62 Bipedal apes: The fact that the first stone tools - and the first step in an epic transformation - were made by creatures whom we can characterise as bipedal apes, inaugurates a pattern that we will see recurring repeatedly over the entire span of hominid evolution: new technologies (reflecting new one more complex behaviours) do not tend to be associated with the appearance of new kinds of hominid. It was old kinds of hominid that started to do new things, even though those new things always seem to indicate a step up in cognitive complexity.
62 Typical hominid patterns of innovation: It might be interesting to ask if we are in a position to form any impression at all of what kind of sense of the world around them - or of themselves - those bold small-bodied bipeds possessed. We can infer a lot about how their lives might have looked to an observer. But did they share with us any aspect of the unique modern human form of inner experience?
There is no way to answer this question with any precision; but one thing that we can do is to set an approximate baseline by looking at other organisms and asking what we can demonstrably share with them, and by extension with the early hominids.
One obvious issue to start with is the sense of self. In the very broadest of meanings, every organism has a sense of itself versus the other. From the simplest unicellular creature on, all living things have mechanisms that allow them to detect and react to entities and events that lie beyond their own boundaries. As a result, every animal may be said to be self-aware at some level, however rudimentary its responsiveness to stimulate from outside might appear. On the other hand, human self-awareness is a highly particular possession of our own species. We human beings experience ourselves in a very specific kind of way - a way that is, as far as we know, unique in the living world. We are each, as it were, able to conceptualise and characterise ourselves as objects distinct from the rest of Nature - and from the rest of our species.
63 We consciously know that we - and others of our kind - have interior lives. The intellectual resource that allows us to process such knowledge is our symbolic cognitive style. This is a shorthand for our ability to mentally dissect the world around us into a huge vocabulary of intangible symbols. These we can then recombine in our minds, according to rules that allow an unlimited number of visions to be formulated from a finite set of elements. Using this vocabulary and these rules we are able to generate alternative versions or explanations of the world - and of ourselves. It is this unique symbolic ability that underwrites the internalized self-representation expressed in the peculiarly human sense of self.
In between the two ends of the spectrum, linking the primordial and the symbolic styles of self-awareness, there presumably exist in near-infinite array of states of self-knowledge.
Yet because alien cognitive states are among the few things human beings find it impossible to imagine, let alone to experience, any discussion of such intermediate forms of self-knowledge - such as possessed by our early ancestors - is fraught with huge risks of anthropomorphising.
When we try to understand how other organisms comprehend particular situations, or their place in society, or indeed their place in the world, our tendency is all this to impose our own constructs. The temptation is to assume that beings of other kinds are seeing and understanding the world somehow as we do, just not as well or is fully. Yet the truth is that we simply cannot know, still less feel, what it is subjectively like to be any organism other than ourselves, modern Homo sapiens.
Boe: Thomas Nagel: What's it like to be a bat? 1974
The extraordinary human cognitive style is the product of a long biological history. From a non-symbolic, non-linguistic ancestor (itself the outcome of an enormously extended and eventful evolutionary process), there emerged our own unprecedented symbolic and linguistic species, an entity possessing a fully-fledged and entirely individuated consciousness of self.
This emergence was a singular event, one that involved bridging a profound cognitive discontinuity.
For there is a qualitative difference here; and, based on any reasonable prediction from what preceded us, the only reason for believing that this golf could ever have been bridged, is that it was. And since that extraordinary event self-evidently did take place, the question becomes one of where and how. To answer this, though, we need to establish that starting point. This is no easy task, and how difficult it is in practice is well illustrated by the investigation of self-recognition.
64 mirror test
65 An alternative avenue to understanding the sense of self in nonhuman primates was taken by the monkey researchers Robin Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, who adopted the psychologist William James’ distinction between the two components of self-awareness: the “spiritual” ( one’s “psychic faculties and dispositions”), and the “social” (knowledge of being one of many distinct individuals embedded in a group).
Like human beings, monkeys are intensely social…This seems to indicate that on some level they had a sense of the social self. On the other hand, this kind of self-awareness was clearly different from that of human beings. For, while they are certainly able to behave appropriately in complex social settings, vervets and baboons are, as far as one can tell, unaware of the knowledge that allows them to do so. They “do not know what they know, cannot reflect on what they know, and cannot become the object of their own attention”.
66 Daniel Povinelli proposed a few years ago that a fundamental distinction between the ways in which chimpanzees and humans view the world is that, while humans form abstract views about other individuals and their motivations, “chimpanzees rely strictly upon observable features of others to afford their social concepts…They do not realise that there is more to others than their movements, facial expressions, and habits of behaviour. They do not understand that other beings are repositories of private, internal experience. they do not reason about what others think, believe, and feel… Because they do not form such concepts in the first place”. It seems legitimate to conclude that this exclusion also applies to the self reflection.
67 Among all those organisms that we can study in the world today, it appears that only modern human beings show “spiritual self-awareness” in William James’ sense; and even “social self-awareness” appears to differ dramatically in quality between humans and nonhuman primates.
One may reasonably assume that (our) ancestors were “intelligent, thinking creatures who deftly attended to and learned about the regularities that unfolded in the world around them. But they did not reason about unobservable things: they had no ideas about the mind, no notion of causation. In the human sense, they had as yet no idea of self.
213 Symbolic awakenings: Exactly how the almost unimaginable transition to the symbolic mental manipulation of information took place remains a subject of pure speculation, though an irresistible one. We need to look for a cultural stimulus that kicked the biologically pre-enabled human brain into symbolic mode. If we asked an assortment of scientists interested in this question what that stimulus might have been, no clear front-runners would probably emerge.
One of these potential stimuli is “theory of mind”. We humans are primates, and our higher primate relatives in general are intensely sociable. Yet we display a particular kind of sociality, characterised not only by the kind of prosociality - concern for others - that the apes don't seem to share, but also a more detached, observational sociality.
Boe: Pascal Boyer - intentionality: http://www.uboeschenstein.ch/texte/boyer95.html
We know what we are thinking (known to psychologists as “first-order intentionality”), we can guess what others are thinking (second order intentionality), we can suspect that someone else has a belief about a third party (third order intentionality), and so on.
Apes seem to have achieved first order intentionality, and alone among nonhuman primates may have clambered onto the second level; humans, on the other hand seem to be able to cope with up to 6 levels of intentionality before their heads begin to spin (he believes that she thinks that they intend... and so on).
Some scientists believe that that the evolution of our extraordinary cognitive style is driven by the development of the increasingly elaborate theory of mind needed to cope with the dynamics of interaction within societies that were steadily becoming more complex. In other words, modern human cognition developed under the self reinforcing pressures of increasingly intense sociality - may be around campfires and
Boe: around campfires – storytelling – myths
214 This is an attractive idea, especially as our elaborate social rituals and responses are so intimately interwoven with our ways of processing information about our fellow members of society - always a subject of intense preoccupation to us. But a mechanism of this kind explains neither why the highly social apes haven't developed a more complex theory of mind over the time during which they have been evolving in parallel with us, nor why the archaeological record seems to indicate a very late and essentially unheralded arrival of symbolic consciousness in just one lineage of large brained hominid.
214 The other thing everybody associates with our cognitive style is our use of language. Indeed, it is hardly overstating the case to characterise language as the ultimate symbolic activity, allowing as it does the generation of an infinite number of statements from a finite group of elements.
Boe: Hofstadter/Sander - Surfaces and Essences, Basic Books, 2013
Like thought, language involves dissecting the world around us into our huge vocabulary of symbols that are then combined, according to rules, to make statements not only about the world as it is directly perceived, but also as it might be. And it is virtually impossible to imagine our thought processes in its absence, for without the mediation of language those thought processes would be entirely intuitive and nondeclarative, merely involving the association of incoming stimuli with remembered ones, and responding accordingly. This is not to say that responses of that kind need necessarily be simple. Extremely complex associations may be made without requiring the process of abstraction that lies at the bases of symbolic thought.
We know this from the example of early hominids. These precursors did not just get by on this level of functioning, but made some of the most notable technological advances in hominid history, including the domestication of fire, the invention of compound tools, and the building of shelters.
Such achievements are impressive indeed. But language facilitated the imposition of symbolic information-processing upon older cognitive processes. And this added an entirely new dimensional to the way in which hominids all the world, and eventually reimagined it.
217 Susan Schaller A Man Without Words: she describes how she realised that a deaf student in her class not only was unable to sign, but was unaware that other people use names to denote objects. He lacked access to any kind of special education that might have taught him to mentally create and recognise signs. He did not even grasp the concept of science. Modifying our approach, she eventually achieved a breakthrough. Ildefonso, in a flash of insight, understood that everything had the name. “Suddenly he sat up, straight and rigid…He broke through…He had entered the universe of humanity, discovered the communion of minds”
219 It is evident from the archaeological record that complex lifestyles, intuitive understanding, and mental clarity are all possible in hominids lacking language in its modern form. In the appropriate context, to be wordless is not to be dysfunctional. Nonetheless, words are a crucial enabling factor in complex cognition. The ability to manipulate words clearly expands and liberates the mind. The more words you have, the more complex a world you are able to visualise; and, on the other side of the coin, when you run out of words you run out of explicit concepts.
Nevertheless, given that our language abilities seem to have been somehow grafted on the earlier cognitive substitute processed by first anatomical Homo sapiens, our mental lives today are a constant tightrope walk between the symbolic and the intuitive. Our symbolic abilities explain our possession of reason, while intuition, which is itself probably a curious amalgam of the rational and the emotional, accounts for our creativity.
The changeover of Homo sapiens from a non-symbolic, nonlinguistic species to symbolic, linguistic one is the most mind-boggling cognitive transformation that has ever happened to any organism.
The details of this transition will probably forever evade us, and almost any scenario we might dream up risks trivialising it. But perhaps it is not too hard to envision, at least in principle, our language might have emerged in the small community of biologically prepared early Homo sapiens in a small community of biologically prepared early Homo sapiens somewhere in Africa.
Indeed, I am greatly entertained by the notion that the first language was the invention of children, who are typically much more receptive to new ideas than adults are. They always have their own methods of doing things, they communicate in ways that sometimes deliberately mystify their parents. For reasons that had nothing to do with language, the children concerned already had all the peripheral anatomical equipment necessary to produce the full range of sounds demanded by modern languages. They must also have possessed both the biological substrate necessary to make the intellectual abstractions involved, and the innate urge to communicate in acomplex manner.
And almost certainly, they belonged to a society that already possessed an elaborate system of interindividual communication: one that employed vocalisation as well as gesture and body language. After all, as in the case of every behavioural innovation, the necessary physical springboard had to have been there. It is easy to envision - at least in principle - how, once a vocabulary had been created, feedback among the various brain centres involved would have allowed the children to structure their language and thought processes simultaneously. For them, what psychologists have taken to calling “private speech” would have been a conduit to the conversion of intuitions into articulated notions that could then be manipulated symbolically. An additional attractive feature of language as the stimulus for abstract thought is that, unlike theory of mind, it is a communal possession.
Boe: Beobachtung Dritter Ordnung