Category Archives: Week 3

Culture and Language

I was always fascinated on the connections that our mind has and relates to the community around us. Why do we make the choices that we make, and why we behave in certain ways?

As Donald explains in his article, there is no such thing as ” an isolated mind”, this idea that our minds are self-sufficient monads bounded by their physical container. We are part of a society, we are part of a culture and as being part of this system, our decisions and choices are usually affected by the environment around us.

In Albania, when I was in the third grade, I had the choice to choose another language that I wanted to study. Since Albania is in South Europe, you would think that a language like Italian would be a very popular language to learn and it would make sense, since it’s location its closer to Albania and it’s easier to go and visit ant practice it. On the contrary, at that time the English language was the most popular language, and when I think back, it was always around us. There were a lot of songs and music that was in English, our tv stations were playing movies in English, you could easily find books in English in the bookstore. Of course there are other reasons why this language was so popular, but at that time, these facts made me choose to learn English instead of another language, so the environment around me played a significant role.

As a singer, when I sang songs in English, I wanted to know the meaning behind the lyrics and not just sing the song. When I first started to learn English and study the grammar, the main difference that I saw from the Albanian alphabet were the number of letters (English has 26, Albanian has 36) and the order of the words in a sentence.

But there were other differences as well. To me, English felt like it was a very polite language. By that I mean that in movies, in books, in everyday conversations, people used a lot of polite words on a daily basis. Later on, when I studied in the US as an exchange student, I found out that the politeness was not only a thing in the language, but also in the culture. People tried to be polite and friendly towards each other.

But how is a culture different from another culture?

Well, the easiest response would be that a culture’s identity is based on what is being passed from one generation to another, what traditions are still being kept from one year to another. An example that comes to mind is that is not a law to have turkey for thanksgiving, it is not a law to be welcoming and open and friendly. Examples like this show that there are certain norms, certain traditions that are being passed from one generation to another, and unconsciously, these are contributing to one’s identity, one’s culture.

But that is one part of the story. Since we are part of a community, we are part of a system that is made of tools and machines, languages, writings and books, movies, music and depending on the social, economical factors of a society, the same artifacts may have different representations in different cultures, because of all these different actors.

I believe that we should look at the human mind, and as a person in both biological and cultural factors, and as the research shows they both play an important role in understanding the decisions that we make and understanding the future.


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

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.

The trajectory


The reading this week has a lot to do with the development of the human cognitive system as well as the symbolic system. But two minor aspects caught my attention: behavioral big bang and the procedure for the human to domestic ourselves.


“Within a geologic blink of an eye, humans from the Rhône Valley to the Russian plain were producing advanced weaponry, forming long-distance trade networks, expressing themselves through art and music, and generally engaging in all manner of activities that archaeologists typically associate with modernity. It was, by all appearances, the ultimate Great Leap Forward.” (Wong, 2005) This is a typical declaration of a behavioral big bang.

Another good example could be the Technological Explosion. Many things that have a profound impact on our daily life were invented in the recent 200 years. starting from 1826, photography, telegraph (1837), sewing machine (1846),the internal combustion engine (1860), telephone (1876), motion picture and X-Ray (1895), Airplane (1903). These are just a glimpse of the great changes that pushed our society forward, the significant part of this is all these things happened within such a short time-span.

In one of my favorite fiction novels: the three-body problem, a similar pattern was described: The alien civilization is afraid of another tipping point in our development so that they locked down the tools for basic physics research which would make Technological Explosion impossible.

My understanding here is randomness and coincidence are important characteristics of innovation. At the same time, the increasing availability of a collective knowledge base would facilitate the procedure of research and exploration, it’s like a detective with more clues and jigsaw puzzles with more references.

What’s more, many inventions mentioned above changed the way we perceive and interact with this world. For instance, before photography was introduced, the top priority for many painters is to portray things as real as possible onto the canvas. But this suddenly became meaningless – you could never outperform a camera. So, the artist started to adopt other tactics and embrace new genres and thus we had the impressionist


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

Artifact and the creation of meaning

I think one of this week’s core concept is artifact. Artifact has its two sides of meaning: on the material level, it is what the ancestors created at the beginning to forge tools in aid of living; on the ideal level, it is what we attach meaning on. I think somewhere one of the authors indicated that through social learning, people are able to ‘upgrade’ the meaning of artifact to the ideal level. This probably illustrates how culture arises and where the controversy of the origin of culture lies in – if the notion of culture does not exist within the cognition of human, how can human develop a huge cornucopia of the mass we possess nowadays solely based on the exterior and our interactions with it?

And also, think of what we have gathered today, we have invented layer after layer of meanings based on incessant revolutions. Each time the innovation of the raw material and the technology enables people to discover new ways of thinking, and the culture constantly enriches itself.

In addition, when Cole mentions the third level of artifacts, I am also curious in what that can possibly mean because what he implies can be artifacts that’s already beyond our current imagination, a through deconstruction and reconstruction of what culture means in his article.


Renfrew, C. (1999). Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic
Storage. Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage.

Symbolic Material Culture as External Symbolic Storage: The Example of Ding

Symbol originated in practice by our ancestors. It’s process of unfolding is synchronized with the process of human culture. In the primitive society, people have already had both practical and aesthetic demand and taken part in creating conscious or unconscious symbols to enrich the life. The invention of external storage of information was the watershed event in modern human behavioral evolution (Wong, 2005).

Ding is a good case to study symbolic material culture as external symbolic storage. Ding, as a kind of material in ancient China, has many symbolic meanings embedded in it. Ding originated in the Neolithic Age in China, but at that time, it was made of pottery. In the Bronze Age, it was made of bronze. After the development in two dynasties, the Ding reached its peak in the Zhou Dynasty. The Ding was mainly used as a food container. Then it became the carrier of language and words. Then it entailed the privilege to perform the associated rituals and became the symbols of authority (Thomas, 1982). Ding in the Zhou Dynasty was a symbol of their rule over the whole nation and different number of the Ding they used represents different social class.

  1. Ding as the food container

Food container as a kind of tool, it can embody the unique characteristic that differs human from other animals. In the article, Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain, Donald put forward a point of view that mimesis involved a revolution in motor skills and a higher level of processing in the nervous system, which leads to rich variability that served as the basic for inventing (Donald,2007). In the development of food container, from wood to pottery, human beings incessantly accumulated experience to improve the usage of food container based on the memory of consequences of the previous action. This reflects the extended cognitive sequence and the wisdom as human beings.

  1. Ding as the carrier of language

The earliest language in China was the Oracle, which was written on tortoise shells or bones. However, Oracle disappeared with the wreck of the Shang Dynasty. Instead, inscriptions on bronze gradually became the main language in the Zhou Dynasty and the vocabulary was more abundant than Oracle. They were mainly used to celebrate the achievements of the emperors and record social life at that time. In the article, Mind and Matter Cognitive: Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage, Ding, which is made of bronze, plays the role like major monuments in prehistoric Britain, is built for remembrance and often memorial. Both play the role of a memorial to serve, especially the collective memory (Renfrew, 1999).

Compared to language which were inscribed on tortoise shells and bones, those which were inscribed on bronze were more likely to store and spread. This can represent the development of social science and technology. One significant difference between the two carriers of language is that bronze was not natural. It was a kind of artefacts and technology. Developing concepts and language which can be understood and analyzed often embodied in the structure and artefacts.

  1. Ding as the symbol of authority

Early inventions were pragmatic and generally not far removed from nature (Renfrew, 1999). Similarly, the invention and usage of Ding symbolized kinds of the social environment. In the Zhou Dynasty, Ding and the privilege to perform the associated rituals became symbols of authority. The number of the permitted Ding varied according to their rank in nobility. Only the kings could use Nine Dings and this was a symbol of their rule over the whole nation. Theoretic thought is to be associated with literacy, and hence with urban civilization in a state’s society. Ding, as a symbol of authority, represents not only the social class, but also the values and civilization in the Shang Dynasty.



1.Donald, M. (2007). Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. O. Vilarroya, & FF i Argimon.

2.Lawton, T. (1982). Chinese Art of the Warring States Period: Change and Continuity 480-222 B.C. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 23.

3.Renfrew, C. (1998). Mind and matter: cognitive archaeology and external symbolic storage. Cognition and material culture: the archaeology of symbolic storage, 1-6.

4.WONG, K. (2005). The Morning of the Modern Mind. Scientific American, 292(6), 86-95. Retrieved from


Personal Notes for Week3

The media technology developing external symbolic devices, to me can be regarded as the “extensions of men”, in a context of specific language system and bases on the present symbolic cognition. The symbolic cognition generated from communication in which both the linguistic system and the artifacts are of necessity. Media technologies are aiming to help people communicate with each other easier and better as well as speed up mental process. The direct outcome of media technology is the various type of medium sharing specific linguistic systems but also gaining different characters that influences the communication.

The way how we study the constitution of the human society of symbols and meanings somehow leads me to understand the media in a more clear way. The idea of Searle about the relationship between language or language-like system and the creation of institutional fact help Colin Renfrew analyzing the integral relationship between concepts, linguistic terms and artefacts. In some cases, both the linguistic elements and the artefacts are constitutive of the concepts. This actually somehow reminds me of the famous saying of McLuhan, which is “The medium is the message”. Though not totally agree with it, it seems somehow being reasonable to understand it in the light of Colin’s analysis model. The message can be assimilated to a concept that the source-encoder of it is trying to convey to the audience. This concept, the message, itself is constituted with a linguistic or language-like system which is closely related to the pure information in the message, like the electric current in the wire. At the same time, the medium determined by the technology of meanings, without which the message is not being able to construct and to be delivered to the audiences, is not only just carrying the information, but also shaping it, which deeply influence how the message is like when it finally reach the receivers. From this standpoint, “The medium is the message”seems to be somehow more reasonable in my mind.

The way how we study the constitution of the human society of symbols and meanings somehow lead me to understand the media in a more clear way. The idea of Searle about the relationship between language or language-like system and the creation of institutional fact help Colin Renfrew analyzing the integral relationship between concepts, linguistic terms and artefacts. In some cases, both the linguistic elements and the artefacts are constitutive of the concepts. This actually somehow reminds me of the famous saying of McLuhan, which is “The medium is the message”. Though not totally agree with it, it seems somehow being reasonable to understand it in the light of Colin’s analysis model. The message can be assimilated to a concept that the source-encoder of it is trying to convey

It seems to me that sometimes we might be able to understand different phenomenon or system in human society in similar way. I’m not saying that the elements put into discussion are same but the way we de-black box them somehow gain commons.

1 Donald, M. (2007). Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. Social Brain
Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Amsterdam: Rodophi.
2 Renfrew, C. (1999). Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic
Storage. Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage.
3 Cambridge. UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
McLuhan, M. (1911). Understanding Media : the Extensions of Man

Exploring the human evolution and a further step on the contemporary technology–Wency Zhang

Exploring the human evolution and a further step on the contemporary technology

It might not be a bad idea to start with the 5 hypotheses for what set the stage for modern human behavior listed in Kate Wong’s article this week: Symbolism, Ecological disaster, projectile technology, population growth and brain mutation (Wong, 2005, p.89). Among these hypotheses, though not mutually exclusive, one that most likely to elicit advanced cultural behaviors, according to McBrearty, is increased population size where limited resources forced a competition where cleverer ways to obtain resources need to be created. Besides, growing population increase the possibilities where individuals then encountered among groups (Wong, 2005, p.94).

Nevertheless, if these two changes above are doom to happen because of the population growth, and given that the population of some other primate relatives is comparable to our ancestor, does this indicate that they are also going to have the modern behavior as we do? Unfortunately, human beings seem to be the only species that is having this so called modern behavior. If we call the distinctions social factors, which J. C. Barrett mentioned in the example that earlier humans’ idea of burial, compared to what chimpanzees react to the death of their friends, is different in the idea of caching the death which indicates the social factors in their group (Barrett, 2013, p.12).

But the question seems still unsolved. What, after all, make these social factors happen? I would start with every individual in those groups, which drives me to think about the difference between human beings and other primate relatives or animals. While Dubreuil points out such distinction can be explained by human’s cognitive commitment that brings together interest of wider good, this argument is later challenged by the social brain hypothesis which, in an anatomical way, argues that the increase of social complexity would drive the brain development (Barrett, 2013, p.9-10). While there is no absolute judgement, we can still see the mutual interaction between brain and social factors. Simultaneously, this could lead us to think about human brain, mind and consciousness. The other concept Barrett mentions is human consciousness rest upon recognition of the other (Barrett, 2013, p.11). For me this concept is more philosophical where Hegel mentioned a lot in his master and slave dialectic about how one manages to fight for the recognition to become a human being and thus gain self-consciousness (Kojeve, 1969, p.63). But if we consider in a more anatomical, or biological way, the Darwinian narrative which tends to attribute those intelligence behaviors of human beings in a genetic way where natural selection enables those who are more adaptive to pass their gene to the next generation (Barrett, 2013, p.8). Barrett partly agrees with this viewpoint whilst he is suspect of the reduction where every behavior of the organism is solely and fully determined by its genetic inheritance (p.8). Rather, he brings the importance of individual’s disclosure of the sense of the world. Culture as both an input into our information processing channel and an output seems to be important here.

In Donald’s article, he points out that the cognitive development of human beings depends upon their links with culture, cultural network harness the cognitive resources of many individuals (Donald, 2007, p.219-220). Renfrew organizes Donald’s theory into three transitions within four phases (i.e. Episode culture, Mimetic culture, Linguistic or mythic culture, theoretic culture) and slightly challenges his viewpoint by adding material world as an important factor through the evolution where he adds External Symbolic Storage between linguistic culture and theoretic culture (to be sure, he clears that the phases are not simply sequential) (Renfrew, 1999, p.2-4). Here we can see how a great match comes here if we look back on Wong’s list of 5 hypothesis: the first hypothesis, i.e. the Symbolism, indicates that the invention of external storage of information (including jewelry, art, language and tools), was the watershed event in modern behavioral evolution (Wong, 2005, p.94).

The other interesting point about the evolution is the linguistic culture where word, language has been considered a crucial point to distinct human beings with other species. Tools (including language), according to Cole, are in turn reacting on the development on human psychological processes (Cole, 1996, p.108). The conceptual tools serve as a mediation which allows human beings, unlike animals, to imagine objects they might not directly perceiving, which, therefore, indicates that human beings are able to live in a two-dimensional world while there is only one-dimension for other animals (Cole, 1996, p.120). Besides, words also break the barrier exists in the oral culture where memory are hard to fully stored due to biological limitation. While culture mediation implies a mode of development change in which the activities of prior generations are cumulated in the present as the specifically human part of the environment, a complete storage counts a lot for culture mediation (Cole, 1996, p.145). This reminds me of the most efficient storage tool today: the computer. Or to be sure, the best collaboration: a computer (as a server) and the internet, which in other word, is the cloud storage today. With the help of computer and internet, one can retrieve the data, or the information dating back to 10,000 years ago just in a second. Further, it’s much faster as well as being able to save a lot of human resources than the words on non-electrical devices. In a case that leads to the treaty of the Right to be Forgotten in EU, there was a Spanish lawyer who request his embarrassing record to be deleted so that people won’t find this information quickly on search engine, the court finally require the search engine to delete the relevant data, however, the newspaper 10 years ago which also contain the embarrassing record were not asked to make any action eventually (Posner, n.d.). The reason seems obvious: No one would border to jump into the heaps of old papers to find the information 10 years ago. Therefore, it might not be a bad idea to see the combination of computer and internet as a great fuel of culture mediation today.

There is still, obviously some discussion about the exploration of brain and mind which Barrett mentions with bringing two propositions. Another spotlight here is the discussion about the modularity of the brain which resembles our concept today of computers. One thing that is thought-provoking is that the modularity indicates a brain-plus facility where there the modules of the brain are domain-specific (Barrett, 2013, p.3). These might also lead us to further think of AI nowadays. While most computers are still automatic, an autonomous AI’s development, might need to refer to this concept as well.

  1. Barret, J. C. (2013). The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think. Cambridge Archaeological. 23(01).
  2. Cole, M. (1996). On Cognitive Artifacts. Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Donald, M. (2007). Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Amsterdam: Rodophi.
  4. Kojeve, A. (1969). Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology.
  5. Renfrew, C. (1999). Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage. Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage. Cambridge. UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  6. Posner, E. (n.d.). We all have the Right to be Forgotten. Retrieved from
  7. Wong, K. (2005, June). The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture. United States: Scientific American.


How does human cognition form?

Reading in this week are concerned about how human cognition form from interdisciplinary fields including archaeology, phycology, neurobiology, and media study. What interests me most is human cognitive abilities and the role of material culture. Beyond any doubt, these two things are closely related to each other, but the point is how they intervene and develop our modern mind.

Every Chinese student is required to learn Marxist philosophy, as an essential part of politics. On the one hand, we were taught that materials are the foundation of everything and it plays the decisive role in human awareness. Marx separates human society into five periods, primitive society, slavery society, feudal society, capitalist society, socialist society, and communist society according to the relationship between productive forces and productive relations. Without the certain material environment, it is hard for the human to develop advanced cognition or concepts. For instance, it is beyond imagination to request ancient people to have systematic theories on modern democracy or laws. But there does exit some exceptions. For example, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu do not belong to today’ era, but their theories still inspire the public and play a leading role in constitutions of a lot of countries.

Consciousness, on the other hand, is the function of people’s brain at first and the reflection of material culture. It depends on the capabilities of brain mechanisms, so the evolutionary theories of comparing apes’ mind and modern humans make sense in a way. But more importantly, it is built upon material culture. Without the entity of computer, the concept “computer” will never be created. There is a thing at first, and then people extract specific or abstract concepts from it and build an entire system of knowledge. Hence, here comes the next function of consciousness. Although it comes from material lives, it can be the synthesis and abstraction of materials instead of merely direct depiction. Languages, for instance, contain a large number of metaphysical words that not directly related to a physical thing. Like a hierarchy, these words or concepts are developed from lower layers of concepts. The more abstract it is, the closer it is to the top of the hierarchy. Mathematics, as professor Irvine stated in the last class, also comes from the extraction and generalization from material culture. Human’s brains are good at find laws in nature and daily lives and make the best use of them.
There is an interesting argument in ancient China, around B.C. 320 to B.C. 250, to illustrate the relationship between concepts and materials, called “a white horse is not a horse.” It said that horse was abstracted from the shape of the animal while white horse emphasized the color of it. These two concepts shared different rules of regulation. Horses can include different kinds of horses without conditions while white horses have a limitation of color, so horses and white horses are not equivalent.

Obviously, everyone may regard this argument as hilarious sophistry, but the idea drawn from it is valuable. Before people noticed the animal horses, the concept “horse” did not exist. After the general “horse” emerged, a subset of horse which was “white horse” was founded as well. These increasingly complicated and abstract concepts shed light on people’s improving abilities to understand the world. Moreover, we can easily see that these concepts have their corresponding emphasis to illustrate the complexity of material culture. The process including creation, classification, and distribution is the very procedure to found a complete knowledge system.

All the artificial outcomes, concepts and language, stated above are meaning symbols acting as mediated agencies to assist us to have a better command of material culture and find our positions in nature.


John C.Barrett (2013), The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think, Cambridge Archaeological Journal

Colin Renfrew (1998), Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage, Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage