Re(3): Paper on chimp culture

Mark M. Mills (
Tue, 29 Jun 1999 13:35:50 -0400

Date: Tue, 29 Jun 1999 13:35:50 -0400
From: "Mark M. Mills" <>
Subject: Re(3): Paper on chimp culture
In-Reply-To: <

At 11:56 AM 6/29/99 +0100, you wrote:
>(The subject being which came first 'thought' or 'language')
>>I find the notion that thoughts are 'languaged into existence' very
>>unsatisfactory. How do you get 'the first conversation' using this model?
>I am likewise uneasy but cannot 'disprove' it.

There is lots of avenues for research. It is just like any other attempt
to reconstruct evolutionary trajectory.

First, there is ape language research itself. Second, there is brain
imaging. For example, brain imaging shows how language acquisition occurs
in different parts of the brain depending on the age of acquisition. This
technology provides a way to determine similarities between chimp, bonobo
and human cultural acquisition strategies at the neural level.

In the next 20 years, there will be great advances in neural understanding.
As we know more about neural function, we will know more about differences
in chimp, bonobo and human cognition. By looking at differences in great
ape brain function and DNA estimates of gene pool differentiation, we
should have a much better dataset for models of cognitive evolution.

>>It seems much simpler to say the first conversation emerged directly from
>>existing primate consciousness. Most of our culture got over an aversion to
>>seeing human biology emerge from ancient primates, why not say the same
>>thing for our culture and cognitive processes? It seems this should be the
>>starting point until proven otherwise.
>Or primate 'grunts'. I don't hold any particular aversion to either. Are
you clutching at some aversion to have culture
>evolving from 'grunts'?

Aversion? I guess so.

The 'culture evolving from grunts' model inserts a discontinuity in human
evolution, a discontinuity that separates human and ape evolutionary
trajectories. It suggests human cognition occurred after the
differentiation of human and chimp gene pools.

It seems to me that any discontinuity between ape and human culture would
require a great deal of scientific evidence. Apart from our popular origin
myths, everything scientific points to continuity. Every study of great
apes in the wild demonstrates cultural continuity between apes and humans.
Linguists dismissing ape cognitive ability are being constantly forced to
redefine 'syntax' to insure only humans can demonstrate the behavior.
Humans and chimp DNA is 99% the same.

One can propose evolutionary discontinuities, but they need to demonstrate
an ability to fit all known data better than a continuous model. This
isn't the case for the 'grunting' model for cultural emergence. Advocates
of the 'human only' cognitive processes tend to broadly dismiss ape/man
comparative studies.

IMO, the grunting model's major advantage is memetic. Humans have an
instinctive need to acquire 'origin myths' and these are replicated via
memetic processes. Origin myths are weak on evolutionary logic, but high
in satisfying human need for group identity. The nice thing about the
'culture evolving from grunts' model is the delineation of 'insiders and
outsiders.' The chimps, gorillas and bonobos are 'outside', humans are
'inside.' A neat tribal myth. Excellent for rationalizing the use of
chimps for medical research, hunting gorillas and chimps, etc. It will be
very difficult to displace this myth. It's memetic fecundity is very high.

Despite this memetic reality, yes, I'm adverse to origin myths that have
outlived their usefulness.


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