Draft chapter prepared for
S. Lea and M. Corballis (Eds) Evolution of the Hominid Mind.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
First draft: February 1997
Department of Psychology
Typically modern human practices are indexed in the archaeological record from about
40,000 years ago (see below). A number of writers have argued that these practices would
not have been possible without the existence of a complex form of linguistic
communication (e.g., Davidson and Noble, 1989; Mellars, 1989; Noble and Davidson,
1996). But, do the origins of language pre-date, coincide with, or post-date the transition
to these practices? The literature provides hypotheses of all shades.
For example, given the evidence for complex artifacts and cultural traditions, 'the first
traces of language could have appeared as early as Australopithecus africanus. ... It is
easy to imagine some form of language contributing to [the success of Homo erectus]'
(Pinker, 1994: 352-3) (see also Holloway, 1969, and Tobias, 1987, 1991, who argue for
an early emergence of language, not with australopithecines, but perhaps with Homo
habilis). Somewhat more conservatively in a temporal sense, Bickerton draws a
distinction between protolanguage and language, and argues that 'protolanguage did not
develop until erectus emerged. This would give protolanguage a time depth of around a
million and a half years' (1990: 141). 'Real' language arose more recently, with modern
humans, giving it a time-depth of at least 100,000 years. This is in agreement with
Lieberman (1991: 172), who is confident that
we can date language as we know it back to at least ... 100 000 years ago at the edge of Africa and Asia.
sometime between about 100,000 and 70,000 years before the present the behaviour emerged which has become identified as linguistic.
By contrast, Halverson notes that 'the fact is, we do not know whether the Cro-Magnons
[at 35,000 bp] even had a fully developed, grammaticized language' (1993: 762).
Certainly, we do not know. The earliest incontrovertible evidence that humans could speak
is not much more than 100 years old (e.g., Edison's recordings). However, prior to that,
there is a history of written records dating back to 3,500 years bp. These early forms of
writing do not code speech, but very few theorists have argued that language began in the
written medium, and only later became vocal. Thus we may assume that speaking was
done. On the assumption that these forms of writing derive from earlier notational
systems, then a continuous convincing narrative history of contemporary written symbols
can be traced back to c.9 000 years bp. 'Written' symbolism has an earliest date of
perhaps c.18,000 bp. The practice of inscribing artifacts goes back earlier, and personal
ornamentation is evidenced around 35,000 years bp, as is representational 'art' See footnote 1. Is this
evidence for language at this time? How might we decide?
The essential argument of this chapter is that modern human languages were established
after the emergence of the biological species. The biology that supports these languages
was thus evolved in the absence of such languages, and was co-opted to support present
abilities as a result of quasi-historical changes in human social and technological practices
through a long process of 'bootstrapping'. This is, then, a socially driven account. The
central claim is that social structures put varying 'pressures' on the communication
systems that sustain them, through the different levels of presuppositionality each society's
members share with each other. With low social differentiation and interchangeable roles,
people communicate with each other against a background of a shared or common
orientation, in a context of interpersonal relations founded on common perceptions, values,
interpretive competence and so on. As social structure differentiates, presuppositionality
decreases, so that to sustain and reproduce itself, the communicative practices within that
society must develop ways of creating common contexts within the medium of
communication itself. The contexts which make interpersonal communication possible have
to be lifted out of the everyday milieu and created within the symbolic system of the
lingua franca. Essentially, contexts will be 'pressured' into symbolic codes, and become
conceptualized as objects of knowledge rather than remaining solely as implicit processes
which sustain knowledge. In the process of this translation from context to code,
'grammar' is seen as emerging from the co-option of hierarchical ordering abilities that
were already pregnant within the human 'mental apparatus'. Grammar functions to
'freeze' the implications of otherwise immediate contexts into explicit forms that keep
track of and instantiate these implications into a symbolic tool kit that mediates our
relation with the world we live in. The evidence broadly supports a view of
communicative symbol systems as the providers of 'cognitive technologies' or 'tool-kits'
that variously afford analytic, context-independent thought. This is not to claim that
language determines thought, but that particular symbol systems can make some universal
mental operations more or less difficult to carry out.
'The internalization of cultural forms of behavior involves the reconstruction of psychological activity on the basis of sign operations. ... The internalization of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology. As yet, the barest outline of this process is known' (Vygotsky, 1978: 57).
I begin by outlining the main points of this chapter. The present evidence for human
evolution indicates that the 'biology' required to support modern behaviours was present
well before those behaviours were forthcoming. Amongst those behaviours I include the
activity of speaking that constitutes what is presently reified as 'language'. Thus, when we
ask questions about 'the evolution of language', we can jetison a lot of the conceptual
'baggage' we have accumulated from earlier theorising. Much of this baggage is
constructed around the notion of language having an innate basis; that there is some
'module' in the human brain that is specifically given and evolved to support 'grammar';
and that to have attained this status, there must have been languages in people's
environments that provided selection pressures to establish the precise form of this internal
'machinery'. But, in line with the current evidence, it would appear that whatever
hardware we bring to support current-day tasks was put in place way earlier than the
behaviours they now support were elaborated.
An example is suggested by the practices of reading and writing. The claim here is that all
of the 'biological machinery' that evolution had to construct to enable people to write was
in place 100,000 years ago. However, reading and writing were not done until about
95,000 years later. In technical terms, writing systems are extrasomatic achievements.
While, in the process of 'learning' to read and write, it is quite likely that the structural
and functional characteristics of our simultaneously developing and maturing brains are
modified from the final patterns they might have ended with in the absence of this
exrasomatic environment, these changes are not directly related to any changes in the
phenotypic information that evolutionary processes are typically conceived to operate on.
In this way, evolutionary questions with respect to modern behaviours such as speaking a
language are shifted to the extrasomatic domain. The biology was there. The question is:
how were linguistic systems put together by the possessors of this biology?
My emphasis on the extrasomatic domain needs some clarification. I am not looking to
present analogical arguments that cultures 'evolve' or the like. Rather, it is quite clear that
evolution is a far more complex process than the Modern Synthesis position of neo-Darwinism has made out. That view was exceptionally 'individualistic' in locating the site
of evolution as the individual animal (or even individual gene). It is characterized by a
rigid separation of organisms from their environments. But, evolution is not just based in
the differential culling of variations between individuals by autonomous and 'natural'
selection forces emanating from a fixed environment. Environments evolve along with the
organisms that inhabit them. And as environments evolve, they can be 'used' by the
evolutionary process itself, to allow biological structures to be put to new functions.
The point here can be illustrated as follows. Biological materials run on energy, and there
are thus 'costs' involved in building and running them, since that energy has to be
'captured'. These costs are different for different sorts of organs, with brains being the
most costly to run of all (see Hofman, 1983). From this perspective it would make sense
to have the smallest brain possible. So, why build a brain to do certain things at a high
cost if it is possible to build less costly ways of doing those things? Some organisms can
be seen to have followed this strategy. For example, consider the process of imprinting in
ducks. Part of the exercise is to specify what a duck will attempt to mate with when it
becomes sexually mature. This could be accomplished by building into the brain a very
precise set of instructions that enable it to recognise other ducks of its own species. For
mallards, at least, this route hasn't been taken. The instructions they have specify size and
movement parameters only, and these instructions are operative for only a very short
critical period in the duck's development. How come? Because the nature of the duck's
environment at that critical period is so highly predictable that, until ethologists came
along, the odds of anything meeting the size and movement parameters being anything
other than a duck of one's own species were astronomical. When an environment has such
characteristics, the information that is needed to be catered for by biological investment of
energy into brain tissue devoted to a task can be cut to a minimum, and the energy saved
can be used for something else, or dispensed with. And a duck that has lower energy
requirements will be at an advantage over other ducks when the going gets tough. Or, if it
is using that portion of its brain to do some other task that helps in its survival, then it has
a better chance again.
Such an expanded view both legitimates and makes orthodox our approaching human
evolution in terms of an extrasomatic emphasis, since there are good grounds for assuming
that this is a viable way for an evolutionary process to do things. In the present context, if
we 'dump' the so-called information required to sustain language 'out of the brain', we do
not need to account for how a 'language module' evolved, which in an evolutionary
framework is difficult, since a discontinuity view is implied (cf. Chomsky, 1968: 60).
Rather, we can look to processes of co-option or exaptation (Gould, 1991). Hence, if we
now, as adults, have such a module, then it could be seen as developing as a result of the
interaction between phenotypic information and extrasomatic information. Biological
processes are co-opted by environmentally-conserved information to support new ends and
outcomes. What I will be arguing is that, for the elaboration of human languages and
linguistically-mediated behaviour, we are becoming aware of how these extrasomatic
factors have their influence. They work by changing the structuring of the attention of
those who grow up within them, and thereby enter into determining the phenotypic
outcome of the developmental process. They do this in at least two ways.
First, the content of what it is we experience and look at is conserved outside of
ourselves, and where it is most structured, or 'cognitively imbued', is where people have
acted most on the world, and continue to co-ordinate their actions in their most
elaborately-nuanced everyday ways. The results of fleeting thoughts are given a concrete
and durable expression that is embodied and accumulated in these sites, thus making a
person's world a very different one to interact with than environments of only 100 years
ago. Perceptual input is more articulated and richer: it contains more readily observable
and distinguishable 'things' (see Figure 1) and the intentionally-imbued relations between
these 'things' See footnote 2.
Second, there is emerging evidence that different social structures facilitate the
development of different mental ways of dealing with the world (see Lock and Symes,
1996, for a review). How we attend to what we see is mediated in our developing years (a
period when 60% of brain development occurs) by the actions of others. And part of our
development is taking over these patterns of attending into our own conduct As what we
'see' becomes increasingly symbolic, so our patterns of 'thinking' get differently founded.
This point is implicit in the central planks of Vygotsky's developmental account, that:
Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between individuals (1978: 57).
In both cases, structuring principles and information for developmental processes are being
conserved extrasomatically, and hence providing new substrates for the developmental
experiences of later generations. Hence patterns of social interaction change, enabling new
information to be provided, and new ways for attention to be structured by its immersion
in a world structured by social interaction and its products. It is, therefore, in changing
patterns of social interaction that an explanation for our ability to have elaborated pre-existing communicative abilities into linguistic, symbolically mediated and constituted ones
needs to be sought. Emerging brains of an already modern sort handle these culturally-conserved sources of structuring information as best they can, by the use of pre-existing
potentials rather than the deployment of already-given, task-specific modules. Those
language-related modules, when (or if) they exist, are most likely the result of
development under particular conditions of environmental input: they are not inevitable, in
the way that modules for recognizing faces, say, are likely to be.
A central question in my exploration is asking how what Vygotsky has called the 'zone of
proximal development' can be generated sui generis, in the absence of more enculturated
others. A lot of developmental processes have come to be seen as creative ones. For
example, from a Piagetian perspective we conceive of the child as an active problem-solver; and from a Chomskyean perspective we see the child as creatively elaborating
language. But in each case there is a model, something there to be 'mastered', an agreed
end-point. The Vygotskyean perspective has been read as one of 'apprenticeship' or
'implicit tutoring': through the actions of someone who has already mastered the end
point, the child is assisted in getting there. Development is 'scaffolded' by its
embeddedness within social interaction that points to a 'known' outcome. But when we
turn to evolution, we have the problem of the outcomes not being already-there. The
development of the ability to count, for example, can be seen to be scaffolded by those
who can already count: but what enables counting to be constructed when no-one can
count? Fortunately, we have some clues as to how to refine and pursue this question.
1. Implicit properties
Popper (1972) has pointed out very clearly how particular symbol systems contain their
future elaboration. He points to the number system as one example. After a fashion, many
4 year olds can count from 1 to 10. But, they do so in complete ignorance of the
properties of the numbers they are using. Among those properties are the distinction
between odd and even numbers; the nature of prime numbers; and the nature of perfect
numbers, for example. Hence, there is built into the system a whole new order of
distinctions which could be made explicit. Making these things explicit is not necessarily
easy. First, the way in which numbers come to be represented or symbolised can affect
the likelihood of these implicit properties being 'discovered'. Basic mathematical
operations such as addition, subtraction, division and multiplication are made more or less
easy depending on how the number system is 'notated': the Arabic system is better suited
to this than the Roman one; and an abacus is better still.
Second, similar views have been put forward for alphabetic literacy. Writing functions to
abstract the events it deals with from their ongoing context, and so helps foster abstract
thinking is one such view (e.g., Goody, 1968). But the empirical evidence suggests that
coming to exploit this possibility of writing, to use the written medium as a way of
inspecting different accounts for their logical consistency, for example, is not a guaranteed
outcome of being able to read and write. Rather, the social practices that writing is used
for differentially predispose readers and writers to discover or not the possibilities made
available by the system they have (e.g., Scribner and Cole, 1981). And the nature of the
system of representing language - logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, for example - may
similarly compound this 'discovery' as more or less easy or difficult, in the same way as
different systems of mathematical notation do (although the empirical evidence to warrant
this claim has been very difficult to establish).
Third, environments can be changed by the actions of organisms so as to bring into being
entirely new objects that were never intended nor would have existed otherwise. Popper
(op. cit) uses the creation of a path through vegetation as an example of this. Paths come
into existence through animals initially moving along the lines of least resistance, which
are determined jointly by the contours of the terrain with its vegetation and the
predispositions of the animals that move across that terrain.
It is not planned - it is an unintended consequence of the need for easy or swift movement. This is how a path is originally made - perhaps even by men - and how language and any other institutions which are useful may arise .... In this way, a whole new universe of possibilities or potentialities may arise... (Popper, op. cit: 119).
The issue here thus becomes clearer. Can we find ways in which social practices can act
to create the analogues of 'paths' in human perception, such that those paths not only
establish new possibilities and potentialities for a physiological system (the brain) to use,
but simultaneously provide the 'notational' system that eases the 'discovery' of those
things that are implicit in them? If we can, then we have delineated the self-constituted
'zone of proximal development' that can bootstrap the elaboration of those symbolic
cognitive technologies that it is our task to elucidate in accounting for the 'evolution' of
2. Developmental clues
Another set of these clues come from the study of language development by present-day
human infants. To see such information as helpful here is not to imply a crass falling in
with recapitulationist views (see for example, Lock and Peters, 1996). I just want to draw
a simple point: that development is an interactive process. What and how an infant learns
occurs in close contact with other human beings. And the actions of these others
contribute a massive structuring to the world as-attended-to by the infant. Vygotsky has
captured one facet of this structuring process in his conceptualization of the 'zone of
proximal development'. Intrinsic to these actions are the 'signs' (words) available for
linguistically-mediated behaviour. Within the broad Vygotskyean perspective can be found
the seeds of a theorization of the relation between the 'signs' used in interpersonal
communication and the character of the social relations within the group who use those
signs. Vygotsky's contemporary, Volosinov, puts it thus
Every sign, as we know, is a construct between socially organized persons in the process of their interaction. Therefore, the forms of signs are conditioned above all by the social organization of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interaction. .... This is the order that the actual generative process of language follows: social intercourse is generated ...; in it verbal communication and interaction are generated; and in the latter, forms of speech performances are generated; finally, this generative process is reflected in the change of language forms. (Volosinov, 1973: 21, 37).
3. Comparative clues
A third set of clues comes from work endeavouring to establish the language capabilities
of apes (see, for a review, Ristau, 1996). There has been a tendency for this work to be
seen as establishing the limits of ape abilities. In this way, such work can highlight
particular abilities that human individuals must possess that enable them, as a species, to
have transcended the limitations apparent in apes. The dominant cognitive paradigm of
contemporary Western psychology tends to favour casting these differences within a model
of 'internal representations' and the bits of 'kit' by which these representations are
handled: things like our perhaps having a larger capacity in our 'working memory'
abilities (Russell, in press); having a greater imitative facility (Tomasello et al., 1994) ;
being better at cross-modal transfer of information (Ettlinger and Wilson, 1990); etc.
But this perspective can be reversed, and we can begin to look at what is going on
outside of an organism, and the role these play in 'scaffolding' what our brains provide
the substrate for. When we do this (see Lock and Colombo, 1996: 631-3), then the
inherent power of the extrasomatic structures provided by particular human cultural
practices becomes apparent. That is, certain modern practices, when conducted with apes
as the 'conversational' or 'interactive' partners, can produce psychological alchemy. This
is clear evidence of the power of cultural practice: it enables even a non-human biology to
go way beyond anything that non-human biology has elaborated when left to its own
devices. We get apes with what Premack (e.g., 1980) has called 'upgraded minds'. What
these human cultural practices can do with human biology is evidenced in the study of
language ontogeny. The difference is that the ways in which we upgrade our childrens'
minds have been created by us, ourselves, not handed down to us by some god-like being
in any experimental situation (well, as far as we know).
[The human infant] cannot, even theoretically, live an isolated existence;...he is not an independent individual. He lives a common life as one term in a personal relation. Only in the process of development does he learn to achieve a relative independence, and that only by appropriating the techniques of a rational social tradition. Macmurray (1961:50).
In the majority of studies of language acquisition to date, the focus has been
predominantly on the individual infant as providing the skills that enable language
development to occur. Here I want to redress this by turning to an emphasis on the social
nature of these developments. The line I will be following is one that I have elaborated
elsewhere (e.g., Lock, 1980): that the communicative acts that infants are engaged in have
only an implicit content to begin with, and that, at least in the early stages, development
occurs as these contents are realised explicitly. These 'implications' exist 'in' - although in
a sense they are 'beyond' - the ongoing world in which the infant is jointly situated
interactively with another who is more skilled. What an infant pays attention to and finds
of significance in this world is in large part constructed through the actions of that other.
Development is thus a guided reinvention that is negotiated interactively. Some examples
are useful here.
1. Here is a generalisation with respect to infants I have interactive data on (see Lock et
al, 1991, and in prep): at around 6 months of age the majority of things adults do
in their interactions with infants serve to set up conditions that enable themselves
and their infants to focus their attention on particular things and events in their
immediate perceptual world: for example, by exaggerated surprise at particular
noises and events; by emphasizing objects as 'worth looking at' by 'making them
interesting - by jiggling them up-and-down, pointing at them, putting them in piles,
etc. The 'object of the exercise' appears to be to co-ordinate the attention of both
interactants so that they could sustain a topic as a focus for interaction
2. Once routines are established that enable the infant to 'pay sustained attention', around
12-13 months, then adults shift to attempts to specify what is being attended to
more precisely, and to being able to direct and re-direct the infant's attention more
precisely. They do this by increasing their emphasis on the names of things as well
as their properties, and by asking questions such as 'can you show me the x?',
'where's the y?'; etc. The suggestion is that some aspects of the infant's perceptual
world are being made more perceptually salient as compared to others in this way,
and this can act to provide the conditions whereby implications in the world are
transformed into explicit components of it.
3. Once infants begin to 'take over' language from their caretakers, around 18 months,
then the other shifts to elaborating on the properties and characteristics of the
shared focus of attention, including those beyond the here-and-now, thus accreting
further significance to the objects the child perceives. Some examples of this, taken
from Lock et al. (1989), are concerned with the relationships that can exist
between objects, that is, how objects can be regarded as parts of larger wholes (as
reflected here by just the mother's speech from particular interactional episodes):
* Show it to Teddy.
* Put it on the saucer.
* Put that bug into the bucket.
* Are you going to get the snake to catch this bubble?
Further, this particular mother juggles objects and contexts in a more sophisticated
way than in dealing with pictures in a book, with the result that symbolic play is
* Would you like a cup of tea?
Yes, go on, it's a nice little cup.
You have some. (Child pretends to drink)
Give it to Teddy.
Go on, give Teddy a drink. (Child holds cup to Teddy's lips).
Here she gets the infant not just to put two objects in conjunction within the present perceptual world, but in a way which only makes sense through their relation to something that is not immediately present: the 'tea' is imaginary, and must be brought in from absent contexts to inform present action. It is quite a complicated activity: one object (the cup) is to be related to another (tea), which has to be lifted out of absent contexts (and lifted out of absent objects to be put in this one), and then both the cup and its imaginary contents have to be regarded as a whole and placed in relation to a third, and not just Teddy, but the right part of Teddy - his mouth.
My suggestion is that, by working in the infant's ever-shifting zone of proximal
development, the other is acting to foreground the implicates of the infant's present
abilities and thus acts to bootstrap their explication. At root, these interactions are ones in
which a co-ordination is being attempted between two different Umwelts, and it is the
nature of the attempts at co-ordination which act to bring the Umwelt of the developing
infant more towards a comonality with that of the adult. The view being argued here is
that the implications of the adult's knowledge of the world are constitutive of her Umwelt,
such that she perceives, say, a book as a book, and this in turn implies for her a number
of ways of going forward with the interaction. By contrast, a 6 month infant 'sees' the
same object, but 'perceives' it as something to suck, bang, etc., and not something to
'look at' as a book. In her Umwelt, the same physical object is constituted as a different
perceptual object, with different implications for action, to that which is constituted for
The point I want to draw out here is that the contributing partners to such interactions are
pursuing different projects because they bring different interests and abilities to bear on
their supposedly common 'shared arena' of interaction. The notion of both interactants
being attuned to a common, objective world is not useful here. Rather, the issue is
how the 'objective outside world See footnote 3' in which we observe ourselves and other living things arises out of our subjective (private) universe (our Umwelt), that is to say how the former [the objective] is derived from the latter [the subjective] as an abstraction (T. von Uexkull, 1982:10) See footnote 4.
Similarly, interaction can act to give a 'constitutional workout' to abilities that have
previously been accorded solely an individual, cognitive status. For example, the ability to
analyze constituents into their component parts. This skill has been highlighted as integral
to the early development of symbolic abilities in the work of Bates and her colleagues
(e.g., 1979, 1988). They offer an explanation of the different styles of early language use,
the 'expressive' and 'referential' as noted Nelson (1973), on the basis of a differential
reliance by individual children on either arbitrary or analysed learning skills:
the 'expressive' child tends to employ acquisition through perception of contiguity, imitating and using unanalyzed phrases as means to ends prior to analysis of vehicle-referent relations. The 'referential' child is faster at analysis, so that the use of imitated whole forms is short-lived and infrequent. When he does imitate ... he may do so in parallel with and/or following a rapid breakdown into its components and the relationships into which that form can enter. ... Both arbitrary and analyzed learning are necessary for rapid and efficient acquisition of language. Nevertheless, individuals may vary in the 'relative' use of one process over the other, and in the timing of analysis with imitation (Bates et al., 1979: 361).
The point being argued here is that if one wishes to attribute differential facilities with
imitation vs. analysis to infants, then one should conceive of those skills as, at least
partially, socially constituted and not individually given. These differential abilities are not
based solely in individually-given 'cognitive operations', but are embedded in the
perceptual world of interaction itself. Thus, while from one perspective one might choose,
for some purposes, to conceive of infants as having differential 'amounts' of analytic skills
which they employ 'on the world', it is equally the case that they have come to live in
different socially-constituted perceptual/conceptual worlds, some of which contain more
perceptible 'parts' than others. In sum, it is not that infants develop differently by the
exercise and practice of their individual skills; those skills, and the infants themselves, are
constructed differently via socially-constitutive interaction (see Lock et al, 1989, for
The suggestion with respect to language evolution that I put forward here is that the
initiating communication system used by anatomically modern humans was at least as
complex as that found in current 1-2 year olds and those apes that have been immersed in
'linguistic' programmes (and this is not a new suggestion, see, for example, Bickerton,
1990). However, it is not a straightforward task to take these extant exemplars as
indicative of the functional characteristics of a 'primordial' system. The major reason is
that the modern exemplars function within an already-mature communicative environment.
This adds the complication that there is an effective 'temporal inequality' in place between
the participants of the communicative acts in which this 'primordial system' is
encountered: the human adult participant being the beneficiary of the fully-elaborated
system. What this means in practice is as follows: that the immediately apparent benefits
of possessing a primordial system for its possessor are extended beyond the 'mental
horizon' of the possessor through the partner to the communicative act being able, in
interaction, to explicitly 'point out' what it is the possessor might mean. A concrete
example is useful here in clarification.
At a very general level of analysis, the 'language' abilities of 1-2 year old infants have a
quite limited spatial and temporal extension beyond the infant's immediate 'here-and-now'
projects. I have previously described a 'conversational' tactic used by some mothers of
young infants as 'context hopping' (e.g., 1991: 289). It is this tactic that, I am suggesting,
provides the infant with the resources for exploiting the inherent properties of the 'words'
they are using to go beyond the 'here-and-now'. An example of context hopping that
occured between a mother exploring a picture book with her 18 month son is as follows:
'Oh look...he's got boots on just like Daddy's'
It seems unlikely that the infant, on his own, would bring 'Daddy' to mind at this point without the word being spoken. Similarly, it is unlikely that the infant, unaided, would abstract out of the picture the similar features that link the pictured boots to Daddy's boots.
But the conversational resources the mother is able to bring into their shared here-and-now
can very effectively mediate the infant's perception for him. That is, she can 'see'
similarities without much effort: what she directly sees in the picture is a pair off boots
'like Daddy's'. The shared words are amplified in their signification such that the features
of similarity can be interactively foregrounded as a topic. It is this tactic that, I am
suggesting, provides the infant with the resources for exploiting the inherent properties of
the 'words' they are using to go beyond the 'here-and-now'. What was otherwise implicit
in the here-and-now is made explicit: similarly, what was a possible meaning of the
indicated 'object' boot is assisted in its transition to being an actual meaning. Adopting a
different terminology, one of the participants to such 'conversations' is able to act in the
zone of proximal development of the other participant (Vygotsky, 1962; 1978). Now, this
is clearly not the case for two participants who have abilities at the same level.
For the issue at hand - the initial elaboration of language systems - the problem becomes
this: how are participants who are at the same level of functioning with a communicative
system able to go beyond its constraints? The essential claim being put forward here as a
possible solution is two-fold. First, the functional elements of the presumed
communicative system have immanent potentialities beyond those exploited by the early
stages of their use. Second, under particular circumstances, the social characteristics of the
communicative process can create their own zone of proximal development. These two
facets of the communicative process at hand are being conceived here as the providers of
'bootstrapping conditions' for the elaboration of new abilities which represent the
explication of properties implicit in the potentialities of the initiating system. This re-orientation is such that we can get a handle on how cultural practices can, of themselves
and sui generis, act as a 'zone of proximal development' for bootstrapping what can be
thought about: that is, how implications are constructed as 'explications-in-waiting' that
cognition can grab onto See footnote 6. Having set the scene, I now turn to looking at the evolutionary
The earliest dates for Homo sapiens are unclear, since archaic specimens so assigned,
such as from Petralona and Heidelberg at around 300,000 years ago, are theoretically
indistinguishable from the later members of H. erectus. Current evidence points to Homo
sapiens sapiens as being a very recent species, less than 200,000 years old.The earliest
dates for anatomically-modern human fossil remains are around 100, 000 years bp. (eg.,
Klasies River Mouth; South Africa: Skhul and Qafzeh, both Near East: see both
Campbell, 1996, and Waddell and Penny, 1996, for details). Mitochondrial and nuclear
DNA studies are consistent with the conclusion that the human species had an African
origin, within the past 200,000 years, and began to move out of Africa from around
100,000 years bp (though not necessarily in one wave). What do we know about these
early modern humans?
1. Human species characteristics
We are faced with an organism that would appear to have possessed a human-like brain
for at least 1.5 million years; an upper-respiratory tract modification that is most
parsimoniously explained as an adaptation for human-like vocalisation capabilities; and
technological skills that exhibited modern intellectual capacities.
a. Brain organization
The first member of the human genus, Homo habilis, is dated to a little over 2 million
years ago (Wood, 1992). Homo habilis provides the first evidence for a human-like
specialization of the brain. There is a consensus that the endocast of the specimen KNM-ER 1470 shows a somewhat more complex and modern-human-like third inferior frontal
convolution than is typical of modern apes, suggesting that by this point the brain was
becoming organised into a more human rather than ape form (see Holloway, 1996 for a
review). Wilkins and Wakefield (1995: 171) take the simultaneously evident reorganization
of the posterior cortex as indicative of a shift to a 'uniquely human modality-free sensory
representation'. This does not seem unreasonable. With respect to the inferior frontal and
inferior parieto-temporal cotrices, then there is evidence again of a more human-like
structure than previously seen. However, no data is available with regards to the
configuration of the basicranium See footnote 7, and thus there is no way of telling whether the evidence
regarding the development of Broca's area provides a basis for enhanced right-hand motor
control or the voluntary control of vocalisation (see Peters, 1996). Later endocasts through
Homo erectus and archaic sapiens specimens are devoid of clear convolutional detail
(Holloway, 1996), making it impossible to be certain about possible re-organizational
changes within our own genus. Evidence as to the appearance of modern brain
organization is scarce. But, let me make a working assumption:
Bottom line : the brain of modern humans is a species characteristic, and as such, the
brains of early examples of the species at around 100,000 bp would be the same kinds of
organs as those we find in later individuals who exist today.
b. Vocal capabilities
It is not until Homo erectus, particularly specimen KNM-ER 3733, that an incipient
flexion of the basicranium is shown, a partial flexion which may well correspond to a
partial descent of the larynx, which would have increased this specimen's ability to make
more human-like sounds (Laitman and Heimbuch, 1984; Laitman et al., 1992). The
configuration of the basicranium of the skull of earlier hominid fossils, as well as later
Neandertal ones, indicates their upper respiratory anatomy was not fully modern, but more
akin to the general primate configuration that allows a simultaneous swallowing and
breathing to be conducted without the danger of choking that befalls am humans. Data is
not availble for later H. erectus specimens other than the Sale specimen (which may be
early sapiens rather than late erectus (Hublin, 1985)) which appears to show the modern
configuuration. Other specimens of middle to late Pleistocene hominids assigned as archaic
H. sapiens, such as Petralona and Broken Hill, have basicranial configurations that lie
within the modern range. On the basis of these analyses it is inferred that their upper
respiratory tracts were also similar to our own (e.g., Laitman et al, 1992). This would
suggest sound production (or speech) capability on a par with current humans (see
Arensburg et al., 1989; Laitman and Reidenberg, 1988), but this point has perhaps been
over-emphasised in the literature. What I want to take as a bottom-line is this:
Bottom line: over a period of at least 750,000 years, changes in the structure of the
hominid upper respiratory system have been occurring that can only be explained as an
adaptation to vocal communication See footnote 8. The full adaptive anatomical suite is a species
characteristic of Homo sapiens sapiens.
In discussing 'intelligence' I do not wish to get drawn into a quagmire that is as similarly
dreadful as that surrounding the possible relevance of ontogenetic data to phylogenetic
pathways noted in passing above (e.g., Hodos and Campbell, 1969). Instead, the question
I am interested in elucidating is when modern cognitive abilities might be assumed to have
come into being. How far back in the record can we go before we fail to find evidence of
capabilities that would fall outside the range we can infer for modern humans? The only
source of evidence is the material record.
H. habilis is regarded as having made stone tools referred to as the Oldowan industry,
consisting of simple core and flake tools of basalt, quartz and quartzite. Wynn (1996: 267)
notes of these tools that:
There is considerable question as to the reality of the tool types in the Oldowan. If
by type we mean a well-defined category of tool that existed in the minds of the
tool-makers, then we would be unable to argue for their existence. ... It is doubtful
whether there were any design criteria whatsoever, beyond perhaps big and little.
Similarly, Toth and Schick (1993: 349) note of the core 'tools' that they are 'not necessarily tools, nor do they necessarily correspond to 'mental templates' held by their early makers'. Toth and Schick (1993) and Fagan (1989) confirm the view that this is an ad hoc technology, and 'Oldowan tools did not require a particularly sophisticated intelligence.' (Wynn, 1996: 267). However, these writers consider the cognitive capabilities of the tool-makers may show some advance over that of modern apes in the area of planning the sequence of motor actions needed to produce a tool, as well as in judging the angles and overhangs of the 'blank' cores with respect to the angle and force of blow required to effectively flake the stone.
The technology associated with early forms of H. erectus, by contrast, appears to be much
more sophisticated, and the typical Acheulean 'hand axe' or 'biface' is 'the first type tool
that is clearly outside the range of an ape technology' (Wynn, 1996: 269)See footnote 9. With respect
to the early bifaces, their symmetrical nature can be produced without any mental concept
of symmetry (Wynn, ibid; see also Davidson and Noble, 1993), and there is no concensus
that these bi-faces were actually tools, rather than the cores left from making flakes (e.g.,
Bradley and Sampson, 1986; Potts, 1989)See footnote 10. Later bifaces, however, present such a three-dimensional symmetry that to regard them as being only core remains and not the intended
finished artefact is more difficult to credit. For example, both of the 'cores' in Figure 2
appear to have been worked on in order to modify their final shape: the flakes that have
been removed appearing to be 'waste' in these cases rather than the intended as functional
cutting flakes. With respect to Figure 2a, Wynn comments that 'here the symmetry has
been created by four short sections of retouch (A,B,C and D) which are not contiguous. In
order to do this the maker had to have a competence in the relation of whole to parts'
(1979: 377): thus, the end result appears to have been anticipated prior to the observable
retouching. And with respect to Figure 2b
Both faces of the original flake have been retouched to yield a remarkably straight
edge. ... in order to have produced such artificial straightness the knapper had to
have related each flake removal to all the others and also to a stable point of view
That stable point of view had to be 'conserved in the knapper's imagination during the actual flaking process' (ibid: 380). On this basis, Wynn (1979: 371) concludes that
these artifacts required the organizational abilities of operational intelligence and ...
therefore, the hominid knappers were not significantly less intelligent than modern
His overall conclusion is that 'essentially modern intelligence was achieved 300,000 years ago' (ibid: 371).
Bottom line: Early modern humans had an essentially modern intelligence, and on that
basis, they also had the capacity to act in the ways that later modern humans do. That they
did not act in this way is what needs to be explained.
d. Indices of 'behaviour'
By contrast, the material artifacts associated with these early moderns lack many of the
characteristics of the modern tool-kit, and overall, early anatomically-modern human
remains are associated with industries of greater antiquity and non-modern characteristics,
leading Stringer (1989; 7), for example, to conclude that
if the postulated dispersal of anatomically modern humans from Africa was
associated with new forms of cultural or behavioural expression, this was not
reflected in any simple or direct way in the character of the associated lithic
Thus, modern human behaviour is not a species characteristic. In fact, there is currently emerging a consensus in paleoanthropology that there is a marked temporal disjunction between the appearance of anatomically-modern human forms - the species Homo sapiens sapiens - and modern species-typical behaviour (for a marshalling of the evidence, see Noble and Davidson 1996). For, quite remarkably, the period from emergence through to around 40,000 bp shows little substantive change in the archaeological record associated with modern human forms. Increasingly-modern humans continue to show remarkably un-modern activities. The complexity of technology stays fairly constant with respect to technique, raw materials, number of components combined together, and the number of stages involved in the construction of tools (see Figures 3, 4 and 5). And perhaps most tellingly, there is, as noted earlier (e.g., Chase and Dibble, 1987; Lindly and Clark, 1989), no evidence of any symbolic practices. As Lindley and Clark (1990: 233) conclude from their review:
neither archaic H. sapiens nor morphologically modern humans demonstrate
symbolic behavior prior to the Upper Paleolithic.
Contemporary human activities rely on the social and cultural maintenance of symbolic
resources. The means of maintenance and transmission of these symbols are conservative;
the symbols themselves are volatile. The physical instantiations of contemporary human
symbolic activities show temporal volatility, differential spatial distribution, and spatial
relocation. Temporal volatility is not necessarily associated with functional utility.
Clothing, for example, is functional, but fashion is volatile for other reasons; hem lines on
dresses go up and down for reasons unrelated to the function of wearing a dress, just as
accepted male and female garb differs according to custom rather than function.
Differential spatial distribution indicates that the pool of cultural products of human
activities that would be found within 5 kilometres of where you are reading this paper will
have a different constitution to those within 5 kilometres of another person in Tibet, New
Guinea or elsewhere. If an inventory were available for your actual present location 5
years ago, then the temporal volatility of those products would again be apparent. At a
more micro-level there exist some particulary unique spatial distributions of cultural
products; for example, people wear different, clothes, jewellery, etc.. Spatial relocation is
demonstrable in the same way: the natural availability of the constituent products of
cultural materials within 5 kilometres of any particualr point is vastly different from the
proportions in which they culturally occur and have been assembled. The resources
available to us move over large distances; even the food on one's plate can be a
Taking these properties as criteria for characterising modern human cultural practices, we
can ask when, in the archaeological record, is there evidence that humans acted in
characteristically modern ways? That is, when did the material artifacts associated with
humans show patterns of temporal volatility, differential spatial distribution, and spatial
* The evidence is negative before 40 000 years bp. Prior to 40 000bp there is
abundant evidence of cultural activities, in the form of artifacts, being a
characteristic of human life, way back to non-modern Homo species c.2 000 000
bp, but very little unequivocal evidence, if any, of symbolic mediation, as indexed
by the above characteristics.
* The evidence is conclusively positive after 20 000bp (a point in time often referred
to as the 'symbolic explosion'); the evidence of the intervening 20 000 years is less
clear cut, but strongly supportive of human life being a symbolically-mediated
activity, even if the spatial and temporal distribution of cultural artifacts were not
fully modern in their characteristics.
* Note, then, as a bottom line, that:
Bottom line: there is a temporal gap of around 60 000 years between the appearance of
anatomically-modern humans, and their giving evidence of acting in characteristically
modern ways (for reviews, see Conkey, 1996; Gamble, 1993; Lindly and Clark, 1990;
Noble and Davidson, 1996; White, 1996; Wynn, 1996) See footnote 11.
e. Social life
This change is correlated with changes in the social organization of human groups. Social
life prior to this transition may be inferred as having moved away from its earlier
characters towards more modern forms, but is still not fully modern. There is some
evidence for the use of fire, and perhaps cooking, as early as 700,000 BP at Zhoukoudian
(Stringer, 1985), but there is no substantive evidence for hearths, storage pits or
architecture. There is some evidence for true hunting, if only of smaller mammals
(Binford, 1985; Shipman and Rose, 1983), even if scavenging were still a major source of
animal remains. Particular sites appear to have been used for particular activities (e.g., de
Lumley, 1975; Freeman, 1975; Keller, 1973). The picture here is complex to interpret,
and the evidence is scanty. Gamble concludes his review of this period by noting that:
It leaves an overwhelming impression of spontaneous, highly episodic behavior where stone tools were made to do the job in hand before being dropped and their makers moving on. ... What is lacking ... is any indication for such modern practices as detailed planning, widespread contracts, or elaborate social display. There is no physical evidence of storage, raw materials all come from within a radius of 50 km, and usually less than 5 km of the sites where they were used and any form of art, ornament, jewelry, or decoration is entirely absent. ... [But] the fifteen minute culture as revealed in the manufacture and use of stone tools is a poor guide to the length of time over which social information could be retained. The occupation of seasonal environments provides a clear indication that such memory was now substantial (Gamble, 1993: 138-9, 143).
Post this transition, the evidence indicates changes in social organization in two directions.
First, there is an increasing spatial and temporal extension that elaborates and sustains
extended kinship networks, communication beyond face-to-face encounters and exchange of information beyond the here-and-now, the organization of logistical economic strategies, and the extension of the time depth of adaptation to environmental fluctuations (Whallon, 1989: 451).
What might we make of all this? We know something of the power of modern social
practices in reconfiguring the demonstrable cognitive abilities of modern apes. We see in
the current world the analogous reconfiguration, through their transformation and
amplification by the 'cognitive technologies' constituted by symbols, of the cognitive
abilities of morphologically modern humans. A paradigm example that elucidates the
interplay of social relations with language in the constitution of abilities is provided, at
first sight tangentially, in Elias's outline (e.g., 1978, 1982) of the establishment of modern
western practices of 'politeness'.
One interpersonal activity that Elias elucidates concerns 'blowing one's nose. Elias
establishes the historical course of elaborating western practices for dealing with the
assorted accumulations of material that periodically inhabit the human nasal passages. At
the root of the changes Elias documents in what is considered polite is a hierarchy of
actions: blowing the nose; hiding the blowing of it by using a handkerchief; hiding the
blowing of it into a handkerchief. But, most importantly, embarrassment is being invented.
Embarrassment thus comes to be seen as an emotional state created by the explication into
discourse of this hierarchy: for it to be realized, a self-censorious ability has to be
established. People have to become able to reflect on their own behaviour - that is, on
how they act in company - where previously they had not done so See footnote 12.
In Elias's view, the kind of change in interpersonal behaviour that such advice reflects is
not one of fashion; further,
it does not involve solely changes of 'knowledge' or transformations of 'ideologies', in short, alterations of the content of consciousness, but changes in the whole human make-up, within which ideas and habits of thought are only a single sector (Elias, 1982: 284, underlining added for emphasis).
the whole personality throughout all its zones, from the steering of the individual by himself at the more flexible level of consciousness and reflection to that at the more automatic and rigid level of drives and affects(Elias, 1982: 284).
Elias considers that it is the relationship between the psychological functions controlling an
individual's actions that changes during historical time; that it is
these relationships within man between the drives and affects controlled and the built-in controlling agencies, whose structure changes in the course of a civilizing process, in accordance with the changing structure of the relationships between individual human beings, in society at large (Elias, 1982: 286).
How are these changes in the basic structuring of Western psychological structure related
to the issues at hand here?
First, we need to remember that the changes in conduct that Elias charts are occurring
against a background of a diversifying society. Travel was becoming easier, leading to
more and different people meeting each other. Cities were emerging in a contrastive role
to the countryside, resulting in trade and trade specialization, the establishment of a
merchant class, and so on. In general, people were becoming less socially homogeneous,
roles were becoming specialized, and so people were sharing less common knowledge
among themselves; they had fewer common presuppositions. This had obvious
repercussions on the process of communication between fellows. Essentially, it became
much harder to make oneself understood. It is likely that this same process is at the root
of Armstrong and Katz (1981) finding of a correlation between the number of basic colour
terms in a society's language and its social complexity, and work by Fischer (1966; 1973)
on the different structuring of two closely-related Micronesian languages in relation to the
social structures of the cultures that use them. In both cases, the more differentiated the
social structure, the more differentiated the referential domains marked by words in the
language. Thus, below, in outlining Elias's views with respect to selves and personalities,
we may take Elias' specific focus as indicative of changes occuring in other referential
domains, changes that are related to changes in social organization. Recall, this is one of
the major changes occuring at the point at which the human record begins to show
evidence of symbol use.
Second, we need to think about the consequences of these changes with respect to the sort
of knowledge a person would need in order to act effectively in such a changing world.
Because it was much more difficult to get a message across to another, communication
failure could occur much more frequently, making the individual aware of the
communication process itself. Further, it would provide the individual with many more
perspectives on the presentation of his or her self.
Third, language began to code new concepts and to be used more explicitly. On the one
hand, the loss of presuppositionality in discourse will force an increasingly elaborated and
explicit linguistic coding of communication: people would have been required to make
explicit information they had previously left implicit. On the other hand, an increasingly
complex society can create all sorts of new situations and experiences among the people
whose actions bring it into being: these may come to be expressed in language.
Hence, information concerning the presentation of the self would have been available
directly to an individual. A society with differentiated roles might well force an awareness
upon an individual of the aspects of individuality that those roles are simultaneously
constructing. It may eventually provide linguistic concepts for rendering these explicitly.
The main point here is that the socially constructed facets of personality will increase,
through the explicit realisation in discourse, of the number of different perspectives an
individual can formulate of his or her self, while at the same time increasing the
individual's ability to transcend his or her presupposed, unreflective, non-meta-awareness
of his or her self through a richer fabric of communication and concept.
Fourth, Luria and Yudovich (1971) have noted that words have a profound affect on
individual psychological functioning:
When he acquires a word, which isolates a particular thing and serves as a signal to a particular action, the child, as he carries out an adult's verbal instruction, is subordinated to this word.... By subordinating himself to the adult's verbal orders the child acquires a system of these verbal instructions and gradually begins to utilize them for the regulation of his own behaviour (Luria and Yudovich, 1971: 13-14).
The essential point is that our personalities, our conceptions of ourselves and others, our
emotional experiences, and our views of the world are all explicated from phenomena
whose existence is created beyond us in our social worlds. In this view, human conceptual
systems are explicated renderings into mental form of human social discourses. These
explications have become, initially, salient aspects of the human Umwelt through changes
in social relations. They become preserved in cultural practices and the linguistic resources
that enable the discourses that sustain these practices. Thus, they are able to act as a 'zone
of proximal development' sui generis. And:
I know of no way in which intelligence or mind could arise or could have arisen, other than through the internalization by the individual of social processes of experience and behavior .... And if mind or thought has arisen in this way, then there neither can be nor could have been any mind or thought without language; and the early stages of the development of language must have been prior to the development of mind and thought (Mead, 1934: 191-2)
The prospective summary, then, is that the process of explicating the implicit possibilities
of 'cognitive endowments' is contributed to by the potentialities of the various symbol
systems that humans use, as well as the nature and structure of the human practices within
which these are sustained. It is becoming clearer that (1) the properties of particular
symbol systems and (2) the conditions under which they are employed affect the ease with
which humans can use them for particular purposes. Hence, the point to be made is
that changes in social relations have provided the major resources for the establishment of
modern abilities; that these are not solely founded on preadaptive changes in human
The bottom line is that: the structure of relations between people and the properties
of the discourses and practices they engaged in constituted the conditions that enabled
their discovery of the unintended properties of the systems of symbols, social
relations and discourse practices their modes of life constituted. These 'discoveries'
then constitute the phenomena that have been subsumed under the term: the 'evolution' of
human linguistic abilities.
The position argued for here is that interaction constructs contexts that language can come
to symbolise, thereby providing a cognitive technology that bootstraps the increasing
discovery of those 'things' that are implied by what has already been symbolised (e.g.,
Donald, 1990, 1993; Lock and Peters, 1996; Olson, 1996). The argument is that the
crucial 'missing link' in the pre-Upper Paleolithic was the lack of the cultural support
system of socially-constituted 'pregnant implications' in the perceptual Umwelts of these
ancestral humans, such that there was an insufficient basis to exaptively co-opt those
functions that have come to be regarded as the 'Language Acqusition Device'. There was
no naturally constituted 'zone of proximal development' to bootstrap the explicit
construction of a symbolic lexicon that benefited from a neurology that predisposed, on
the basis of its functional architecture, the duality of patterning found in modern language
systems, from the phonetic through to the syntactic. The evidence for the increasing
elaboration and complexity of social life in the Upper Paleolithic is compelling (see, for
example, Gamble, 1993: 179-202, for a recent review). Evidence as to the effects of such
an elaboration is noted below. But note that the argument is not one of purely lineal cause-and effect. Rather, the process of elaborating the symbolic support for, and amplification
of, cognitive abilities, is embedded in a nexus of influences that feed forward and back to
each other. These hypothesised links are portrayed in Figure 6.
The scenario suggested here is thus close to that argued for by Bickerton (1990) and
Whallon (1989, drawing on Bickerton, 1981). It would credit hominds from 20-40,000 BP
back to at least mid-H. erectus specimens represented by KNM-ER 3733 at around
700,000 BP with a vocal communication system that Bickerton characterises as
protoloanguage, a 'mode of linguistic expression that is quite separate from normal human
language and is shared by four clases of speakers: trained apes, children under two; adults
who have been deprived of language in their early years, and speakers of pidgin'
(Bickerton, 1990: 122). In Whallon's opinion, such protolanguages would facilitate
communication, but could well lack the the means for explicitly expressing and reflecting
on the temporally and spatially absent world, the imaginary world enabled at the truly
explicit symbolic level, that is required for elaborating and sustaining the characters of
modernity See footnote 13. Thus, communication existed, as did the biological base for its elaboration,
and 'the social context provides the exaptive process to upgrade this to language. The link
between, on the one hand, exploration and the use and knowledge of space, and on the
other the scale, depth and complexity of social life is irrefutable.' (Gamble, 1993: 174).
What that social context does is as follows:
* It provides the structuring of attention by embedding objects within cultural
practices such that they became different objects in our perception, affording new
implications and courses for action directly, to use Gibsonian terminology. For
example, given the similarity in the visual systems of chimpanzees and present-day
western humans, it seems a reasonable assumption that both species 'see' the same
physical object when they look at a flat surface supported on 'legs'. But the two
species 'perceive' different objects: humans perceive a 'table', and know what and
what not to do with it; chimpanzees perceive something to walk and sit on, not a
* It conserves previously elaborated ways of keeping track of implications that have
been made explicit: that is, particular symbol systems that have been arrived at.
These systems can variously 'constrain' 'modes of thinking'. As an example of
what I mean by this, I earlier indicated an analogy with the differences between the
Roman and Arabic number systems. The mental operations of multiplication and
division are available to users of both systems, but the symbolic 'tool- kits' affect
the ease with which these operations can be performed: it is easier to divide 63 by
9 to get 7 than LXIII by IX to get VII. It is even easier to do it on an abacus, but
here we are at a further remove in that a technology for manipulating symbols has
been introduced. In addition the device - the abacus - can be 'internalised' and used
as fast and accurately, and often faster, than using it physically. In addition, such
skilled users show very specific enhancements to their mathematical skills: digit
memory - forward and backward - increases to 15 digit strings, while for other
item lists it remains around the magic number 7 +/- 2 (Hatano, 1982; Stigler et
* It conserves 'patterns for handling' implications that have been made explicit: what
we term 'grammar'. This conceptualisation of 'grammar' is based in the following.
Bickerton, for example,(1990: 180-1) has pointed out that:
Syntax is, to a large extent, a projection of the lexicon, wherein all the sub-categorization frames of verbs and all the grammatical items (and much
else) are stored. If the initial lexicon was dramatically limited, then not all
of the structures implicit in syntactic principles could immediately be
realized. To take an extreme example, if there were no verbs of reporting,
and no 'psychological' or 'intentional' verbs, then biclausal structures of the
type he said/thought/believed/ hoped that X had happened/would happen
would be impossible to construct, even though the hominid concerned had
all the necessary structural principles at hand.
The point here is that biologically-instantiated possible abilities require a 'substrate' for their actualisation. And the emphasis in this chapter shifts that 'substrate' from being some abstract object that is analysed by some 'Language Acquisition Device', as the situation is captured from a cognitive perspective, to one in which the learner is the generator of, and participator in, shared acts of 'making sense'. That is, forms of social being are in process of elaboration, and it is within these social practices and the child's Umwelt that this 'substrate' needs to be located.
Two empirical examples are useful here. First, in a microanalytic study of the emerging
use of self words, Budwig (1995) finds a clear relation between reference, grammatical
form and caregiver's language for children in the age-range 20-32 months in their use of
words such as I, me and my in American English, and ich and man in German. The use of
these words by the children studied was tied in with the notions of self and agency that
were established in the course of interacting with caretakers, indicating that the children
were 'picking up' subtle cues about agency, and thereby articulating different forms of
selfhood that were then reflected in the grammatical uses of self referential words. The
caretaker-infant interaction is thus revealed as functioning to delineate a 'problem space'
in which 'referential objects' - forms of selfhood and agency - are constructed
simultaneously with the vocabulary items that allow these 'objects' to be structurally
marked in the child's emerging speech.
Similarly, Bamberg (1996), drawing on Capps and Ochs (1995a, 1995b) takes this tack
further in his study of emotional socialisation with respect to children's discourses about
anger and sadness. What he terms the 'grammars' of being angry and sad, in talking from
both the first-person and third-person perspectives, are quite complex in English, and
work so as to disentangle the different discursive requirements of handling empathy and
blame. Bamberg sets his particular findings into a general framework that sees the
development of a linguistic ability to handle 'emotion talk' as 'a process of appropriating
the tools necessary to talk meaningfully about the social relationships in which emotions
are embedded'. Thus, grammar is set up as 'a set of linguistic constructions is directly tied
to the discursive purpose to which the particular constructions are put to use':
grammar, if understood correctly, i.e. not as abstract principles of a universalist nature, but as social know-how relevant for the construction of social meaning, plays an integral role in coming to grips with what emotions do and what they are used for in social communicative practices. As such, learning to use the linguistic construction procedures for socially appropriate purposes is deeply embedded in cultural practices (Bamberg, op.cit.).
Now, we need to remember that, developmentally, the grammatical means for
differentially handling anger and sadness talk are pregiven in the child's language
community - 'they have their social existence before they are put to use in social
practices' (Bamberg, op. cit.). Phylogenetically, this is not the case. But the point here is
that the close relation between social practice and grammatical 'device' established by
Bamberg is one where the latter are instantiated in the former. That is, in line with
Bickerton's point earlier about the relation between 'lexical entries' and syntax - that the
latter is 'wheeled' on to the mental stage to meet the needs of the former, - the driving
force is the social structure of obligations 'captured' constituitively by words. These words
come with a particular set of implications that are unpacked and pointed to by a set of
grammatical structures, perhaps structures that are new, but more likely reworked in a
bricolage fashion from something older. Thus, as social structures become more
complicated, we might anticipate that vocabularies and grammars should change.
Vocabularies should get larger as there are more things to talk about. Grammars should
become more complex in an attempt to signpost explicitly the more complex implications
of having, at least, more things to talk about.
Rolfe (1996) puts forward a detailed argument as to how this elaboration is also motivated
by the demands of different communicative purposes, thus leading to the bootstrapping of
a propositional grammatical system from earlier structural principles. Similarly, the point
is reinforced by Bloom's studies (e.g., 1981) on the differential ease of solving problems
that are expressed through grammatical devices that are more or less familiar as 'tactics'
to speakers of different languages See footnote 14. Like literacy (e.g., Scribner and Cole, 1981), neither
grammar, symbols nor social structures are 'magic bullets', but predisposers of certain
outcomes in interaction with the cultural practices they constitute and support.
'...it is precisely the conceptualizing of existing social relations and the formulating of them as symbolic 'tools', e.g. words, that mark the true transition from prehuman ancestor to man [sic]. It was when our ancestors began to gain awareness of the relationships they already recognized in terms of differential behaviour that man emerged' (Reynolds, 1976: 64).
In putting forward the above formulation, the focus on the late emergence of language
under the 'push' coming from the changes in social relations that provide, sui generis, a
'zone of proximal development', a different way of looking at the 'biology' of human
evolution is constructed. 'Language' is now a species characteristic, but it is not one that
was initially selected for. The biological substrates that support it have not been arrived at
through their having evolved, but are constructed and reconstructed through an ontgeny
that is embedded in a set of social relations that continuously bootstrap themselves and the
resources they conserve, thereby enabling the exaptation or co-option of an existing
biology to ever more complex 'cognitive technologies'. But this is not meant to completely
'de-biologize' our views of 'human nature' altogether. Certainly I am 'socialising' human
nature, but it is quite likely the case that many aspects of those social relations that
contribute to and enable this 'humanising process' themselves have a basis in biological
constraints. Examples that come to mind here concern incest taboos, mate choice (Buss,
1994) and social problem solving (Cosmides, 1989). It is precisely such phenomena that
we might expect evolutionary processes to constrain and select 'biases' for. But we were
not designed for language use.
The consequences of this view are many. Here I draw out two points. First, the study of
human discourse practices is moved from the fringe of psychological science to its centre,
for the processes fundamental to the project of the 'cognitive revolution' are no longer
encapsulated within the head of an individual, but distributed in the symbolically-mediated
practices that comprise human cultures; distributed between the individual and the social.
This point has also been argued, though from a different starting point, by Bruner (1990).
In that work he analytically reflects on the cognitive science that has been spawned by the
'cognitive revolution that he played such a role in forming. He deals with the
consequences of what he sees as a 'neglect for meaning' in this cognitive science.
There is no question that cognitive science has made a contribution to our understanding of how information is moved about and processed. Nor can there be much doubt on reflection that it has left largely unexplained and even somewhat obscured the very large issues that inspired the cognitive revolution in the first place. So let us return to the question of how to construct a mental science around the concept of meaning and the processes by which meanings ae created and negotiated within a community (Bruner, 1990: 10).
Second, the analysis offered here credits discourse with tremendous powers. Discourse practices are being credited with a central role in the creation of the psychological abilities that underpin discursive practices themselves. 'Cognitive mechanisms', if they exist, are constructed out of an interaction between developmental, maturational and socio-cultural processes, a constructive process in which the driving engine is a consequence of the changing structure of discourse and social relation. That is, it is no longer sensible to assume a biologically-given individual with a set of pre-given cognitive abilities that allow information 'to be moved about and processed', (nor to use this assumption to legitimate the currently dominant psychological paradigms). Meaning-full 'second generation' cognitive science needs to pursue the Umwelt project; and in doing so it needs to bring a whole new bag of work into the mainstream.
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reconstruction of the Umwelt of another living being, or the ratification of the decoding processes in its behaviour after the enumeration of the signs the living being is capable of receiving, as well as the code by means of which it interprets the signs (T. von Uexkull, 1982: 4).
There is no problem of how an originally subjective experience becomes objective. ... The idea that there is such problem arises from the assumption that language is essential to knowledge. What is essential to knowledge is communication, of which language is the most important but not the only medium. The original adaptation of the human being to life contains the reference to the Other, and his first behaviour is an unconscious communication. Communication is for all human beings a fact before it becomes an act, before explicit perception and the formation of an intention is possible for us. ... But this original knowledge of the Other, as the correlate of my own activity, is undiscriminated. The develoment of knowledge is its discriminaton (1961, 76-7).
Meaning can be described, accounted for, or stated in terms of symbols or language at its highest and most complex stage of development (the stage it reaches in human experience), but language simply lifts out of the social process a situation which is logically or implicitly there already. The language symbol a significant or conscious gesture (1934: 79).
the two results which seem the most interesting to me are, first, the time that Darwin needed to become aware of ideas which were already implicit in his thought, and, second, the mysterious passage from the implicit to the explicit in the creation of new ideas ... One might have believed that this passage concerned only the relationship between thought and action, and that, on the level of thought itself, the passage from 'implicit' schemas ... to their reflective explication would be much more rapid. [But] ... even in a creator of the greatness of Darwin the passage is far from immediate. This delay establishes ... that making things explicit leads to the construction of a structure which is partially new, even though contained virtually in those structures which preceded it (Piaget, 1974: x).
It is not the particularities of individual artifacts etc. that is the dividing line. Rather, the
distinction is being drawn on the basis of the suite of recovered indices. Before 40,000
BP: no art; no spatial or temporal volatility of style in the tool-kit record; conservative
foraging patterns apparently based more on scavenging than hunter-gathering; less
geographical movement of tool materials (where after the transition tools, if still made of
stone, rather than 'new' materials such as ivory or bone, a stone tool might be found 900
or more kilometres from the nearest known natural occurrence of such stone). After the
transition, the archaeological record contains evidence of typically modern human
practices of a symbolic nature. Thus, Gamble has speculated that
elements of the full Upper Paleolithic package such as modern skulls, blade technologies, hearths, even, I would suggest, undecorated bone tools, will be found over wide areas and throughout periods from 200,000 BP to 40,000 BP (1993: 170).
But in the end, both approaches face a challenge in an evolutionary perspective if they are
to offer a reasonable account of human cognition. What could account for the evolution of
an internal 'syntactic processor', whether one modelled in a symbolic system or tinkered
connectionist paradigm? Bechtel (1993; see also Bechtel and Abrahamsen, 1991; Waskan
and Bechtel, 1997) proposes that what he terms the external symbol approach is able to
address this challenge.
The key to the external symbol approach is to move formal symbols, which adhere to syntactic rules, out of the head and locate them in the environment of the system (1993: 130).
To do arithmetic problems that are at all complex, such as multiplication of one three-digit number by another, we write the numbers in canonical form. ... Once this is done, a complex task is decomposed into simple tasks - multiplying two one-digit numbers, and sometimes adding a carry to that. This is a task that can be performed using memorized answers or a rather simple connectionist network that carries out pattern recognition. Using such external symbols radically reduces the demands upon the cognitive system. What exists inside the cognitive system is not an internal representation of these external symbols, but an ability to extract information from them and to produce symbol strings which adhere to the syntactic rules that characterize properly formed strings (ibid).
view the human cognitive system as having adapted to a linguistic environment and to find the source of productivity and systematicity in the external symbols of the language (op.cit.: 140).
[As an example from another domain of external symbols: The sequence of symbols that
denote natural numbers is a human construction. Now, it is possible to do some quite
complex tasks without any abstract conception of number: by 'tallying', for example, a
shepherd can keep track of his or her flock - mark them out in the morning and tick them
home in the evening. If, by any chance, one abstracted numbers out of this practice and
expressed them on base 10 with Arabic numerals, then one would get the sequence 1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9. One could use these numbers in quite a few ways without ever becoming
aware of the distinctions between, and the properties of, odd and even, perfect and prime
numbers. One might come to apprehend these distinctions, but then be oblivious to such
properties as Goldbach's conjecture: that every even number is the sum of two primes
(this conjecture fits every known case, but no proof of it has yet been formulated). Lock
(1980: 36) commented on these properties of number systems that we would not assume
that because numbers have these properties a child needs a pre-given grasp of them in
order to learn mathematics: these are properties of the external system.
Three points should be noted with respect to this example. First, Popper (1972: 18)
characterizes that these properties of numerical systems are 'unintended and unavoidable
properties of our creation ... [there] ... for us to discover'. Second, there is a logic to the
order in which these unintended properties might be discovered: that is, Goldbach could
only formulate his conjecture about the properties of even numbers once even numbers
had been elucidated. Third, it follows that we could essay an evolutionary account of
mathematics if we could establish the conditions under which such discoveries were
What all this does is shift the focus in an evolutionary account from phenomena that were
previously attributed as 'properties of the human mind' to the elaboration of the 'external
systems'. Bechtel puts it this way:
Languages, as cultural products, have evolved devices providing compositional syntax and semantics; humans, in learning these languages, have developed capacities for decoding information encoded using the compositional syntax and semantics of these languages (op.cit.: 140).