Part 3: Ontogeny and Symbolism


The role of ontogenesis in human evolution and development

Chris Sinha


Darwin's theory of evolution caused a revolutionary change in the concept of time. Evolution did not merely extend history backwards, it brought into being an entirely different order of time, in which different time-scales (durées) co-existed. Understanding the relations between time-scales phylogenetic, ontogenetic, historical was a major preoccupation of both biologists and psychologists. The best-known theory of this type was and is Haeckel's 'biogenetic law' of recapitulation. The metaphor of 'layers' of time which, because of its association with palaeontology, is christened the 'palaeomorphic metaphor' was central to the work even of those who, like the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky, rejected recapitulationism. Vygotsky's genetic psychology assumed the 'geological' stratification of 'lower' and 'higher' mental functions, corresponding respectively to biological and socio-cultural stages of evolution.

The mechanism proposed by Vygotsky for the development of 'higher' mental functions in the individual was internalization. However, this concept suffers from a logical problem, since it seeks to explain psychological processes in terms which presuppose those very processes. Vygotsky also emphasized the importance of tool-use in both the ontogeny and phylogeny of higher mental processes, drawing an analogy between tool-use and the use of conventional signs, including language. Again, however, this analogy is of limited usefulness, since neither tool-use nor cultural transmission is unique to humans.

An alternative account suggests rather that certain biological features of human infancy were selected, during the stages of human evolution post-dating the invention of tools, for their facilitative value in the process of what Vygotsky's colleague Leontiev called 'appropriation'. Infancy is then seen as a specific niche in which adaptive parameters are set by processes of individual appropriation, in the first instance, of canonical (socially standard) rules governing the use of tools and other artefacts. On this account, the biology of human infancy is a product of the co-evolution of culture and biology. Recent studies of infant cognition and social behaviour lend support to such an account. Infancy, on this account, played a crucial role in the 'socialization' of human biology.


The ontogeny and evolution of the brain, cognition, and language

Kathleen Gibson


Brain maturation data provide no factual support for the common view that the human brain is a neotenous organ. Nor can the human brain be considered unusually altricial at birth. Limited recapitulation, however, does characterize human neural maturation. Specifically, the neocortical association areas are late to mature and have demonstrated the greatest phylogenetic expansion. This parallel provides a basis for attempts to unravel the evolution of language phylogeny by examining its ontogeny. In particular, the enlargement of the neocortical association areas has most probably provided the quantitatively based, hierarchical mental constructional skills which Case suggests underlie the maturation of human intelligence and which appear to distinguish human and ape tool-using and communication behaviours. These considerations suggest that Case's quantitative developmental framework provides a logical base for theories of language evolution. In Case's framework, the development of intelligence is not only quantitative and hierarchical in nature, it is also interactive. Object-manipulation skills, social behaviour, and language mature in a synchronous and mutually facilitatory fashion. This implies that not only brain size, but also cultural remains such as tools, shelters, or evidence of feeding techniques can provide important clues to the evolution of language. On the basis of these considerations, language, like tool-use and brain size, is postulated to have evolved slowly over several million years. With each cognitive and linguistic advance, new foraging and social interactive skills would have arisen. It is suggested that, as in ontogeny, language evolution began in mother-child dyads with the communication of simple needs and desires by one- to two-'word' utterances. As grammatical skills increased, hominids became capable of discussing co-operative endeavours and/or absent 'rendezvous' or other sites. At still later stages, linguistic skills permitted the discussion of animal and plant ecology and, finally, the prediction of seasonal events.


Early interaction and cognitive skills: implications for the acquisition of culture

David Messer and Glyn Collis


The precise origin of infants' social powers is the subject of conflicting views. However, there is general agreement that infants are attracted to the physical and behavioural characteristics of people, and that such capacities are likely to be the product of evolutionary processes. In these terms infants appear to have a basic social disposition which is part of our evolutionary heritage. However, this social disposition does not appear to extend to the way that infants are able to contribute to the structure of social activities in which they engage. As illustrated by studies of gaze and vocalization, infants are not full partners in the interactive process; rather interaction is structured by Western adults to appear as a co-ordinated interpersonal process.

We adopt the view that social interaction between young infants and primary care-givers provides the basis for the formation of relationships, particularly attachments. There may be considerable variability in the way these relationships are formed, given the diversity of child-rearing patterns across different cultures; but it seems likely that all relationships involve infants having quite sophisticated representations of their care-givers. As infants become older the continuing social interaction with their care-givers increases infants' social skills, so that communication with other members of the culture becomes more efficient and effective.

Social interaction with care-givers makes available, in addition, various forms of information which can be utilized to assist cognitive development. Adult behaviour provides a model for infant activities, and by the end of the first year infants are capable of imitating a range of activities. Social interaction also contains a variety of forms of information which co-ordinate the interests of infants and adults. Such procedures effectively highlight culturally appropriate objects and events, thereby promoting a shared understanding between adult and child. Cross-cultural studies have done much to call into question the idea that certain forms of social interaction common in Western societies provide an essential basis for language acquisition; and it is usually assumed that social interaction does not have a direct relevance to the acquisition of syntactic abilities. However, cross-cultural studies also strongly point to the way that the pattern of early social interaction is influenced by the characteristics of a culture. As a result infants, before they speak, are able to tune in to the values, procedures, and assumptions that are present in their culture. Furthermore, one should not forget that for older children social interaction increases the power of interpersonal activities to promote cognitive skills. Two important procedures that occur in such circumstances are the way that discussion can promote cognitive change, and the way that effective communication with adults appears to facilitate general cognitive development.

In this chapter we argue that participation in social interaction provides a basis for relationships with care-givers; these relationships in turn facilitate the acquisition of social skills necessary for interaction, and help to develop a culturally based perception in infants of salient aspects of their environment. It is in such social circumstances that symbols and language are employed; and this provides a crucial step towards children becoming full members of their culture. This is because the use of symbols and language provides the means for children to move beyond their first relationships to communicate about complex issues with members of their culture who are less familiar to them.


The origins of language and thought in early childhood

George Butterworth


The classical theories of the relation between language and thought in developmental psychology are those of Piaget and Vygotsky. Piaget's claim is that language depends on thought for its development, and is based on four sources of evidence: the period of infancy, in which fundamental principles of thought are exhibited well before language; the simultaneous emergence of language, deferred imitation, symbolic play, evocative memory, and mental imagery, suggesting language is but one outcome of more fundamental changes in cognitive abilities; the lack of effect of language upon reasoning abilities in middle childhood; and the nature of speech in early childhood, the claim being that the communicative function of speech results from cognitive developments. By contrast Vygotsky, while seeing thought and language as initially separate systems, considers the two merge at around two years of age, producing verbal thought. Mental operations are regarded as embodied in the structure of language, and hence cognitive development results from an internalization of language.

Current research on infancy has elucidated the perceptual and social sophistication of the neonate, and points to developments occurring from this base during the course of adult-infant social interchanges. Preverbal gestural communication is established between six and nine months, and by twelve months is under intentional control. The shift to referential communication is again mediated by social interaction, particularly the development of routines to bring about the joint attention of adult and infant upon the same object especially the production and mutual comprehension of manual pointing. In addition, underlying changes in the infant's abilities to relate 'parts' to 'wholes' and to construct relations between means and ends appear to inform the elaboration of the simultaneously emerging cognitive abilities noted by Piaget. This suggests that the entire symbolic function is a separate cognitive domain to which wider cognitive abilities may be applied.

For older children the influence of language on thought has proved difficult to investigate conclusively. Evidence for the Whorfian hypothesis is scarce, and is incomplete for the claim that language plays a major role in the developing self-regulation of the child's behaviour.

Previously, this material has been used somewhat uncritically to inform phylogenetic speculation on the role of language in the evolution of human cognitive abilities. Recapitulatory theories of 'terminal addition' have overlooked the possibility that behavioural development may not occur in stages, and that such stages may not be additive; 'neotenous' theories do not deal satisfactorily with how a rearrangement of the timing of abilities can lead to 'qualitative' changes in 'behavioural capacities'. Recent work explains parallels in ontogeny and phylogeny by appeal to common constraints on information-processing that reflect the demands of changing levels of the structure of knowledge as it interacts with more basic perceptual competencies [Eds].


Theories of symbolization and development

Chris Sinha


An interdisciplinary approach to human symbolic evolution draws upon psychological, semiotic, and social theory, as well as upon evolutionary biology. This chapter provides a historical and theoretical overview of main trends in the theory of signs, and examines the fusion of semiotic, psychological, and biological themes in the classic works of genetic psychology.

Contemporary semiotic theory, as well as some key issues in the philosophy of language, have their origins in the work of three major figures at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Charles Sanders Peirce attempted to found a general theory of knowledge upon his analysis of the nature and function of signs in cognition and communication; he introduced the term 'semiotics', and can also be considered as the founder of pragmatics. The logician Gottlob Frege introduced the distinction between sense and reference which was one of the major foundations of analytic philosophy. Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics, analysed language as a system of 'signifying differences', in which the value of an element is dependent upon its relations with other elements.

More recently, analyses of language as a communicative vehicle as pragmatic instrument, that is have been coupled with criticisms of the way in which traditional linguistic theory treats language as an abstract object independently of use and of context. The theoretical contributions of Mead, Bakhtin, and Barthes provide important insights into the role of language in the creation and maintenance of social life.

Freud, Piaget, and Vygotsky the three principal figures in the foundation of 'genetic psychology' were all concerned, in elaborating their theories, to understand processes which can be conceived at one and the same time as semiotic, cognitive, and biological. These three psychologists employed concepts from Darwinian (and, in the cases of Freud and Piaget, Lamarckian) evolutionary theory to fashion their observations of child development (and, in the case of Freud, of clinical symptoms) into integrated theories in which human nature, culture and society, and semiotic and cognitive processes are treated as evolutionary and developmental phenomena.


Children's drawings and the evolution of art

J. Gavin Bremner


Early psychological studies of children's art aimed to gain access to children's cognitive development through investigating the way their drawings developed, the assumption being that peculiarities or shortcomings in their drawings reflected immature cognition. Recent work on children's drawing has cast doubt on this assumption for two main reasons. Firstly, children's drawings are unlikely to be a direct reflection of how they understand reality; production problems are bound to intervene, ranging from simple motor-skill limitations, to relatively high-level graphic planning problems. For this reason, recent work has studied drawing as a specific skill rather than as a phenomenon reflecting general principles of cognitive development. Secondly, implicit in much early work was the view that children's drawing was simply a poorly developed version of the adult form. Recent work, however, suggests that children have different aims when they draw. At the extreme, there is the suggestion that early drawing is aesthetic rather than representational, and that its gradual development towards representational art arises because adults push children in that direction. And even in theories that view children's art as representational, there is growing recognition that children aim to represent different things, for instance how objects are arranged relative to each other rather than how they appear from a single viewpoint.

A number of early workers held the view that parallels could be drawn between the development of child art and the evolution of art through historical time. This is currently a controversial view, however. On the one hand Gablik (1976) claims that there are clear parallels between the developmental sequence seen in children's cognitive development and the sequence seen in the evolution of art, and goes on to argue that the historical development of art was a direct function of cognitive evolution. On the other hand, Gombrich (1960) dismisses such a connection, claiming that in art-history there is no discernible developmental sequence from primitive to sophisticated art, and suggests instead that changes in artistic style arise as the intentions of the artist change to suit the culture within which s/he is working.

Current accounts of the development of children's art have something to contribute to this controversy. Firstly, the view that children's drawings are not a direct reflection of their general cognitive level should lead us to ask whether Gablik is safe in drawing a parallel between cognitive evolution and art-history. If there was a clear link of this sort would we not also expect to see it in ontogeny? There is more in the developmental literature in support of Gombrich, since many of the phenomena and developmental changes appear to relate more to the child's intentions than to limitations in his or her cognitive structures. However, most developmentalists would see Gombrich's account as too extreme in dismissing any developmental aspect in the history of art. Although changes in style may relate to changes in the artist's intentions, Gombrich recognizes that these intentions relate to the demands of the culture in which the artist lives. There are strong arguments to support the hypothesis that cultural evolution is closely tied to cognitive evolution of the individuals within it. Assuming that this is true, there may still be an important sense in which the evolution of art occurs on a developmental sequence, not because it reflects directly the developing cognitions of the artist, but because it reflects an adaptation to the developing demands of cultures that are evolving new ways of thinking about the world.

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