From Stone Tools to the Cloud

Barrett’s article offers a hypothesis for the origin of human language that fills some of the gaps in Deacon’s text. Deacon circles around an evolutionary event in the human timeline when we developed the capacity for symbolic representation, as opposed to thought mediated by indexical or iconic representations. This involves a correlative relationship between neurological and physiological adaptations to support the internal ability to represent symbolically and the external ability to gesture and speak. Barrett adds social structure and the idea of the “social brain” to this, arguing that patterns of social organization and meanings created and shared between our ancestors also had an impact on the evolution of the human brain. Given that these shared meanings can precede symbolic thought, combining these two approaches sharpens the image of language origin, as much of a mystery it may be.

It furthermore gives us a new and important reading of the external portion of dual inheritance. Barrett’s mention of “vital materiality,” the concept that our artifacts are not a product of our symbolic meaning systems but rather mediate our relationship with the world and are indicative of the human species shared experiences means our artifacts are codified with meaningful and interpretable data. It is a way of preserving and transferring information in the external world, liken to the way DNA passes on our genetic information. Language and culture are the ultimate manifestations of that, but looking to the origins of language, artifacts and technologies are ways of preserving our meaning systems.

Unlike our genetic coding, we have to manually do the work of transferring our external meaning systems to posterior. As Barrett argues, even the earliest tools can certainly convey meaning because of our relationship with our artifacts. It’s really weird thinking about cloud storage in this capacity. Thinking about Donald’s heavy reliance on rehearsal and refinement as indicators of symbolic capacities, we could perhaps view the history of technology as the evolution of our capabilities in reinforcing our meaning systems. If the complexity of our meaning systems grows with our technological capacity to mediate them, cloud storage certainly achieves a level of reinforcing our meaning systems way beyond oral and written traditions. We are literally digitally storing millennia of collected data and meanings, and our interpretation capabilities drastically improve when they are stored and observable in this way. Exciting times, exciting times.



Barrett, John C. “The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 23, no. 1, Feb 2013, pp 1-17.

Deacon, Terrence W. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Donald, Merlin. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain.” Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, ed. Oscar Vilarroya, et al. Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2007.