Category Archives: Week 3

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Are humans just a network of relationships rather than single minds?

What are some of the main hypotheses and research conclusions (so far) in the research literature above for the question of how we have evolved as a “symbolic species”?

I was particularly interested in the notion that cultural networks are the vital link in the human cognitive process as stated in “Social Brain Matters.” This paper reminded me of the about Steven Johnson’s book, “Where Good Ideas Come From” in which he explains that innovation erupts often from highly dense, networked systems where there is an “adjacent possible” to every situation. This concept is built upon the notion that within complex systems, there is oppertunity to have something an alternate route to a solution. He writes, “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table,” (42).

Within several of the readings this week, I felt that the idea that the brain itself is not the reason for cognitive expression through symbolism, but rather that culture was. Through the archeological records it showed that there may have been a few isolated instances of symbolic expression on tools since the dawn of the Homo Sapein 195,000 years ago, but that only as populations went up and began to cluster into social networks 40,000 years ago did humans make “the Great Leap.” The Tasmanian example of limited tool and symbolic expression on the island thousands of years after the separation from the main continent struck me as another example of cognitive expression existing due to dense networked systems. When populations dwindled on the island, it was clear that the advanced practices subsided. 

This can be seen today in our innovative spaces. In the last 200 years, our extensive technological boom has been occurring in highly competitive and population spaces. Our cities are our cultural and therefore technological capitols.

Could it be said that the the statement “signs are not things, they are relationships” has a larger meaning in which human minds are not things, but solely the relationships we have. Do we only have the capacity to think as our beings as relational to everything else and that is the meaning of human consciousness?

The readings explain that our brains, built in a modular structure, at some point formed a “language of thought” which allowed for cross domain reasoning. In what way does this biological ability also cause the extended mind? Is the assumption that other beings exist in modular thought with a “non-extended mind”? Can they not see themselves relationally?

“Homo sapiens have been able to colonize the world by engaging with representations of reality rather than with reality itself,” (Barrett). On this mind blowing note, here is a video about chimpanzees using tools. While reading Social Brain Matters, I understood the vast differences between the ape mind and the human mind, but I can’t help but wonder about how they view reality and relationships as a “non-symbolic species.”



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

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.

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

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.

Reasons that We Shouldn’t Worry About That a Planet of the Apes-style Revolution May Happen–Lei Qin

With the success of the blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes, many viewers, especially some scientists warned that those disastrous scenario could actually happen and thus lead to a ending that would put everyone in a massive hole, if human being continue to do illegal experiments on those animals. Indeed, we human beings should learn a lesson from this movie and should stop doing unregulated experiments and testing on animals in spirit of ethics and conservation, but I don’t agree that those ape revolution thing makes sense. Even though those apes might become stronger and smarter than ever before, they cannot act as intelligent as human beings like what is played in the movies. Since I am not an expert in biology or pharmacology, I will not explore this topic in the direction of the possibility and the effects of gene mutation. I would like to apply what I’ve learnt in symbolic cultures and cognition. Here are my reasons:

Apes cannot adjust and improve their actions with their own purposes while human beings can. Apes, like most other species, the range of their behaviors are closely reacted to genes and adjusted to environment niche in order to survive. “Apes appear to be poor at rehearsal and metacognitive review. We can get them to repeat actions, as a function of reinforcement contingencies, and they can engage in socially facilitated imitation, but they cannot independently initiate and rehearse actions accurately for the sole purpose of refining their movement sequences.” Thus it becomes unrealistic when it comes to the fight scene between apes and human beings: the ape troop seemed so well-trained and they would adjust strategy from time to time. On the other hand, human beings, who had been through cognitive change and had developed communication system, was able to invent languages, gestures and words for their own purpose. Human beings are able to refine their actions and rehearsal over and over again. This process then results in mimesis that would later serve as cognitive foundation for nonverbal culture. Since by no means apes had been through all those processes, they couldn’t have been well-trained soldiers, not to mention to win the battle against human beings.

Apes also don’t establish cultural network as human beings do. As human beings bridges their cultural networks, their cognitive resources are harnessed and so are their minds. Then human gradually learns writing and literacy. And human being’s memory is extended to some degree, sustained by institutions and symbolic technology.

In a word, as far as I am concerned, by no means chimpanzees can be as intelligent as humans, even though chimpanzees can sometimes use tools, can make plans and can learn.


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.

Time is a flat circle…but evolution is not


In reading these pieces, I was struck by how great our popular misconceptions of evolution (as both a biological and sociological phenomenon) really are. By “our” here I of course am referring to those of us who know enough about science to believe in evolution, but who are not so specialized as to really grasp the particulars, as the authors are.

One such misconception is that evolution is inherently positive, linear, and moving in an “upward” direction. According to this framing, evolution is a spectrum ranging from “less evolved” to “more evolved” along which you can plot different species and compare them competitively against each other. In this conception, humans are “more evolved” than other animal species because we’ve developed the cognitive abilities that allows us to create complex languages, networks, societies, and so forth. But this is a completely misguided view of evolution. Evolution is not the directional moving along a continuum, but more of a “spreading out.”

Bringing this back to language, as Deacon notes in “The Symbolic Species,” there is a false belief that language is just the natural result of evolution, something all species will get to eventually if only they “evolve enough.” It is merely the complexity of our notion of language that is preventing other species from adopting it. If this were the case, however, then surely there would exist among at least some species a “simple” language (beyond the nonverbal communication exhibited by some species along with humans) at a “lower” level of complexity along the evolutionary scale. But this does not exist, and it’s nearly impossible even to teach the most simplistic of our language forms to some of the most “intelligent” nonhuman species. [1]

Because evolution is a “spreading out,” different species ended up in vastly different places—even on different paradigms, one might say. Nonhuman species ended up on paradigms in which they do not have language in the same way we do, even if they may have developed other forms of communication or other methods of adaptation. Humans ended up on a paradigm in which we have the ability to learn language, and this in turn allowed us the ability to develop other cognitive functions, which built on each other to give us the human tools (“tools” not in the artefact sense) we have today.

One final, unrelated thought I’ll end on: I do wonder how our current world population explosion will affect the evolution of our cognitive abilities. Our improved agricultural knowledge and practices (which have allowed us to produce more than enough food) combined with falling mortality rates (as a result of a reduction in conflict deaths and infectious diseases, as well as improved medical technology) have led to an unprecedented growth in population. As Wong claims in “The Morning of the Modern Mind,” increased population size is the situation most likely to cause “advanced” cultural attributes. With more competition for resources, humans were forced to develop innovative technologies and methods in order to survive. [2] What kind of effects will our current population boom have on the technologies we develop, and how will these affect our cognitive abilities more generally?



[1] Deacon, Terrence William. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. Print.

[2] Wong, Kate. “The Morning of the Modern Mind.” Scientific American 292.6 (2005): 86-95. Web.

Symbolism and Functionalism

I come from a background in cultural anthropology and it was interesting how Wong’s article connects to one of the disciplines most important ethnographies, Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific. His work advanced functional anthropology, which focuses on the practical side of cultural customs. Through his research on the Kula Ring of the Trobriand Island he worked towards an explanation of universal gift giving (prestacion) as a way of cementing social bonds. Mwali (white shell arm bands) were traded for soulava (red ring necklaces) in kula ceremonies between different Trobriand groups, establishing power dynamics between them. The aesthetic quality of the gift they were giving directly correlated to the amount of authority they could exert over their group. This is a distinctly human skill, an animal would not be able to understand the difference between a poorly made mwali and an expertly made one, they would only recognize that it is a hard physical object.

We now see that the giving of different colored perforated shells stretches back to 75,000 years ago, and if we reframe Malinowski’s work in the context of symbolic behavior it greater illustrates the competitive nature of creating meaning (Wong, 3). This trade was occurring between a few small islands and so the gifts would cycle through communities, but if the population had been larger, it’s possible that more advanced techniques would have been used in the creation of these tokens (Wong, 9). The use of these shells inhibited Trobriand islanders to think hierarchically towards one another; a way of thinking previously inaccessible. The concept of the kula ring could also be applied to justify Renfrew’s hypotheses, which adds external symbolic culture to Donald’s system of cognitive phases. That being said, Renfrew might not appreciate being compared with a cultural anthropologist as he extols cognitive processual archaeology as more scientific and objective (Renfrew, 2-4).

One of my questions from last week was also answered in greater detail in the Barrett reading. I wrote about a metaphor I had learned in a previous class about the brain as software, and the body as hardware, and how it reflects Cartesian duality. Barrett systematically dismantles this argument and also made me think about the brains cognitive function in ways I had not before. We think of the brain and our mind as linked, but we don’t think of the body as linked to the mind. Yet our brain only functions as a part of our body, so to accept the mind as only a function of the brain then becomes unacceptable (unless you’re in Death Cab for Cutie) (Barrett, 5). However, I started to lose the grasp of his summary when he started using “homunculus” as a substitute for the mind, as well as his idea that our mind has to decide what is represented, but this interpretation itself is a representation.


Barrett, J. (2013). Archaeology of the Mind. Retrieved from

Donald, M. (2007). Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. Retrieved September 14, 2016, from           &usp=embed_facebook

Malinowski, B.(1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Retrieved from

Wong, K. (2005). Retrieved September 14, 2016, from         


The roles of history and literacy in becoming “modern.”

This week’s reading initially struck me as somewhat confusing, perhaps because each reading came with a new perspective from the author/scholar, and each reading seemed to come with a variety of different ideas and hypotheses. However, seeing all of these hypotheses come together helped me in better understanding the general, big-picture idea of the process of the human species becoming modern minded.

While it was a shorter read, Kate Wong’s article in the Scientific American, The Morning of the Modern Mind caught my interest because of the different viewpoints and hypotheses she presented. It seems as though some scholars and researchers say that a new, cognitive “creative ability” (Wong, 88) was spurred on because of social factors such as confrontation that resulted from humans of modern appearance attempting to invade Neandertal territory. Others say it resulted from genetic mutations that happened earlier than the European “explosion” in Africa. Reading further, both Merlin Donald and Colin Renfrew seem to advocate that the human cognitive process has evolved, or progressed, because of social factors. Terrence Deacon seems to compare evolution in the human brain with evolution of the brains of other species while placing an emphasis on language as a defining difference between humans and other species. One little statement by Deacon kept popping up in my mind as I summarized the takeaways from all of this week’s reading: Neither languages nor brains fossilize, so it is difficult to study the early versions of both topics (Deacon, 10). There are so many ways that we can approach the topic, but none of them really seem to answer the question of how it all came about.

Two specific ideas stuck out to me this week, the first being the idea that Renfrew stated quite succinctly when he wrote, “… Without artefacts, material goods, many forms of thought simply could not have developed” (Renfrew, 2). And at first glance, one could wonder why such a statement is important – who cares how cognitive abilities and processes came about? But because of the artifacts that came about, and the cognitive ability to create these physical objects and tools, I’m typing in a language, on a laptop computer, at a university that is only as good as the individuals that make it up. Donald sums up the point that I’m trying to make when, on page 221, he writes about the fact that technologies – weights and measures, clocks, monetary systems, etc. – have the power to “amplify” a society’s level of intellect. Donald writes, “Such technologies are crucial in defining the real intellectual power of a culture. They to only allow cultures to preserve more complex ideas and traditions, but change how they achieve this” (221). This statement helped me to connect the fact that our current technologies do have a very deep, and rich, history. And this history is only made possible by the fact that, at some point in time, humans began to develop the intellectual capacity to begin using objects and associating meaning to these objects, whether it was the shell necklace in Wong’s article or the institutional structures stated in Donald’s piece. We only know what we know now, in regards to technological advancement, because of each step that has been taken before the others.

Donald’s insights on the power of a literate culture also struck me as interesting and true. Donald noted that “the most important network-level resources of culture are undoubtedly writing and literacy…” (220) and that these two resources have “revolutionized” human cognition at both individual and network levels. This made me reflect on the fact that many parts of the world that seem underdeveloped are lacking the skill of literacy, whether everyone is illiterate or particular minorities or classes are illiterate; it’s a known fact that cultures with a full range of literacy skills are able to produce highly functioning technologies, resulting in a powerful advantage over cultures that lack a reading/writing system (Donald, 220). Once writing is introduced, institutional structures have the opportunity to become more complex, and it almost seems like some sort of domino effect – from there, technology only keeps getting better and progressing. In my non-academic life, I volunteer as a literacy tutor. While it seems as though one person being illiterate is a much better problem to have than an entire culture being illiterate, the fact that one person cannot read or write (at all, or in the same language as the culture they live in) has a huge effect on technological innovation. Progress is stalled not only for the illiterate individual, but for the people/company that the individual works for, his or her family members (particularly their children), and even his or her economic bracket. One person makes a big difference. Seeing it on a smaller scale brings me back to the big picture, to the question of when humans became modern of mind. It proves that this was a huge, life-changing turn in history; it may have been a gradual change, and obviously language was developed before literacy, but the power of even one person being able to carry out a sequence of basic cognitive operations (Donald, 216) is all that’s needed to then begin teaching others and move toward developing intelligent, multi-layered societies. Technology builds upon itself, but it doesn’t do it on its own; It requires human input, knowledge, understanding, and direction.


“Donald-Evolutionary-Origins-Social-Brain.pdf – Google Drive.” Accessed September 14, 2016.
“Wong-Modern-Mind-SA-June-05.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 14, 2016.
“Deacon-Symbolic-Species-Excerpts-1-13.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 14, 2016.