The roles of history and literacy in becoming “modern.”

This week’s reading initially struck me as somewhat confusing, perhaps because each reading came with a new perspective from the author/scholar, and each reading seemed to come with a variety of different ideas and hypotheses. However, seeing all of these hypotheses come together helped me in better understanding the general, big-picture idea of the process of the human species becoming modern minded.

While it was a shorter read, Kate Wong’s article in the Scientific American, The Morning of the Modern Mind caught my interest because of the different viewpoints and hypotheses she presented. It seems as though some scholars and researchers say that a new, cognitive “creative ability” (Wong, 88) was spurred on because of social factors such as confrontation that resulted from humans of modern appearance attempting to invade Neandertal territory. Others say it resulted from genetic mutations that happened earlier than the European “explosion” in Africa. Reading further, both Merlin Donald and Colin Renfrew seem to advocate that the human cognitive process has evolved, or progressed, because of social factors. Terrence Deacon seems to compare evolution in the human brain with evolution of the brains of other species while placing an emphasis on language as a defining difference between humans and other species. One little statement by Deacon kept popping up in my mind as I summarized the takeaways from all of this week’s reading: Neither languages nor brains fossilize, so it is difficult to study the early versions of both topics (Deacon, 10). There are so many ways that we can approach the topic, but none of them really seem to answer the question of how it all came about.

Two specific ideas stuck out to me this week, the first being the idea that Renfrew stated quite succinctly when he wrote, “… Without artefacts, material goods, many forms of thought simply could not have developed” (Renfrew, 2). And at first glance, one could wonder why such a statement is important – who cares how cognitive abilities and processes came about? But because of the artifacts that came about, and the cognitive ability to create these physical objects and tools, I’m typing in a language, on a laptop computer, at a university that is only as good as the individuals that make it up. Donald sums up the point that I’m trying to make when, on page 221, he writes about the fact that technologies – weights and measures, clocks, monetary systems, etc. – have the power to “amplify” a society’s level of intellect. Donald writes, “Such technologies are crucial in defining the real intellectual power of a culture. They to only allow cultures to preserve more complex ideas and traditions, but change how they achieve this” (221). This statement helped me to connect the fact that our current technologies do have a very deep, and rich, history. And this history is only made possible by the fact that, at some point in time, humans began to develop the intellectual capacity to begin using objects and associating meaning to these objects, whether it was the shell necklace in Wong’s article or the institutional structures stated in Donald’s piece. We only know what we know now, in regards to technological advancement, because of each step that has been taken before the others.

Donald’s insights on the power of a literate culture also struck me as interesting and true. Donald noted that “the most important network-level resources of culture are undoubtedly writing and literacy…” (220) and that these two resources have “revolutionized” human cognition at both individual and network levels. This made me reflect on the fact that many parts of the world that seem underdeveloped are lacking the skill of literacy, whether everyone is illiterate or particular minorities or classes are illiterate; it’s a known fact that cultures with a full range of literacy skills are able to produce highly functioning technologies, resulting in a powerful advantage over cultures that lack a reading/writing system (Donald, 220). Once writing is introduced, institutional structures have the opportunity to become more complex, and it almost seems like some sort of domino effect – from there, technology only keeps getting better and progressing. In my non-academic life, I volunteer as a literacy tutor. While it seems as though one person being illiterate is a much better problem to have than an entire culture being illiterate, the fact that one person cannot read or write (at all, or in the same language as the culture they live in) has a huge effect on technological innovation. Progress is stalled not only for the illiterate individual, but for the people/company that the individual works for, his or her family members (particularly their children), and even his or her economic bracket. One person makes a big difference. Seeing it on a smaller scale brings me back to the big picture, to the question of when humans became modern of mind. It proves that this was a huge, life-changing turn in history; it may have been a gradual change, and obviously language was developed before literacy, but the power of even one person being able to carry out a sequence of basic cognitive operations (Donald, 216) is all that’s needed to then begin teaching others and move toward developing intelligent, multi-layered societies. Technology builds upon itself, but it doesn’t do it on its own; It requires human input, knowledge, understanding, and direction.


“Donald-Evolutionary-Origins-Social-Brain.pdf – Google Drive.” Accessed September 14, 2016.
“Wong-Modern-Mind-SA-June-05.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 14, 2016.
“Deacon-Symbolic-Species-Excerpts-1-13.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 14, 2016.