Some examples of the evolutionary stages of the symbolic species

Darwin and Wallace had described natural selection as “ a struggle for existence”, but to human beings, it is better to be described as “ a struggle for control”. Human beings not only have the response to the potential mates, the preys and predators, but we also respond and have the motivation to control other species. So, although brains are the parts of the body, just like animals, they had evolved to store information about an external reality, and were available to be utilized to generate effective behaviors on, and syntactically coherent statement, on the world. (Barrett, 14)

I want to illustrate examples here to demonstrate the theories mentioned in the papers to articulate my understanding. I don’t know whether they are correct……..

To explain the evolutionary process of human cognition, Renfrew proposed four evolutionary stages. The first stage, episodic culture, the culture and capabilities founding our closest living primate relatives, is the transition from hominids to Homo erectus. This is maybe the beginnings of self-awareness. The mirror test is an attempt to determine whether a non-human animal possesses the ability of self-recognition. In this test, an animal is anesthetized and then marked on an area of the body of the animal cannot normally see. When the animal recovers from the anaesthetic, a mirror is provided. If this animal can touch or investigate this mark, it is taken as an indication that this animal perceives the reflected image as itself, has the primitive self-awareness (Wikipedia).

The second stage, mimetic culture, the culture to produce conscious (languages are not excluded), is an evolutionary step beyond episodic culture and a foundation for symbolic representation and language. Mimetic skill requires an individual has the skill to memorize, define and rehearse the body’s movements in a systematic way. There are some examples of Homo erectus’s behaviors, such as some rituals, dances and marks on clay tablets. Although the mimesis are not language, but they do allow us to better communicate.

The third transition, linguistic or mythic culture, the characteristic of early Homo sapiens. Myth, according to Donald, is the primary function of language in a culture dominated by linguistic cognition. In this stage, people can synthesize symbolic art and symbolic language. The symbolic pictures, such as the one founding southern European caves,were used to explore and develop the mythic ideas.

The fourth transition, external symbolic storage employing symbolic material culture, the characteristic of early agrarian societies with permanent settlements, monuments and valuables. With the development of writing, people’s memory was no longer restricted to the bounds of the body, but could be held in external storage systems.

On the one hand, we benefit from this evolution. From the moment when we curved elaborate marks on clay tablets, we know we can handle those symbols. We can communicate with each other efficiently.

On the other hand, we are also hunted by this brain evolution. The development of the brain provides human beings thousands of mood. Those sad and jealous feeling always hurt us.




Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

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.

Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New                York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Colin Renfrew, “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.

John C. Barrett, “The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23, no. 01 (2013): 1-17.

Wikipedia contributors. “Mirror test.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Sep. 2016. Web. 15 Sep. 2016.

This entry was posted in Week 3 on by .

About Roxy

I am a graduate student from Georgetown University. 4 years ago, I felt language ability was my highest priority. That is why after being recommended to the Xi’an Jiaotong University, I chose Bilingual as my major. I served as Project Manager of the Re-paper Project on campus, which aimed to optimize my university’s paper recycling system. We first put recycling bins for waste paper in classrooms. Then, we focused on training cleaning staff how to classify waste paper and increase their income as a payback, and cooperated with a local recycling. We also noticed that improving the environmental awareness of students can help out the administration rather than simply publicizing our project. After six months, paper recycling improved considerably on campus. At this point, I began to realize the power of communications. I, then, began an internship at the Xinhua News Agency. This institutional focus on exactitude led me to raise the standard for my own work. I translated news from all over the world and also broaden my knowledge. I consulted reports from different countries to report the objective one. I also learned to keep attention to details after finishing the road book for our photography team in Tibet. Having experienced the communication fields as an amateur, I would now like to concentrate on it.