Merlin Donald - The Definition of Human Nature

William Harryman, , Nov 27, 2013
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Sean FitzGerald sends me this link, which is well worth a read. An excerpt: "...human beings, as a species, have evolved a completely novel way of carrying out cognitive activity: distributed cognitive-cultural networks. The human mind has evolved a symbiosis that links brain development to cognitive networks whose properties can change radically. Critical mental capabilities, such as language and symbol-based thinking (as in mathematics) are made possible only by evolving distributed systems. Culture itself has net-work properties not found in individual brains. The individual mind is thus a hybrid product, partly organismic in origin, and partly ecological, shaped by a distributed network whose properties are changing."

What I like about the article is the suggestion that humans evolved to support, not language, but a more basic cognitive function, which the author describes as Mimesis. "Mimetic skill logically precedes language, and remains independent of truly linguistic modes of representation. It is the basic human thought-skill... an intermediate layer of knowledge and culture, and the first evolutionary link between the pre-symbolic knowledge systems of animals and the symbolic systems of modern humans." If this is true (and I see no reason why it wouldn't be, at first glance) then language is an accidental byproduct of traits evolved to serve other purposes, which makes a lot of sense to me.

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