Transition in genus homo (was Engels and indigenous peoples)

Greg Schofield gschofield at
Mon May 14 20:33:09 MDT 2001

Charles thanks again on your reply, although I don't know if I have much
more to add.

One thing I was thinking the other day is that an indicator for this
hard-wired grammar my be autism. I don't know if you have read "An
Anthropologist from Mars" by Oliver Sacks, but I found it a revelation -
because it dealt with the life of a woman who suffers from autism but
nevertheless learnt to interact well (well be qualified by her inability to
interact completely - the title of the book is her description of what it
feels like).

Some autistic individuals (and it can vary a lot in degree) exhibit savant
behaviour (The Rain Man) which if nothing else indicates the completeness
of all other brain functions. In fact some savant behaviours (musical and
mathematical) are "grammar" dependant, but the very narrowness of the
application would seem to me to indicate a partially learnt grammar, or
partially preserved hard-wired grammar.

The woman whom Sacks writes about has complete language functionality, is
intelligent and functions socially - her problem (which she sees both as a
gift and a curse) is that during social intercourse she must constantly
interpret what she sees and hears in order to respond to it (and sometimes
misreads the social context). Moreover she also had to learn to mimic
correct responses that went beyond spoken language.

She feels very akin to animals (she describes herself as being able to see
the world as they see it - shorn of social implications), in fact she
designs architecture to fit their needs (for instance, an slaughter house
that does not alarm the stock). Likewise she finds it emotionally
impossible to feel close to other humans.

It is a story which has dwelt on my mind for some time and now I think I
find a context which seems to make sense. A hard-wired grammar would seem
to explain how we can simultaneously process communications within a social
context, in other words because we do so immediately and respond
immediately to it we are socially contextualised by default.

I am reminded of Carrol Cox's earlier quote of Geetz in regard to extreme
autism (overlooking the rather inappropriate comparison to apes):

A cultureless human being would probably turn out to be not an
intrinsically talented though unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless
and consequently unworkable monstrosity.

Personally I have only ever come into contact with a few people who could
be described as highly autistic and in a sense Geetz's quote is quite apt.
Repeated behaviour would seem a very logical response to a deficit in the
ability to process social contexts and this and many other aspects would
appear to fit the case.

Obviously I don't pretend to have adequate knowledge to draw such
conclusions in the case of autism, but Sack's book is the only thing I know
which describes anything approaching the experience of a de-socialised
being, which if our current discussion has been correct would be a result
of having a deep hard-wired grammar overlooked or partially built by a
developing brain (autism can be diagnosed during infancy - although it is
more usually picked up when a child should be starting to socialise -
mothers often recall that the infant did not respond as expected and that
something was "wrong" with their baby very early in the piece).

At 11:06  14/05/01 -0400, you wrote:
>CB: So, grammar in the sense of there is a subject of a sentence, an
>active, purposeful  agent, perhaps ?

Charles I wish I had been able to work out things better than I have, but
this deep grammar, cannot have arisen in order to improve language, rather
it must originally been designed for something else in which language was
involved but not the dominant aspect.

Before the grammar perhaps we should cease referring to animal languages
and talk instead of calls (which can get quite complex). Then the call by
adding a grammar, in the first instance, is not transmuted very much, at
least in the sense of complex syntax and extended vocabulary. However the
point you make above seems very pertinent, a minor shift must have been
apparent in the call-language, signifying a lot more processing having been
taken place with the aid of the grammar.

At least that is how I would make sense of it at the moment. The grammar
being in a sense designed to process social inputs which come in as a form
of communication but are processed as if they were perceived externally
(that is arranged in an order which makes sense of the context of their
delivery - social thought in-embryo).

The effect on the call-language would be something like what you said - the
subject of the utterance becoming more central as an active agent. Pure
animal calls, allow this but only superficially, the collective response to
the communication being the direct effect of the utterance (an utterance
that has no actual subject within it because the entire utterance is the
subject in the grammatical sense).

I don't know if this is making sense, but I do feel there is something in
it, even if this is a little beyond my grasp at the moment. In as sense
this primary transition sets up a "kinda" proto-social being - perhaps I
would be safer saying a comuptational being, but that does not really touch
on the internalisation of the social "matrix" as a defining element of the
individual's potential contribution to group welfare (which probably makes
nothing clearer the way I have expressed it).

>CB: I see what you say about ritual and storytelling below as an important
>indicator of the existence of the socio-historical or symbolling, and the
>evidence of the greatly expanded social in the archaelogical record

Yes I would be fairly strict about this, I may apply proto-social to
previous Erectus existence, but the break when it comes is substantial, the
fact that it covered two distinct subgroups (Neanderthal and Sapien) cannot
be dismissed. I.e. it is not lack of evidence from Homo Erectus, but rather
the explosion of evidence with the coming of these two subspecies, which we
have clear evidence of displacing then contemporary Erectus  - the
Neanderthal's displacement of Erectus in the Near East is well document -
living sites occupied alternatively by both until Erectus is found no more.

This is also what happened to Neanderthal when Sapien arrived - that is we
have firm evidence of displacement - things are less clear vis a vis
Sapiens and contemporary Erectus - my personal belief is that we have been
looking in the wrong place, Africa - my view is that the home of modern
humans is Australasia, while the site of initial displacement is the
Eastern Tropics (not a well excavated region).

Geography itself is important, because the social innovation extended the
geographical range profoundly, allowing humans to inhabit regions far more
extreme than their ancestors could.

Erect apes seem largely confined to a huge strip of ancient savanna which
stretched from the Rift valley across the Mediterranean lake, out over the
what is now deserts in the middle east and up to India, but perhaps not
much further. Homo Erectus, pushed things much further, and occupied the
tropics and up to the then temperate zone.

Neaderthals seem to have developed in the cold periphery of modern Europe
and descended down across the Mediterranean basin and throughout the middle
east, but then they were caught up by the intrusion of Homo Sapiens and
finally dying out in Southern Spain, literally displaced over Europe until
their retreat was cut-off by the Gibraltar straits (I believe this also
happened across North Africa but I do not know the evidence).

The geographic element lends credence that social invention caused an
explosion of modern humans which enabled them to displace others and most
importantly swiftly occupy the least favourable areas of the world (from
which racial characteristics developed as adaptions to these extreme
conditions - ie very recently biologically speaking and very superficially
- minor changes to external appearance in order to better survive extreme

It is this next move, following the explosion of Sapiens across the globe
which interests me most as this is when present history begins to take
shape, as people socially adapted to extreme peripheral conditions move in
on those who have enjoyed more favourable circumstances (absorbing and
displacing them in the process). There was probably a climatic trigger to
this as so much seems to have happened across the globe about 10,000 years
ago (there was a previous episode at around 40,000 years ago).

>CB: I still think that the development here should not emphasize
>individual reflection, or the individual awareness of its objectivity,
>rather the individual member of the species as growing in leaps in ability
>to have a consciousness that reflects, and as you say is even a mass
>Subject, active not only passively reflecting, reactivating in that the
>living subject reactivates ancestoral subjects, individual members of the
>species. The individuals also grow in their ability to think collectively
>with others in the living generation. What is important in individual
>reflection is that the individual increases its capacity to "hear many
>voices" in its head, conceive of the self as a unity of the many and
>diversity of the group , "synchronically and diachronically" , as they say.

Charles you are right, but I would add a note of caution. Biologically it
is important to always rest particular acquired attributes to the
individual organism. First and foremost because only by being individually
successful do biological adaptions gain specie wide impact. When Social
evolution emerges this is absolutely wrong - social evolution does not obey
the rules of biological evolution, in fact it negates them (there is a
broad resemblance but it soon falls apart at the practical level).

Naturally we have a problem when dealing with the proto and full
development of social beings in these discussions. However, the rule must
be that when talking about biological improvements the individual is the
correct mode of description (the individual must prosper to breed and must
breed to pass on the adaptions). When social adaptions are talked about the
individual ceases to be the applicable term, rather the social whole
dominates the individual existence and defines it.

Unfortunately we need to swap between the two modes of expression and I
don't always get it right.

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia

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