Mind and brain evolution

After finished this week’s readings, I attempted to find their similarities and synthesize a framework that can represent the common threads in recent work on the origin of symbolic thought. Wong’s article (Wong, 2005) pointed out that the “behavioral revolution” of anatomically modern humans around 40 thousand years ago was not an incident. Like evolutionist advocated, it was a process took several million years. Additionally, C.S. Peirce’s framework of understanding sign systems in terms of icons, indices and symbols was commented on specifically by several authors, and following Deacon’s explanation of these categories as hierarchical (Deacon 1998).

These authors envision the overall course of the evolution as a symbolic system that have some traits in common. Donald’s concept of mimesis states that while Donald identifies a series of significant steps towards fully-realized symbolic thought (Renfrew 1999). Therefore, he thought the mimic skill is an essential ability acquired by aps, and it’s also the foundation of human language development. The most fascinating while puzzling reading for me was Barrett’s “Archaeology of Mind”. It challenged the basis of many other author’s arguments. First, it attacked materialist and solipsistic approach to understanding the mind. Barrett put, “When it comes to the problem of mind, we still seem to be stuck in a Cartesian trap wherein we think of cognition as something that happens within the mind– a place totally distinct from the body and the rest of the world.” This raised a question that lots of scholars tried to explain: they were looking for ways to explain consciousness and symbolic capability through some kind of “magic switch” in the brain. Donald stated there’s a nod to the importance of “cognitive collectivities”, however; the first spark of consciousness can attributed to some feature of “neuromania”.

The difficultly in this debate arises from the confluence of the insights of multiple. Compare to other theories, Pinker’s approach seems more testable and his theory assumes the benefit of multiple genetic advantages over time.  As Pinker pointed out, “sociality in natural environments is based on concepts and motives adapted to kinship, dominance, alliances, and reciprocity. Humans, when left to their own devices, tend to apply these mindsets within modern organizations. The result of nepotism, cronyism, deference to authority, and polite consensus-all of which are appropriate to traditional small-scale societies but corrosive of modern ones.” Besides the bright side, the deep-rooted dark side is also generated through out time. This generative phenomenon seems gave the strongest evidence of his theory.



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

Pinker, Steven. “The Cognitive Niche: Coevolution of Intelligence, Sociality, and Language.” InProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Supplement 2:8993–99, 2010.