Author Archives: Jieshu Wang

Is a chimpanzee at typewriter able to reproduce Shakespeare? – Jieshu Wang

If you give a chimpanzee a typewriter, what is the possibility it can reproduce a work of William Shakespeare? This thought experiment is usually relevant to mathematics. However, I found it appropriate for this week’s theme: evolution and language.

Homo Sapiens is the only symbolic species on this planet. The reason hidden behind is among the most debated anthropological topics, also one of the questions that I kept pondering in my head. In her Scientific American article The Morning of the Modern Mind[i], Kate Wong gathered five different opinions from academia:

  • Symbolism held by Christopher Henshilwood emphasized the importance of the invention of “external storage of information” like art and language.
  • Ecological disaster was suggested to be a “bottleneck” period when cooperating behavior was favored to form a complex social network among tribes.
  • The development of projectile technology was another factor thought to be an incentive to cooperate.
  • Population growth was thought to force people to compete so that symbolic behavior was sparked.
  • Brain mutation probably rewired human brain toward symbolic thinking.

In his The Symbolic Species[ii], Terrence W. Deacon proposed that the co-evolution of language, symbolic cognition, and culture with the human brain is significant in the process toward symbolic thinking. He described in detail some interesting animal experiments in which chimpanzees were trained to obtain simple symbolic reasoning, and the biological structure of our brain, especially the enlarged prefrontal cortex, which was highly related to symbolic thought. He wrote, “our symbolic advantage is … only due to a quantitative rearrangement of existing parts”[ii]. Merlin Donald would to some extent agree with Deacon because he also emphasized the importance of culture. Actually, in Donald’s view, social network is so vital that it enables a lot of new representations by virtue of writing and literacy[iii], pushing cognitive revolution forward.

The reading materials surely gave me a new lens to look at recent technologies. The “external storage of information” concept mentioned in Wong’s article actually includes so many modern technologies, especially computing technologies. Computers relieve us from heavy calculating tasks. The Internet serves as our external memory, storing not only our family photos but also tons of knowledge way beyond our lifelong learning capacity. In essence, these modern devices are not that different from bone necklaces handcrafted by a hunter-gatherer thousands of years ago.

However, I recently read some research that may be contradictory to Donald’s idea of considering “mimetic skill” as an essential part of human symbolic capacity. Edwin van Leeuwen, a primate expert from Max Planck Institute in The Netherlands and his colleagues reported in 2014 that they had observed a “chimpanzee fashion trend” called “grass-in-ear-behavior” in a Zambian sanctuary. A female chimpanzee named Julie put “a stiff, straw-like blade of grass” into one of her ears, a behavior without any discernible purpose. After watching her doing so, 8 out of 12 group members started to do the same thing, even after Julie’s death[iv]. It is an evidence that animals are able to imitate and represent others’ activities in a social group, let alone the experiments mentioned in Deacon’s book, in which two smart chimpanzees named Sherman and Austin learned simple symbolic abilities[ii]. If the mimetic skill is truly the foundation of human symbolic cognition, why haven’t chimpanzees developed their language or symbolic representation system?


Julie with grass in her ear. Edwin J. C. van Leeuwen et al / Animal Cognition



  • Does self-awareness have something to do with symbolic cognition?
  • Is evolution toward symbolic cognition inevitable? Deacon said it’s not[ii]. But his statement seems unfalsifiable. I’m not convinced.
  • Is homo sapiens still in the process of evolution? My guess is yes. But, if so, to what direction we are evolving? Will we be more intelligent because we have unprecedentedly abundant tools to represent, or less intelligent because we outsource so many cognitive tasks to machines?


[i] Kate, Wong. 2005. “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292 (6): 86–95.

[ii] Deacon, Terrence William. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

[iii] Donald, Merlin. 2007. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain.” In Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Amsterdam: Rodophi.

[iv] Leeuwen, Edwin J. C. van, Katherine A. Cronin, and Daniel B. M. Haun. 2014. “A Group-Specific Arbitrary Tradition in Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes).” Animal Cognition 17 (6): 1421–25. doi:10.1007/s10071-014-0766-8.

Sign, Myths, and Story of Your Life – Jieshu Wang

As an international student with English as a second language, I found this week’s reading materials a little difficult to comprehend. The fancy GRE vocabulary I struggled to memorize last year is not helpful because the terminology of semiotics is actually not uncommon, but with different or more abstract meanings from daily usage. In other words, my problem with semiotics is exactly semiotical.

Take the simple term “sign” as an example. In the past, I interpreted a sign as a physical entity with a specific meaning, such as a neon light of a restaurant indicating what food it offers, or a plus sign in an algebra textbook telling students to add numbers at both sides of the sign. But when I was reading this week’s literature, I found that the meaning of sign and the meaning-making mechanism behind it is so abstract that it could shed light on the entire human culture and cognitive evolution. In The Grammar of Meaning Making, Professor Irvine says,

“in his (C.S. Peirce) model, the sign isn’t a thing, but a process that elicits a meaning-bearing unit in a cognitive event: a sign is the conceptual-relational process or activity, which is cognitive and interpersonal”.[i]

In Key Writings on Signs, Symbols Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology, it is said that, for Peirce, a sign is a three-part correlation of Representamen, Object, and Interpretant. [ii] The representamen can be seen as the signifier, which corresponds with my former definition of the physical sign, while the object as the signified, such as the food offered by the restaurant [iii]. The most interesting part of the triadic correlation is interpretant, which is “the conceptual response” “produced by the cognitive agents(s) making the correlation of the first two components”[ii]. I think this is where cognitive capacity comes in, which makes us human.

In Peirce’s opinion, there are three kinds of signs: likenesses or icons, indications or indices, and symbols or general signs [ii]. As he put it,

“A symbol, as we have seen, cannot indicate any particular thing; it denotes a kind of thing”; “The word lives in the minds of those who use it. Even if they are all asleep, it exists in their memory.”

This reminds me of a book I recently read, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In this book, the author, Yuval Harari thinks that the reason homo sapiens defeated other species in the genus Homo such as the Neanderthals is that we can gather more than 150 people together to form a purpose-sharing group to implement large-scale cooperation, which “is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination”, such as religion beliefs, law, justice, nationalism, and human rights [iv]. I think those collective myths are also a kind of abstract symbols. Although the specific meaning of a particular symbol varies among people, as long as there’s consensus to some degree, the interpretant of the symbol can spread in the community, ultimately becoming a cultural component.

For Peirce, meaning-making is a generative process[ii]. I don’t know whether my understanding is correct. To me, “generative” means the capacity to create new things. In other words, the process of meaning-making will produce more new meanings. The collective cultural framework and personal experience serve as the context of meaning-making of signs, especially the interpretant of language, while the latter is also incessantly altering the former. This reminds me of a Nebula Award winner novel named Story of Your Life written by Ted Chiang, in which the heroine gradually obtained the ability to see through time in the course of deciphering a strangely arranged alien language, because the structure of the language reflected a totally different world view, which was planted into the human decipherers’ cognition unconsciously [v]. It is a vivid fictional depiction of the “Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis”[vi] which emphasized the significant influence of language on thought and perception.  The story is filmed as Arrival and will be released in November. I am eager to see how the film producers express the cognitive impact of language. After all, language is one of the most abstract things that have ever happened to us.

A Gif from the trailer of the Arrival movie, depicting the alien language. credit: Paramount Pictures

Some questions

  1. What are the neurobiological basis and evolutionary advantage of the function of signs and symbolic cognition, which Peirce considered as the underlying structure for all human social life and culture[ii]?
  2. I read some instances that some animals-mostly primates-are capable of making meaningful alarm calls. Vervet monkeys even have different alarm calls for different predators[vi]. What is the cognitive difference between human-level meaning-making of signs and animal behavior of understanding certain vocal and visual cues?
  3. There are great gaps among different languages. However, I think human languages must have something in common, even if they originated from separated areas. In other words, they must be comprehensible through learning. Is it possible to design a program capable of understanding and translating a new language in the first contact?
  4. Computer language is also a kind of sign system. Why is it so difficult for computers to understand natural language or use natural language to communicate with people?


[i]Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign System, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics,”

[ii] Irvine, Martin. “Key Writings on Signs, Symbols Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology,”

[iii] Atkin, Albert. “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2013., 2013.

[iv] Harari, Yuval N. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Toronto, Ontario: Signal ; McClelland & Stewart.

[v] Chiang, Ted. 2016. Stories of Your Life and Others. Reissue edition. New York: Vintage.

[vi] Manser, Marta B. 2013. “Semantic Communication in Vervet Monkeys and Other Animals.” Animal Behaviour 86 (3): 491–96. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.07.006.