Category Archives: Week 3

Our Cognitive Past and Our Cognitive Future – Alex MacGregor

In last week’s journal response I posed some questions regarding the historical timeframe of our symbolic cognitive evolution, as well as the how non-human animals fit into this discussion, so I was glad to see both of these issues addressed in this week’s readings.

In “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture“, Wong uses Neanderthals as a reference point. She brings up “systematic ochre processing” and “manufacturing of body ornaments” (Wong, 95) as evidence of their symbolic capabilities, which I found particularly interesting because we know that biological ornamentation is a feature utilized by many different animals, so is the manufacturing the key distinction that takes us from non-symbolic to symbolic? I was also interested in her point about how both humans and Neanderthals came to exhibit the ability to think symbolically. She raises the possibility of independent evolution, as well as the possibility of a “primeval common ancestor” (Wong, 95). Should it be the latter, I wonder how far back this common ancestor is located?

One thing that really struck me from “The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain” was how interdisciplinary this field of study is. Deacon mentions philosophers, neurologists, biological scientists, psychologists, archaeologists and linguists as all having a role to play in exploring and understanding symbolic cognition. To me, that signifies (heh) just how fundamental this topic is to our existence. I was also interested in the point Deacon made about the human brain being overbuilt for learning symbolic associations (Deacon, 413). The amplification of emergent consequences in other mental domains that results from this overbuilding is something he didn’t go into depth about, so I was wondering about examples of these supramodal adaptations.

In the Donald reading, yet again we come across the “symbolic cognition as network” analogy, which i’m really loving. The way he framed the uniqueness of the human mind as being in the ability to imagine or think about things outside our immediate environment also made a lot of sense to me, especially when analyzing these issues through a semiotic lens, as much of it is based on non-immediate mental processing. Donald also talks about the difference between literary cultures and oral cultures (Donald 220), and while he discusses how those differences manifest in the realm of overt culture, I wonder about any neurological differences between cultures that may have sprung up as a result.

So I suppose my question is where is all of this leading to? The readings this week did the anthropological work of tracing our cognitive history, but what will our cognitive future look like? The “computer as mind, mind as computer” concept seems to be quite important, so perhaps the field of computer science will become an increasingly critical slice of this interdisciplinary pie. Is it possible we will reach a kind of cognitive inflection point once the technology advances enough? In the “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage ” reading, Renfrew brings up the four transitions of cognitive phases (Renfrew, 4), so is it possible we’re due for a fifth transition?


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

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

Donald, Merlin. “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, 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.


Based off this week’s readings, it seems that there is essentially one major division amongst the various hypotheses seeking to understand how the capacity for symbolic processing developed within the human species.  On one side of this division are hypotheses that claim that the capacity for symbolic cognition was developed as a result of some degree of advanced brain development distinctive to the human species.  While on the other side of the division are hypotheses that assert that the capacity for symbolic cognition developed from interactions with external and social stimuli and, therefore, developed in conjunction with various cultural phenomena, primarily communication. (Barrett, 14-5)

Each set of hypotheses carries its own set of significant implications for understanding how humans understand and create symbolic meaning.  Those that assert that brain development preceded symbolic cognition, such as Steven Mithen’s concept of the general intelligence facility (Barrett, 3), rely on the theory that human symbolic cognition developed out of the necessity of representation or interpretation of individual conceptions of reality.  As a result, theories of this type are based in the idea that evolution provided humans with a certain degree of “instinctual knowledge,” (Deacon, 26) which implies that the human species is ultimately tied to some sort of behavioral determinism.

On the other hand, theories that suggest that symbolic cognitive abilities developed in conjunction with processes of communication, such as were presented by both Deacon and Donald, establish human symbolic activity as a primarily social and material process of learning. (Donald)  As Deacon suggests, the process of evolution is primarily one of learning and remembering (Deacon, 26), rather than instinctively knowing and representing.  Thus, amongst these hypotheses, the concept of “instinctual knowledge” is unfounded, along with ideas of behavioral determinism.  Consequently, the process of human evolution can be viewed as a social and relatively arbitrary phenomenon.

On a broader scale, the differences between these two groups of hypotheses forced me to consider the ultimate “randomness” or unpredictability of life.  Oddly enough, in terms of technology such contemplation actually provided me with a sense of control and reinforced the understanding that technological advances are primarily tools for our benefit.  This reassurance stems from the thought that within the randomness of events, we create a specific technology to address and facilitate our needs based on the situation that arises.  While that observation may seem obvious, a more deterministic view of technological advancement ultimately leaves me feeling subjected to these developments and the ways in which the affect society.  In other words, I can now see, at least in part, where my own inclinations toward Luddism originate.

Furthermore, this shift in thinking also makes me contemplate the way I understand general processes of technological design.  Rather, than resisting technological developments based on perceived or speculative negative social implications, it refocuses my attention onto the original societal “necessity” for which a technology may have been designed.  Specifically, that means asking questions such as how do certain technologies advance our symbolic processing, is there a specific symbolic need that a certain technology fulfills, and how will we as a species evolve to utilize these technologies?  Of course, I’m not claiming that we should not consider the various ramifications that specific technological advancements may have on society, but contemplating technological advancement in terms of its symbolic significance and potential, at least, provides me with a new perspective from which I might ultimately draw more thoughtful conclusions.

Viewed in this light and in conjunction with Deacon’s discussion of how symbolic association is derived from indices and icons, I can now understand how any technological advancement, whether historic or recent, major or minor, is infinitely important and symbolically significant.  However interesting it might be to look back and track the course of technological development we have achieved thus far, it’s even more interesting to think of the enormous index of technology that we now have and the endless symbolic opportunities that it presents.  Basically, any single advancement is fair game for endless symbolic applications! (Deacon, 79-83)


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

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

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.

Non-Linear Technological Development

In “The Morning of the Modern Mind,” Wong concludes by highlighting the sometimes non-linear nature of technological advancement. She writes that “Tasmanians possessed a much more complex tool kit, one that included bone tools, fishing nets, and bows and arrows” several thousand years before the more recent Middle Paleolithic, who possessed “little more than basic stone flake tools” (Wong, 94). While she attributes this to the rising sea level cutting off the island to the mainland, this idea of non-linear progression prompted me to think about the ways that other technologies may have progressed non-linearly within the context of American culture.

After our demonstration of the telegraph in last week’s class, I thought about how the telegraph—essentially the original method of texting—infiltrated the U.S. long before cell phones did in 1973. Even with ability to talk live, we were still unable to text (until 1992). Although the telegraph and the first cell phone are separated by years of technological breakthroughs and social changes, it’s significant to point out that we have had the ability to text in one form or another since the 19th century.

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Although it may be bit of a leap (hopefully I’m not too off base), we can apply the past/present paradox that Renfrew discusses in “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage,” in some ways to this example. He asserts that modern representations of the past, like current hunter-gatherer societies, complicate “temporal” sequence (Renfrew, 4). In other words, technological breakthroughs are not always chronological in nature. And, we don’t always stop using a tool once a newer one has been invented.

In this way, the evolution of texting is more so “dependent upon matters of cultural context,” rather than a timeline (Renfrew, 4). Why and how we text to communicate today differs from what motivated us to use the telegraph. We never lost the ability to use the telegraph or the desire to communicate in symbols with each other over large distances, but those needs evolved to reflect advancements in modern American culture.

Even though the telegraph was the first representation of texting as a means of communication, our current texting capabilities “should not be regarded as living representatives” of the past (Renfrew, 4). Texting as we understand it today is not a direct representation of the telegraph, but we should acknowledge its foundational importance in the context of the history of communication.

To better understand the connection between past, present and future texting communication technologies, I want to focus on this quote: “Every culture has a “network architecture” that directs the flow of knowledge among individuals, institutions, and external memory devices” (Donald, 219). Technology is one of the ways that we can direct the flow of knowledge (i.e., the World Wide Web). The devices we have access to allow us to “engage many minds and their cognitive activities” through the act of “interlinking those minds…into large functioning networks” (Donald, 219). We are linked through the use of technological devices, like a cell phone, which bring us together both spatially and as a community to form a network.


Brustein, Joshua. (2015). “The Story Behind the First Cell Phone Call Ever Made.”, April 24.

Donald, Merlin (2007). “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain,” from Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, ed. Oscar Vilarroya, et al. Amsterdam: Rodophi.

Irvine, Martin (2016). A Samuel Morse Dossier: Morse to the Macintosh, Demonstration of the Morse Telegraph: Electric Circuits and “A System of Signs.” Communication, Culture and Technology Program, Georgetown University.

Kelly, Heather. (2016). “OMG, the Text Message Turns 20. But Has SMS Peaked? –” CNN. Accessed September 13.

Renfrew, Colin (1998). “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage,” in idem and Christopher Scarre, Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, McDonald Institute Monographs (Cambridge, England: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research) 1-6.

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

Language is a Technology – Yasheng

Deacon notes human language is unique to human while adding that what other animals use to communicate is either inferior or superior.[1] Maybe I watched too many whale documentaries (#FreeTilly), one thing these documentaries all claim is that whales and dolphins have more developed brains and can communicate better than humans. 5e4dc177b5303d2a9f61dbba3f2a2f09Living in a world without air to transfer sound, whales are able to create meaning, value, and social structure within their small communities. What we read last week from Saussure entails that language, as a signifier, can never fully represent our inner thoughts, the signified. So in a way, our language is not the perfect tool for communication for the lack of full representation.

Deacon also notes that humans understand the world through matter recognition and symbolic representation – language. If our inner world is too complex to be fully represented through symbols, and pattern recognition is also limited by context. In other words, the original meaning  of a message gets lost twice, first time when the sender is encoding her or his thoughts into language, and the second time when the receiver is trying to decode the symbolic meaning of what the sender is trying to express. Accordingly, wouldn’t it be that case that language actually creates isolation between self and other, rather than engender empathy among the two?

Also consider the fact that computing is based on human language, therefore it also lacks full representation of the signified. So how can computing makes us better at establishing effective communication with others?

Well, on the other hand, I guess one thing whales cannot achieve is passing on their existence through their communication tools, or at least as far as I know it. Humans, on the other hand, are able to pass on knowledge through the language we speak. In a way, what we use to communicate on a daily basis is part of the collective human experience. Donald claims that individuals become more powerful by connecting to their “culture network”.[2] From all the evidence presented by Wong, it is clear to see that many early human cultures evolve exponentially thanks to the advancement of their culture network. Different cultures create different traditions, contrary to the West, many Asian languages encourage group mentality and indirectness. The Eastern speech is delicate and I remember that is one of reasons Japanese people don’t really get sarcasm (This is not a joke).

Another fun fact about Eastern language, Chinese in this case, I want to bring up comes from a psychological research done by my previous professor. The research shows that,

Chinese speakers had stronger connections leading from an area of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus – which has been identified as a “semantic hub” critical in supporting language – to both Broca’s and Wernicke’s area. This increased connectivity is attributed to the enhanced mapping of sound and meaning going on in people who speak tonal languages.

The second difference showed activation in an area of the brain’s right hemisphere, but only among the Chinese speakers. This brain area, the right superior temporal pole, has been implicated in Chinese tones before but – perhaps more importantly – has until now been considered completely separate from the classic language network in the left hemisphere.[3]

This makes me wonder if there is a technology that builds Eastern language processes, would it be something different than what we have today.

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

[2] 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.

[3] Taylor, Larry. “If You Speak Mandarin, Your Brain Is Different.” The Conversation. Accessed September 11, 2016.