'the hand was not only the tool of labour, but also its product' (Engels, 1925: 445).


Resources for understanding how we came into being

As far as we know, we are the only talking, self-conscious organisms on this planet, and in this solar system. Beyond these places: well, no-one knows?

We are flesh-and-blood organisms with an evolutionary history, but we are no longer 'mere' organisms. How are we to make sense of this?

Our aim here is to marshall resources that will contribute to the resolution of this question.

A way forward?

Consider the following 2 points:

First, Vygotsky's position on the notion of 'mental' evolution, as summarized by van der Veer and Valsiner (1991: 193):
In general Vygotsky had ... no problem with the idea that the evolution of [hu]man[s] from animals was a continuous process. But he did not accept that this was the whole story. ... Vygotsky claimed that there were fundamental differences between animals and human beings, differences that originated with the onset of human culture. Whereas animals are almost fully dependent on the inheritance of genetically based traits, human beings can transmit and master the products culture. Mastering the knowledge and wisdom embodied in human culture, they can make a decisive step towards emancipation from nature. The specifically human traits, then, are acquired in mastering culture through ... social interaction with others.

Second, the evidence concerning the evolution of modern human beings points to a decoupling of form and 'behaviour'. Anatomically-modern human remains are known back to about 100,000 years ago, but remains of this age are associated with artifacts and other 'cultural' products that are no different from those used earlier by more archaic forms. Evidence for cultural forms that can be recognised as typically-modern is largely lacking until around 40,000 years ago at a minimum. Thus, there is a temporal disjunction of around 60,000 years between the appearance of modern forms and their creation of modern 'behaviours'.

Could it be, then, that 'human nature' as we know and experience it was constructed out of the resources of changing patterns of social interaction? Could it be that, to paraphrase Harré and Gillet (1994: 22), the subject matter of human evolutionary studies has to take account of discourses, significations, subjectivities, and positionings, for it is in these that 'human nature' actually exists.'?

Some of us gathered here think this might be the case. Others of us approach the issue differently, and ask how our brains might have evolved the substrate that enables us to speak, for example. And others are more focused on how the evidential base that underlies any interpretations can best be made accessible.


Peter Brown
Australian Palaeoanthropology
Bill Calvin
Books and Articles
Iain Davidson
Human Evolution, Language and Mind
Jim Foley
The Fossil Evidence
Matt Fraser
The Evolution of Language List
Andy Lock
Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution
Bill Noble
Human Evolution, Language and Mind
Sherman Wilcox
Evolution of Communication


Robert Bucknell
Introduction to Language
Sentences and Grammar
Tom Creed
Principles of Learning and Behavior
Mike Hoffman
Human Evolution
Biological Anthropology
Skip Kendrick
Learning Theories
Elizabeth Johnson
Investigating Minds
Bob Kentridge
Comparative Psychology
Andy Lock
Human Nature, Learning and Mind
Randy Skelton
Introduction to Anthropology
Introduction to Physical Anthropology
Human Evolution

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Department of Psychology, Massey University , New Zealand
last changed Monday, 20 July, 1998