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How We Came To Be Human [Preview]

The acquisition of language and the capacity for symbolic art may lie at the very heart of the extraordinary cognitive abilities that set us apart from the rest of creation

Cognition and Symbolism

WHEN WE SPEAK OF symbolic processes in the brain or in the mind, we are referring to our ability to abstract elements of our experience and to represent them with discrete mental symbols. Other species certainly possess consciousness in some sense, but as far as we know, they live in the world simply as it presents itself to them. Presumably, for them the environment seems very much like a continuum, rather than a place, like ours, that is divided into the huge number of separate elements to which we humans give individual names. By separating out its elements in this way, human beings are able constantly to re-create the world, and individual aspects of it, in their minds. And what makes this possible is the ability to form and to manipulate mental symbols that correspond to elements we perceive in the world within and beyond ourselves. Members of other species often display high levels of intuitive reasoning, reacting to stimuli from the environment in quite complex ways, but only human beings are able arbitrarily to combine and recombine mental symbols and to ask themselves questions such as What if? And it is the ability to do this, above everything else, that forms the foundation of our vaunted creativity.

Of course, intuitive reasoning still remains a fundamental component of our mental processes; what we have done is to add the capacity for symbolic manipulation to this basic ability. An intuitive appreciation of the relationships among objects and ideas is, for example, almost certainly as large a force in basic scientific creativity as is symbolic representation; but in the end it is the unique combination of the two that makes science--or art, or technology--possible. Certainly, intuitive reasoning can take you a long way just by itself, as I think its justifiable to claim the example of the Neandertals shows. The Neandertals left behind precious few hints of symbolic abilities in the abundant record they bequeathed us of their lives, and it is clear that symbols were not generally an important factor in their existences. Still, their achievements were hardly less remarkable for that, and as far as we can tell, Homo neanderthalensis possessed a mastery of the natural world that had been unexceeded in all of earlier human history. Indeed, it seems fair to regard the Neandertals as exponents of the most complex--and in many ways admirable--lifestyle that it has ever proved possible to achieve with intuitive processes alone.

This inevitably brings up the question about the Neandertals that everyone wants answered: Could they talk? Many people, especially looking at the spectacularly beautiful stone tools that the Neandertals made with such skill, find it hard to believe that they couldnt. How, other than through the use of language, could such remarkable skills have been passed down over the generations? Well, not long ago a group of Japanese researchers made a preliminary stab at addressing this problem. They divided a group of undergraduates in two and taught one half how to make a typical Neandertal stone tool by using elaborate verbal explanations along with practical demonstrations. The other half they taught by silent example alone. One thing this experiment dramatically revealed was just how tough it is to make stone tools; some of the undergraduates never became proficient. But more remarkable still was that the two groups showed essentially no difference either in the speed at which they acquired toolmaking skills or in the efficiency with which they did so. Apparently learning by silent example is just fine for passing along even sophisticated stone toolmaking techniques.

Although this experiment involved modern humans, not Neandertals, it does show quite forcefully that, once again, we are making a fundamental mistake by assuming that our way is the only way of doing business in the world. None of this is to suggest, of course, that the Neandertals did not have some form of vocal communication, even quite sophisticated vocal communication. After all, such communication is common among all mammals. And there can be little doubt that Neandertals spoke, in some general sense. What they almost certainly did not possess, however, is language as we are familiar with it.

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