Author Archives: Becky White

Barrett vs. The World

One author out of the bunch this week stood as an outlier to me: Professor Barrett, and not just because of the piece’s title. Deacon, Donald, and Renfrew seem to agree on the same basic progression, while Barrett seeks to upend most of it and raise some broader questions in the process. (Wong, meanwhile, tries to give everyone a voice.)

At the heart of Deacon’s hypothesis about what sets humans apart from the rest is what he calls the “core semiotic innovation.” He also calls this language. The evolution of the brain did not drive the development of language. Somehow the ability to make meaning, the basis for language, hit the scene, and after that brains and language co-evolved to become more complex. He gets relatively specific with this (icon-index-symbol progression), but the “critical learning threshold” came between indexes and symbolic reference. This jump allowed humans to start building a web of new meanings about things that already hold meaning, like words formed by indexical correlations. This web is formed in a special part of the brain—in the prefrontal cortex—Deacon argues.

Donald wants the focus to be on cultural networks, but he doesn’t seem to disagree with this broad-brushstroke, symbolic-reference-as-lightning-bolt progression. He argues that humans can “learn, vary or refine any action” through practice and improvement, and that this ability eventually led to language. Then things really took off. Memories could be stored externally and shared between generations (Wong describes this as a “watershed event” when detailing the view). Cultural networks made up of the “cognitive resources of many individuals” blossomed, and these shared resources conferred significant developmental advantages on their possessors. Renfrew says Donald’s explanation is missing something and adds the Symbolic Material Culture phase after mimesis, before humans developed language. During that stage, artifacts held meaning and conveyed information, driving development.

Barrett takes issue with a lot of this. He seems to reject the ideas that some sort of cognitive and symbolic revolution happened and that there’s an “agent that is responsible for establishing” what representations/experiences actually represent. He rejects the notion that the mind has specialized processing regions—not a fan of Deacon’s prefrontal cortex, I suppose. (He also describes other ideas that run contrary Deacon et al, such as Dennett’s reasoning that consciousness has little to do with the psychological and that it evolved out of the way the brain works.) Barrett’s bottom line, meanwhile, seems to be that humans developed what we now consider to be symbolic capabilities because of sense-driven needs shared between organisms (I confess I don’t quite grasp the specific mechanisms here), not because of some sudden move to ascribe meaning to something.

I scribbled down a number of notes-to-self about computers while I was reading all this. It seems there are similarities between some of these principles and the development of computing, and that perhaps some of the former drove the latter. The concept of indexes in databases jumps out, for instance. If I understand it correctly, entries in an index have a value, and those values are correlated to related records. Those values and records are then manipulated by outside forces. I also found myself wondering, if meaning evolved as Barrett says it did, does that mean that AI that truly replicates human intelligence will be impossible to develop? It’s also interesting to think about the development of technologies in general as compared to the selection of language, which Deacon describes.

Works Referenced

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

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

Donald, Merlin. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain.” In Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, edited by Oscar Vilarroya and Francesc Forn i Argimon, 215-222. Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2007.

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

Peirce and WIPP

While reading this week, I found myself frequently searching for concrete examples to help me understand the principles. The primary real-world example that came to mind and can be thought through using these fundamental ideas is an undertaking by the U.S. Department of Energy for its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The site stores waste from nuclear research. (Blissymbols also provided food for thought, but I got the most out of WIPP.)

In the 1990s, the Department of Energy convened a group of experts from a range of disciplines (including linguists, artists, and more) to create a warning system for the WIPP site in the desert of New Mexico. Their aim was to develop “markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion,” according to the final report published by Sandia National Laboratories. The system had to be designed to stop visitors from stumbling into nuclear waste for the next 10,000 years—the period in which the location would be potentially unsafe.

Not only did the expert group have to engineer something that would last physically for that time, but the team also had to design something that would have meaning that far into the future. The executive summary of the full report puts this in clear terms:

The site must be marked in such a manner that its purpose cannot be mistaken.

A marking system must be utilized. By this we mean that components of the marking system relate to one another is such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

The most developed design proposals are focused on so-called “earthen berms” of an extremely large scale that mark the dangerous area and, as the executive summary describes, set “the tone for the entire landscape — non-natural, ominous, and repulsive.” There are some terrific sketches of the site in the reports; here is one example:

The expert group also suggested that the area include linguistic messages such as this one:

The designers understood that symbols or general signs, to use Peirce’s terms, would change over time (although, apparently Edvard Munch has a 10,000-year-long reach). They included a message to future viewers about language to illustrate this point: “If the marker is difficult to read, add new markers in longer-lasting materials in languages that you speak” (italics in original). And the designers recommended conveying the warnings in a way that would ensure they would be understood across cultures and time:

We obviously recommend that a very large investment be made . . . in a communication mode that is non-linguistic, not rooted in any particular culture, and thus not affected by the expected certain transformation of cultures. This mode uses species-wide archetypes…of meanings bound to form, such that the physical form of the site and its constructions are both message content and mode of communication.

To use Peirce’s terms, both the linguistic and non-linguistic messages recommended for WIPP are representamen, the material-perceptible forms of the unseen object (or the concept/signified thing, I believe de Saussure would say)—in the case of WIPP, the invisible object/concept is the idea of danger or harm. I believe the berms—the physical structures built into the site—would be indications or indices, using Peirce’s terminology, because they physically create a dangerous environment. (Or are they likenesses/icons?) The messages written in words are symbols/general signs that are understandable only in the context of English language conventions and usage. If we or the future inhabitants of New Mexico see these various representamen, we will in theory understand that the area we are entering is dangerous and make a connection to the unseen object we all understand—a response known as the interpretant. (Have I understood things properly?)

This example helped me think through those terms, but it also raised more questions.* A common thread throughout all of the readings this week seemed to be that the human community shares an understanding of what is known as the object in some cases. Different cultures may have different ways of expressing these concepts/objects and may create a variety of artifacts—as Cole, Engelbart, and others termed them—but some fundamental, invisible objects/concepts exist across cultural barriers (correct?). The designers of the WIPP site seem to believe that spiky earthen structures are the representamen most likely to convey the concept of harm across thousands of years and to a range of cultures, and that the concept of harm is a fundamental human characteristic. Is it the case generally that indicators/indices (or likenesses/icons, if my original thought is incorrect) are the most universal kinds of signs? Or is there something more fundamental than that?

To take the questioning further, the designs put forward seem to assume that those creatures coming to the site in the future will be of our shared human background. What if they aren’t? Will they still understand these concepts if there is not a shared legacy of communal memory-making upon which to draw? Or would the site, for instance, need to be capable of actually inflicting harm to convey that message? This may well stretch beyond the pale, but these and other thoughts came to mind as I grappled with the principles and examples this week.

*These aren’t my only questions. I have other, more specific questions about the texts that I’ll ask in class if the topics don’t come up.

Key Works Cited

99% Invisible. “Designing a Nuclear Waste Warning Symbol That Will Still Make Sense in 10,000 Years.” Slate, May 14, 2014.

“Blissymbolics Communication International.” Accessed September 5, 2016.

Department of Energy. “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.” Accessed September 5, 2016.

Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed September 2, 2016. Google Docs file.

Irvine, Martin, ed. “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: Key Writings.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed September 2, 2016. Google Docs file.

Trauth, Kathleen M.,  Stephen C. Hera, and Robert V. Guzowsti. “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.” Sandia Report. Albuquerque, New Mexico and Livermore, California: Sandia National Laboratories, United States Department of Energy, November 1993.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. “WIPP Exhibit: Message to 12,000 A.D.” Accessed September 5, 2016.,000%20a_d.htm.