual context which can be characterized as semiotic or, more precisely, from the point of view of evolutionary semiotics. The primary paradox is that our brain did not evolve for reading but writing must have evolved for our brain, that is, writing systems must have evolved within our brain’s constraints. We mindlessly take for granted that reading presupposes the existence of writing while in fact the capacity for reading is a pre-condition for the invention of scripts. Fundamentally, reading consists of processing a minimum of two visual inputs as a vector instead of unrelated or symmetrical patterns. This capacity of the brain likely evolved as an adaptive cognitive processing of marks as tracks, a vital competence for a hunting primate which can figure out the probable location of a prey from minimal physical clues in its environment. As early Chinese reflected, much can be learned indeed from bird tracks. Still more preconditions are present once the brain can infer not only a direction but also how close or far the prey is likely to be found and other relevant properties (210-215). Learning to write and read is not easy as it implies the restructuring of regions of the brain which have to recycle themselves to accommodate a very recent invention for which it is however pre-adapted, so to speak, because the technology of scripts was built on available specialized neuronal  resources.

A mini review such as this cannot do full justice to a state of the art volume which endeavors to outline “The new science of reading” (1-9) and to answer the question: “How do we read?” (11-52). Issues and evidence in localizing this competence are addressed in Chapter 2 (“The brain’s letterbox”). Then, Dehaene takes us on a flashback tour on the evolutionary trail from “The reading ape” (121-170) to “Inventing reading” (171-193) before moving to the learning process and its dysfunctions (195-262). The last two chapters, “Reading and symmetry” (263-300) and “Toward a culture of neurons” (301-324) explore in depth the current knowledge of the brain on the level of neuronal functionality. The conclusion briefly considers the implications of this new knowledge for education.

Although this book focuses on the brain substrate that makes possible a particular semiotic behavior (reading and, correlatively, writing), most of its contents are relevant, beyond literacy, to the evolutionary understanding of signs, meaning and communication.


The Vision Revolution. By Mark Changizi. 2009. Dallas (TX): Benbella (215 pages).

Why we see the way we do is the fundamental question which Changizi endeavored to answer through his neurological research and evolutionary reflection. His 2003 book, The Brain from 25,000 Feet (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht), explored the complexity of perception and cognitive processes. His latest book is about visual perception and how natural selection finetuned the primates’ adaptation to their early leafy environment. Changizi undertakes to explain successively the position of our eyes, the range of colors we perceive, the perceptual illusions which often trick us and which are the trade-off we have to pay for some other vital benefits, and, finally, brings in focus reading and writing as a recent cultural development which exploited natural competencies that had emerged under quite different evolutionary constraints. As we peruse this book, the author turns upside-down a few commonsense assumptions and forces us to reconsider in a new light what we see and why we see it the way we do. Changizi’s rhetoric tends to be provocative and some of his assertions are controversial but his style is direct and clear, and his peers have taken notice of the research he reports in this volume. Notably, among others, Stanislas Dehaene who substantially refers to Changizi’s work on the perceptual basis of the world’s writing systems and their remarkable capacity to communicate information both efficiently and economically (Dehaene 2009:171-180). Far from being totally arbitrary, scripts of all kinds combine a limited number of perceptual features which belong to a limited repertory of vital coded information.

Both Reading in the Brain and The Vision Revolution are grounded on decades of empirical research, including some conducted by their authors’ laboratories, designed to understand how the brain works. But both endeavor to explain why it works the way it does in view of the deep time perspective of evolution. In so doing, they necessarily address issues which are central to the traditional concerns of semiotics. Much can be learned and extrapolated from their labor.


The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process. Edited by Stephen D. Houston. 2004. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (417 pages).

The two volumes briefly reviewed above make references to secondary sources regarding actual writing systems and their reading in order to provide some examples.  But their substance is mainly based on evolutionary arguments and neurological data. Having perused these two books, readers may find it useful to familiarize themselves with a significant sample of the numerous scripts of the world such as those discussed in The First Writing. This collection originated in a 2000 conference that had been organized with the explicit purpose of creating the conditions for a “conversation” among specialists of various scripts who previously had little opportunity to compare notes and address the issue of the origins of writing from a historical rather than ideological point of view. The resulting volume does not pretend, of course, to cover the whole array of past and present script systems. Seven of the twelve chapters (71-309) deal successively with  cuneiforms, proto-Elamite, earliest Egyptian writing, Chinese writing, shell and bone writing, runes, and writing in early Mesoamerica. The three introductory chapters and the two concluding ones discuss the invention, development, and extinction of script systems from the perspective of cultural evolution. A good companion to this volume is the collection entitled The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication (2008) edited by John Baines, John Bennet, and Stephen Houston, which was reviewed in a previous issue of SemiotiX.

Theories of gene-culture co-evolution would provide the most appropriate conceptual frame for the integration of the data and theories presented in the three volumes cursorily reviewed in this Front Shelf rubric.

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