What Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

In this case the chicken is symbolic thought and the egg is material culture. In Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage Renfrew implies that we are living in a world that we have created, “without artefacts, material goods, many forms of thought simply could not have been developed” (p.2). This is backed up by Donald’s thoughts from Social Brain Matters. Donald believes that “culture is not secondary” and that culture forms the mind before the mind forms culture. On the other hand, in The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think, Barrett argues that the human conscious has not “evolved as a product of mental representations, but by a means of what I will refer to as an embodied empathy” (p.6). Barrett also goes on the critique the inconsistent meanings for the term ’symbolic’.

In order to evaluate these contradictory ideas, I think we have to look further back. Wong’s article The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture gives evidence that the human behavior (cognitive behavior) had emerged much earlier than initially thought, “modern human behavior emerged over a long period in a process more aptly described as evolution than revolution” (p.91).

This leads me to my main questions (some are a stretch):

Do we need to come to a collective agreement about the term ‘symbolic’ and what it consist of in order to move on in the field of cognition? Or does this debate fuel further inquiries into the origin of human cognition?

Where is the line between instinct and intentional/learned behavior? Does early tool making count as instinct or learned? What about organized hunting? Other species hunt in groups, is it the lack of weapons that draw this ‘instinct’ line?

When Barrett talks about human consciousness evolving by a means of embodied empathy, is he referring to evolution in a linear sense? There are multiple studies/theories out that claim dogs are empathetic creatures as well. Does this notion that other species could evolve to be cognitive thinkers? Or, regarding Barrett, is this not possible due to the lack of “cultural networks” within other species communities? And this is not evolution in a linear sense, but in a nonlinear, more arbitrary sense?



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

Donald, M. “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.

Renfrew, C. “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.

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