The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain

The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain

by Terrence W. Deacon
New York: Norton, 1997, Hardback, 527 pages.

"Mommy, where did I come from?" Though later asked in mere sophisticated forms, that question of childhood is also a perennial question of our adulthood. We want to know where we, as individuals, as a social group, and as a species came from. Three recent books address the question of our origin as a species from three viewpoints: biological, ecological, and mental.

The biological origin of modern human beings has been accounted for by two theories. One holds that our earlier hominid ancestors spread over much of the world's surface and in various locations independently evolved into present-day humanity but that because of interbreeding, we have been becoming increasingly more alike. It is called the "multiregionalist" theory. The other holds that an earlier variety of the human genus evolved into our kind (Homo sapiens) in Africa and thence spread all over the globe, replacing other hominid species and that present-day differences among us are the result of evolutionary differentiation. It is called the "replacement" or more specifically the "Out of Africa" theory.

Recent analysis of the DNA or genetic code in human beings has shown that, although there are relatively great variations in DNA among groups of Africans, human beings outside of Africa are remarkably uniform, having only very slight variations among themselves and sharing their DNA pattern with some Africans. Since variation in the DNA is the result of mutations overtime, the most probable explanation of this surprising fact is that the human genus began in Africa, where it had a long evolutionary history and about 200,000 years ago developed into Homo sapiens, which later spread from Africa to the rest of the world. Such is the thesis of African Exodus, which dates the exodus from Africa about 100,000 years ago, allowing some 100,000 years in Africa for DNA diversification before the exodus began.

The book argues its thesis passionately and with revolutionary self-consciousness as a refutation of the multi-regionalist view, thereby refuting the romantic notion that science is a gradual, accumulative approach to ultimate truth. The book is also self-consciously a political statement, arguing against the thesis of The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, that intelligence is determined by race, with some races being genetically more intelligent than others. Science, far from being politically neutral, is often done in the service of some social agenda.

One of the interesting features of African Exodus is its emphasis on the unity of our contemporary human species. The differences among us are trivial; we are one people. African Exodus makes that point strongly with respect to our genetic inheritance.

Eco Homo basically supports the "Out of Africa" theory, although it presumes a slightly earlier beginning for the exodus of Homo sapiens "Africa is our ancestral homeland, and even today it still contains a stunning three-fifths to four-fifths of all human genetic diversity" (14). While agreeing with the date for the origin of Homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago, Eco Homo places the exodus earlier, between 130,000 and 175,000 years ago.

The characteristic feature of Eco Homo, however, is its attempt to connect the major stages of our biological evolution with changes in the eco logy: land formation, climate, weather patterns, flora and fauna distribution, and so on. It depicts human evolution, not as something independent of the rest of the planet, but as intimately connected with- influenced by and in more recent times increasingly influencing-the environment. Not only are we a unified species, but also we are unified and interdependent with the whole ecology of the planet.

Both books comment on, without explaining, a curious fact. About 20,000 years ago was one of those axial periods of human history when striking changes occur: "There is nothing in the paleontological record of the evolving human body that rivals the rapidity with which Homo sapiens began to evince advanced 'out-of-body' culture- cave art, music, burial of the dead, clothing, personal ornamentation, diverse tools, and so on....If one is drawn to dramatic 'hiccups' in the history of life on this planet, this certainly ranks near the top" (Eco Homo 217). In brief, human culture -our language, marriage and kinship systems, myths, magic, art, social mores and folkways, indeed everything from ethics to etiquette that obviously differentiates our behavior from that of nonhuman animals - began to appear at that time.

Eco Homo also stresses the remarkable fact of human behavior that we call "altruism" and relates it to that budding of culture 20,000 years ago. Altruistic behavior is evoked from the members of a cultural group "when two social conditions are met: There must be a vital need or threat to the group and there must be a strong sense of solidarity with in the group" (227). Altruism is thus a product of the evolution of cultural behavior and has survival value for the community. It has also, to be sure, its dark side: ethnic chauvinism and racism.

One of the great teachers of another axial period in human history, the Master Kung (or Confucius, as we usually call him), had a prescription for that undesirable side effect. He said that we begin with group solidarity within the family, but extend it progressively to the community, the state, the nation, and ultimately all humanity. The building of a world culture that synthesizes and transmutes local distinctions into a universal brotherhood of humanity is the cure for our social ills.

The Symbolic Species looks at the nature and evolution of language and the human brain and finds in their co-development the key to our modern humanity: "The doorway into this virtual world [of uniquely human abstractions, impossibilities, and paradoxes] was opened to us alone by the evolution of language, because language is not merely a mode of communication, it is also the outward expression of an unusual mode of thought -symbolic representation....Biologically, we are just another ape. Mentally, we are a new phylum of organisms"(22-3).

"Symbolic" is being used here in a sense given to the term by Charles Sanders Peirce, who classified "signs" (things that stand for other things) into three types: "icons," which are pictures of what they stand for, such as portraits; "indexes," which are causally connected with the things they stand for, as the position of a weathervane stands for a direction of the wind; and "symbols," which stand for something by social convent ion, as a wedding ring stands for the marital agreement or the letter "c" stands for a particular sound in words (70-1). In fact, the Peircean symbol is really of two kinds. In one, a symbol is connected with what it stands for quite arbitrarily, as the letter "c'' is connected with the sound "cc." In the other, a symbol is connected with what it stands for metaphorically or analogically, as a wedding ring is connected with the marital agreement by its shape (being an endless circle), its material (being of precious metal), and so on. The analogical symbol is far richer than the arbitrary one, and is the basis of much distinctively human life.

The Symbolic Species also points out that ritual is intimately connected with language and other symbolic systems and thus with our essential humanity:

Early hominids were forced to learn a set of associations between signs and objects, repeat them over and over, and eventually unlearn the concrete association in favor of a more abstract one. This process had to be kept up until the complete system of combinatorial relationships between the symbols was discovered. What could have possibly provided comparable support for these needs in the first symbol-learning societies?

In a word, the answer is ritual. Indeed, ritual is still a central component of symbolic "education" in modern human societies, though we are seldom aware of its modern role because of the subtle way it is woven into the fabric of society. [402]

In brief that remarkable budding of culture and altruism 20,000 years ago was the effect of the efflorescence of language and ritual. Voluntary social cooperation and culture are not possible with out symbolic language, and neither is the kind of thinking that lets us create mental worlds, virtual realities of "might-have- been" and "let's-pretend." "The evolution of symbolic communication has not just changed the range of possible objects of consciousness, it has also changed the nature of consciousness itself." To be human is to think symbolically, to see a wedding ring, not just as a metal circle, but as a pledge of fidelity, commitment, and mutual support.

These three books, the work of established academic anthropologists, point each in their various ways to certain principles of the Wisdom Tradition. Those principles include human solidarity, the interdependence of humanity with our environment, the naturalness of altruistic behavior, the uniqueness of the human mind, and the centrality of symbol, metaphor, and analogy to our perception of the world. One of the great teachers of that Wisdom Tradition wrote, "Modern science is our best ally" (Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett 65/11). Although there is much in all three books that followers of the Tradition might take issue with, the affirmation of those principles justifies that statement.


Spring 1998