Category Archives: Week 3

Chutong: Week 3

Why human beings are human beings? Why us? How did we change from “monkeys” to what we are now? I‘ve always been curious about these questions. This week’s reading explained the relationship of human cognition and physical structure (especially brain structure) development from archaeological and anthropological perspectives, and how artifacts reflect human symbolic cognition, which helps me a lot on shaping my own hypothesis towards these questions. As an animal ethology lover, I would like to share some relevant cases that I know beyond this week’s readings and videos. 
First, language is not unique to humans, many animals have complex language systems. However, human beings use languages to imagine, to lie; while animal communication is more like a closed system. Monkeys only give warning when they see  a real leopard, and wolves only give coordinated commands when they see prey. This is analogous to the ability of using tools. Many animals (chimpanzees, elephants, crows, etc) are apt at using materials around them as tools, but they could not make a tool they never seen before. But it is worth noting that this limitation of animal language is not a conclusive conclusion. Since communications in highly socialized species like dolphins or elephants have not been cracked by humans yet. In the known studies on the language of killer whales, their language complexity is astonishing, and they can also learn languages of other species !  But one thing is almost certain: the use of symbols is an unusual ability in nature. This allows us to inherit our knowledge. Everyone is “standing on the shoulders of giants”, as mentioned in the reading, our cognitive symbolic system is cumulative
Second, some animals are considered capable of artistic creation. Many bird species could build beautiful nests, put out intricate patterns, and use various decorations. They do have their own thoughts and preferences since they decorate their nest in different ways. In addition, some researchers believe that animals like elephants and chimpanzees are talented in painting. I remember that I once saw a drawing by chimpanzee from a zoo in China (it’s been too long to remember the details, sorry). It looked very much like a chimpanzee! Although from my perspective, and also, many scholar’s perspectives, these animals are just using paintbrushes as toys and painted some meaningless patterns. But it is interesting to check out: 
[Links to Drawings by Apes]
Third, the article about evolution and watershed of cognitive ability in Homo Sapiens history remind me of an inhumane experiment in 20th century. It is a research on observing raising baby chimp and human baby in the civilized way at the same time. I believe this experiment has a great negative impact on both the child and the baby chimp. The related links of this research: 
Forth, as mentioned many time in the video, symbols are everything that actually means another things. And people can make different statements, interpretations through symbols. This remind me of an interesting examples in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari, 2011) — company. “Company” is a very abstract symbol, and this abstract symbol is the embodiment of human beings with advanced cognitive abilities. Take Amazon for example, even if it replaces the CEO, lay off all current employees, and moves away from Seattle, changes the logo, Amazon is still Amazon. It is a concept, a layer of abstraction in our mind. 

Qi Wang Week3

Humans have symbolic cognition, which is one of the most significant criteria for distinguishing humans from animals. In ancient times, the human race’s intrinsic physical weakness left them vulnerable to dangers such as wild predators and natural disasters which limited their population growth and their ability to thrive as a specie. Through natural selection, those who utilized Homo Sapiens’ distinctive and remarkable intelligence were able to be successful in passing down their DNA to the genetic pool. Those who unified as tribes and eventually cities and nations were the ones that unlocked the full potential of the human race as it was the most optimal way to flourish: grouping together to survive.

Symbols played a key role in materializing such a strong bond and unification possible. Symbols such as language, national anthems, and flags provided a link to bond and unify weak individuals together. Through symbols, humans communicated with each other and traded to maintain human development. A human group is a social group, and this combination is relatively similar in other species because it is easy to disintegrate somehow.
Symbol (language and culture) is the glue that connects them.

In the later development, symbolic capacity is also an important element of human development and technological development. Because symbolic capacity can detect the connection between things, it can use some things to symbolize other things. Therefore, human beings can create new forms, explanations, and combinations by combining different abstract concepts, thus promoting the development of human society.

It is pointed out in the reading that human culture is essentially composed of learning symbols and meaning. Also, culture refers to the various meaning embodied in symbols inherited from history. Because symbol not only has the characteristics of spreading and sharing identity and intention among a group, but also the symbolic system has a conceptual system of inheritance, through which people can achieve communication sustainability, and develop their knowledge and attitude towards life.

Homo sapiens, the Symbolic Species

The debate of whether or not human beings should be classified in the same taxon as the African great apes has been a long going conversation. While watching and reading the material for this week, I realized that these concepts were diving into and revealing the foundations of this very broad question that people (both in and out of the world of academia and research) have been struggling to come to terms with. I mention this because primate taxonomy is primarily categorized based on physiological, skeletal, behavioral and cognitive characteristics. Putting the physiological and skeletal characteristics aside, everything else if what makes Homo sapiens unique and places us on a different level of intelligence than other species. 

However, our distinct state of human consciousness and theory of mind are results and products of our capacity to be “symbolic species”. Through the use of symbols as early as the creation of obsidian flakes and cave drawings to the development of any form of written language, has actually formed us as to who we are today, what we were in the past and what we will continue to be in the future, as human beings. One of the fascinating aspects of this is the realization that without symbols and without the use of those, it is highly unlikely that humans would have been able to survive. This might sound extreme but in reality, the constructs that societies have created over time are based on symbols, it is the “interface to a deep dependant history” (Henshilwood). Maybe it is a certain type of carved stone in the shape of a bird that allowed people to form the first characteristics of a belief system, a religion, a praise in a higher being. Maybe those poked sea shells were the first steps of an exchange system, an economic measurement, the first steps towards a barter economy, which thousands and hundreds of years later ended up being today’s notions of trade, capitalism, etc. Even things such as weapons or makeup, were all a part of human life thousands of years ago even though nowadays people associate them with more recent “modern human behavior” (yet another debate about what we define as “modern behavior”), they were just depicted differently than what/how they are today. As most of the readings emphasize, what distinguishes us from other animals is our symbolic behavior, thought, cognition, etc. We are our present because of the past. At some point, somewhere back in time, the world as we know it today had to start from a ground zero. 

As a “symbolic species” our behavior is ultimately narrated by symbols that we have developed over time creating this material culture that has allowed us to interact with people within our smaller communities but also broader circles, cultures, etc. because of this shared and uniquely human symbolic behavior that we have been able to maintain through language (in all aspects of it) which allows us to memorize it, share it, change it, evolve it, etc. Language is what makes us different from other species, it places us in a “double world” (not just objects and symbols, but ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and other concepts we can’t even fathom) and strictly separates us from animals who live in a “one world” system where only objects and circumstance exist (Cole 1996, p. 120). However, it is easy to dichotomize humans and animals in terms of our use of symbols but what about human differentiation that is based on symbols? In his piece, Cole explains Wartofsky’s categorizations of artefacts into primary, secondary and tertiary. The primary ones constitute the production ‘aka’ raw materials, the secondary artefacts (which is where I would personally draw the line that differentiates Homo sapiens from other animals) “modes of action using the primary artefacts” and the third category (tertiary) that “color the way we see the ‘actual’ world”. My final anthropologically focused thoughts to this were: isn’t the “actual” world a relative concept? Could we define this category as a particularistic individual cultural representation/characterisation? Since we as humans are “symbolic species” where do we draw the line between universal phenomenons and shared behavior because of our symbolic nature and those (symbols/artefacts) that are unique to a specific cultural, group, community, etc.? 



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

Michael Cole, “On Cultural Artifacts,” From Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Short excerpts.

Prof. Irvine, “Symbolic Cognition and Cognitive Technologies” (Video, from Key Concepts in Technology)

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue, et al. “Ape Consciousness–Human Consciousness: A Perspective Informed by Language and Culture.” American Zoologist, vol. 40, no. 6, 2000, pp. 910–921.

Thinking in Symbols Video Documentary, American Museum of Natural History, 2012 

Qasim: Week 3

From the readings and videos this week, we see that humans have the capacity to communicate with each other through a plethora of “symbolic continuum”. Unlike animals, humans have multiple layers in how we cognitively use language. This includes ideas such as art- derived from symbols and being able to find meaning in each stroke of the brush. To more complicated features such as math leading to computation and software development. But music, art, computer code, algorithms is the exchange of data information.

In Professor Irvine’s “Introduction to the Human Symbolic Capacity, Symbolic Thought, and Technologies”, Deacon believes that the human symbolic brain evolved to into today’s meticulous structure by thousands of years in being able to “store and transmit symbols in the material form”. These forms include media, music, and more advanced computational ideas.

From the documentary, we see artifacts dating back to thousands of years, well preserved in the form of drawings on the walls of the caves. These complex forms of the inscription could vary through subject areas such as music, story tales, product design, math, and more. Importantly, humans are intuitive enough to preserve ideas and share with others to enhance our purpose.

Fordyce, Week 3

In this week’s readings I was most interested by the comparison of ancient artifacts and modern technology. It’s interesting how we categorize modern practices: ranging from cave paintings to computer-centric technological advances. In looking at the spectrum of history these “discoveries” are closer in time than the entire existence of Homo Sapiens, yet in modern history cave paintings seem much farther from today’s advances (Wong 90). The way we discuss Human-Computer Interaction today centers much more around the modern technological hardware and keeping human-design central to its capabilities. Ancient cultural artifacts demonstrate a closer relationship between the technology and the human. Symbolic processes are the defining feature of any kind of communication practices, and computing’s success sits solely on its ability to communicate. As Irvine’s timeline demonstrates, symbolic capacity amongst Homo Sapiens has evolved from language, to software, to automation and digital media. However, all these mater developments rely on language and symbols to receive and output information. It is because of this that we will never truly stray far from the true purpose of technologies in modern-day advancements.

Reference List

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

Week 3 Yanjun Liu

A New discovery: Media and technology development is not simply linear but cumulative.

Instead of using the word “discovered”, I may rather use the word “realized” — after reading these materials, I suddenly realized that medias and technology development is not linear  or sequential, but cumulative, which means that every step of new development is based on the former existence and experiences. Computer is not something that “popped up” in human history but is something that reflected how human symbolic mental capacity is interpreted by a brand-new way.

“Thoughts are symbols”, human being is symbolic species because we have the capacity to offer extra meanings to symbols other than its visual existence. Also, we use different interfaces to load, store, present and interpret our symbols (thoughts). Similarly, our modern “symbolic technologies” in computing and digital media are new methods and interfaces that carry different ways of interpretations of signs and symbols, which originated from our symbolic mental capacity that have been developed for thousands of years.

Question: Can the appearance of computer and the procedure of computation itself be regarded as a continuous new way to interpret an apple?


Prof. Irvine, Language, Symbols, Meaning, Codes: Introducing Symbolic Cognition & Symbolic-Cognitive Artefacts (slides)

Michael Cole, “On Cultural Artifacts,” From Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Short excerpts.

Prof. Irvine, “Introduction to the Human Symbolic Capacity, Symbolic Thought, and Technologies.”