Based off this week’s readings, it seems that there is essentially one major division amongst the various hypotheses seeking to understand how the capacity for symbolic processing developed within the human species. On one side of this division are hypotheses that claim that the capacity for symbolic cognition was developed as a result of some degree of advanced brain development distinctive to the human species. While on the other side of the division are hypotheses that assert that the capacity for symbolic cognition developed from interactions with external and social stimuli and, therefore, developed in conjunction with various cultural phenomena, primarily communication. (Barrett, 14-5)
Each set of hypotheses carries its own set of significant implications for understanding how humans understand and create symbolic meaning. Those that assert that brain development preceded symbolic cognition, such as Steven Mithen’s concept of the general intelligence facility (Barrett, 3), rely on the theory that human symbolic cognition developed out of the necessity of representation or interpretation of individual conceptions of reality. As a result, theories of this type are based in the idea that evolution provided humans with a certain degree of “instinctual knowledge,” (Deacon, 26) which implies that the human species is ultimately tied to some sort of behavioral determinism.
On the other hand, theories that suggest that symbolic cognitive abilities developed in conjunction with processes of communication, such as were presented by both Deacon and Donald, establish human symbolic activity as a primarily social and material process of learning. (Donald) As Deacon suggests, the process of evolution is primarily one of learning and remembering (Deacon, 26), rather than instinctively knowing and representing. Thus, amongst these hypotheses, the concept of “instinctual knowledge” is unfounded, along with ideas of behavioral determinism. Consequently, the process of human evolution can be viewed as a social and relatively arbitrary phenomenon.
On a broader scale, the differences between these two groups of hypotheses forced me to consider the ultimate “randomness” or unpredictability of life. Oddly enough, in terms of technology such contemplation actually provided me with a sense of control and reinforced the understanding that technological advances are primarily tools for our benefit. This reassurance stems from the thought that within the randomness of events, we create a specific technology to address and facilitate our needs based on the situation that arises. While that observation may seem obvious, a more deterministic view of technological advancement ultimately leaves me feeling subjected to these developments and the ways in which the affect society. In other words, I can now see, at least in part, where my own inclinations toward Luddism originate.
Furthermore, this shift in thinking also makes me contemplate the way I understand general processes of technological design. Rather, than resisting technological developments based on perceived or speculative negative social implications, it refocuses my attention onto the original societal “necessity” for which a technology may have been designed. Specifically, that means asking questions such as how do certain technologies advance our symbolic processing, is there a specific symbolic need that a certain technology fulfills, and how will we as a species evolve to utilize these technologies? Of course, I’m not claiming that we should not consider the various ramifications that specific technological advancements may have on society, but contemplating technological advancement in terms of its symbolic significance and potential, at least, provides me with a new perspective from which I might ultimately draw more thoughtful conclusions.
Viewed in this light and in conjunction with Deacon’s discussion of how symbolic association is derived from indices and icons, I can now understand how any technological advancement, whether historic or recent, major or minor, is infinitely important and symbolically significant. However interesting it might be to look back and track the course of technological development we have achieved thus far, it’s even more interesting to think of the enormous index of technology that we now have and the endless symbolic opportunities that it presents. Basically, any single advancement is fair game for endless symbolic applications! (Deacon, 79-83)
John C. Barrett, “The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23, no. 01 (2013): 1-17.
Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Merlin Donald, “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain,” from Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, ed. Oscar Vilarroya, et al. Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2007.