RE: Re(2): Paper on chimp culture

Mark M. Mills (
Mon, 28 Jun 1999 22:44:44 -0400

Date: Mon, 28 Jun 1999 22:44:44 -0400
From: "Mark M. Mills" <>
Subject: RE: Re(2): Paper on chimp culture
In-Reply-To: <000801bec1c7$4d1929e0$2e223fce@rb4010>

At 05:35 PM 6/28/99 -0700, you wrote:
>One scenario would develop from Plotkin's notion of the development of
>consciousness as an adaptation to a more rapidly changing world. He focuses
>(see "Darwin Machines" although I think the title may be different in the
>UK) on consciousness as an ability to imagine scenarios involving the self
>in the future and decide among them based on the results of such imagining.


If I look at the 'rapidly changing world' notion, there seems to be two
choices for the source of change: human activity and environmental activity.

If the 'rapidly changing world,' is credited to human activity, the
activity is sourced by human cognitive activity. This refutes the 'minds
are languaged into existence' causality. It suggests cognitive activity
causes consciousness. This is circular.

If the 'rapidly changing world' is sourced by environmental change (ice age
catastrophes, etc), it works because the 'harsh environment' weeds out
unfit members of the population. With 'only the strong' present, the
critical mass for a chain reaction of consciousness might be present.

Maybe this happened. If it did, there still is a requirement for
pre-requisite cognitive elements to be in place when things the environment
got harsh. There needs to be an instinctive symbol acquisition system, a
shared system of symbol sequencing, symbol vocalization practice with
experienced symbol users. All these pre-requisites seem to imply existing
cognitive expertise, though perhaps in a minority of the population. The
existence of these pre-requisites makes a good case for cognition existing
before the environment got harsh. Thus, I get the same conclusion:
cognition causes language. The harsh environment only speeds up a slow
process, causality is not reversed.

Admittedly, once existing, language can advance the rate of cognitive
evolution, but cognition is always the driver. Language only amplifies
cognitive advantage, enhancing the reproductive chances of all
communicating individuals. Language enhances the value of membership in a
culture, but it doesn't make pre-syntactic groups 'non-cultures.' I don't
see this as a 'water changing to wine' episode. Such things require divine

I still cannot imagine the 'first conversation' without pre-existing
cognitive ability in place.

>The "first conversation" would be the discovery
>of a means to export that internal conversation to another person.

This restates my own perspective. The internal conversation precedes the
external 'languaged' conversation.

Looking at this 'first conversation,' I suggest some sort of occasion where
two people discovered their personal expression of internal cognitive
states happened to match. It was probably an accident and soon forgotten.
Personal expressions are common in body language, so the two 'first
talkers' would have already been familiar with body language. Thus
syntactic language probably coexisted with older 'body language' and
'non-symbolic vocalizations.' Like mammals coexisting with the dinosaurs,
the syntactic language meme set probably played a long running, but
unimportant role in human activity.

Add to this an environmental stress (the above mentioned crisis) and even a
small recourse to simple syntactic expression might save a culture from
extinction. When the response 'worked' and selective advantage for the
culture gained, genes supporting symbolic agility (including genes
enhancing memetic capacity) are advanced in the gene pool.

It is important to point out that chimps have demonstrated the ability to
use external symbols for communication purposes after 'growning up in the
human culture'. Thus, the chimps have my hypothetical genetic
pre-requisites (cognitive ability). In the wild, they don't have the
memetic environment encouraging this kind of behavior. This suggests to me
a 'close to equilibrium' situation, where the opportunity to enhance
reproductive success is present, but only a limited group of individuals
would take the opportunity and start a new evolutionary trajectory. Given
the violence of chimp groups, it is easy to see how many individuals with
'syntactic advantage' might die childless after failing a competition with
stronger 'non-syntactic' rivals. While ancient primates the
pre-requisites, only the human line's evolutionary path reveals the latent
cognitive capabilities inherent in the primate gene pool.

Note that bonobos are smarter than common chimps. Their culture is female
dominated. Additionally, bonobos are masters at solving inter-personal
problems via sex. According to my model, this cultural style would enhance
cognitive advantage because symbolic interaction subdues brute force.


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