Engels and indigenous peoples

Greg Schofield gschofield at SPAMone.net.au
Tue May 8 21:52:43 MDT 2001

Charles I thought I might get off a quick reply.

At 02:12  8/05/01 -0400, you wrote:
>Now the new problem is what general conditions could make symbolic thought,
>which implies a grammar, be promoted that was then used later, co-opted
>that is, for language proper?

The reason I came up with compute (rather than thinking in order to convey
the simplicity and pattern matching attributes) is just this. Thus I would
begin by apes having a largish communications means (that is a means of
reporting externals and conveying emotional states).

As these communicated states of emotion re-enforce or over-ride, the apes
are perfectly able to come to group directions simply by mass
communication. A form of pattern matching in practice and this is another
reason why hierarchies become important in giving more experienced members
more weight than others. Thus the noisy,excited exchanges are therefore
immensely practical for the apes - the apes thus compute a mission via
these exchanges without anyone of them expressing the mission - it thus
works itself out.

A primitive grammar can internalise most of this and derive instead not a
defacto intention communally derived but a announced intention which can
likewise be internalised by others. You get several more potential steps at
computation this way and likewise derive a more complex solution.

>CB: We have had some threads on related topics on this list.
>What occurs to me right off ( as pertinent but not a full answer to your
>question) is that "symbolling" is the "opposite" of mimicking.
>Apes and other animals can mimic or imitate ( "monkey see, monkey do").
>But symbolling is in essence the opposite of imitating because a symbol
>uses  Not A to represent A, if you follow.  A spoken word or string of
>sounds that a spoken word is equates those sounds with something that they
>are not and with something that they do not even try to imitate.  The word
>"d-o-g" in no way imitates an actual dog the way a picture of a dog does.

I have not read these threads yet, but my reading of the work with apes and
sign language satisfies me that intense training can overcome the initial
deficit and these apes make the transition. Lying is a good indication of a
manipulation, likewise blaming which at least one gorilla does regularly.

I remember an exchange that went something like this. An ironing board had
been smashed, obviously by the gorilla. "Who did this?" "I don't know, it
was like this!" "You did this, you broke the board." '"No the other trainer
did this." "She is too small to break it." "She came in and jumped on it
until it was broken." Anyone with children will recognise the logic here,
the need to mentally distance themselves from their own wrong doing - the
ability to elaborate the lie and lay the blame elsewhere (often followed by
the ability to believe the lie - such is the power of symbolic thought). I
mentioned this because this is the one example I found convincing.

Early training with symbols (actual symbols) was not as convincing as when
some apes where taught a fully human language (sign language). The calmer
gorillas seemed to do much better at this than the excitable chimps. But I
would argue that associated symboling was well advanced in both cases.

Of course it is the intense training which differs the ape from the human
in this. The grammar is imposed. Hearing children will learn the signing of
their deaf parents without much more than promoting - the apes have to be
forced into this - to me that is the important fact.

>So, the key qualitative brain process that must originate and grow is this
>, well, dialectical idea of equating two things that are not the same,
>none other than a unity and struggle of opposites.   Symbols are unities
>and struggles of opposites.   That which is represented is represented by
>something that it is not.
>The question for me is , how does this create such a powerful ability to
>store memories and even allow other individuals to share each others
>experience , including living people share the experience of dead people.
>By the way, another short statement of the unique human capacity is that
>we can learn from the experience of OTHER people. All animals learn from
>their own experience. But we learn most of what we know from other
>people's, other individuals' experiences.  Hearsay is the key to human
>society (:>)).

I agree with this, but point to a jump involved - that is transmission
requires more language (ie the second jump taken well after the grammar has
been established). At a low level even apes are capable of sharing
experience (I know this is not what you mean), some sharing has already
present, but still very immediate - still not knowledge so much as experience.

It would seem eloborate language - story telling language - is the
fundamental requirement of this higher transmission. One can readily
imitate someone else's communication, that is not a problem in itself - but
transmuting this experience into a form of pure communication is quite a
different thing and for that a lot of language is needed. Like symbolic
action (ritual) it depends on story, narrative which both depend on true

>CB: I'd say it is not so much the vocalization but the ability to treat as
>the same things that are different; the ability to act as if a series of
>vocalized sounds are equivalent to a "dog" or a "tree" or a " mother" or a
>whatever, when clearly the sounds "d-o-g" are not a dog. The ability to
>unify opposites , in other words.  Dialectics is the heart of the symbol.

Yes narrative depends entirely on this, and the dialectics are there in a
number of ways, including the grammar itself as  the heart.

>However, perhaps vocalization is or was originally the fastest or most
>efficient way to generate symbolic representations and communicate them to
>others. Body language such as hand signals or face signals might have been
>used too.

Rather the reverse, body language predates the ape, it was co-opted into
language and story telling and remains with us still. I would refer to some
of Oliver Sacks observations on brain damaged people. One group of stroke
victims had the common aphasic inability to make sense of words, but
emotional tone and body language they readily understood. One person on the
ward had a much rarer complaint, she had lost this ability and could only
hear words.

Ronald Reagan was on telly the ward broke-up in laughter, they read the
body language and thought it a comedy act, they loved Reagan thought him
absolutely wonderful (there is a lesson here). The one isolated woman was
very worried, indeed according to Sacks quite distressed. The problem is
she did not get any of the emotional tones or the body language she just
heard what was being said and she was terrified (I think it might have been
the evil empire speech). Anyhow the mutual support of the spoken the
language of the body cannot be separated, except amongst the stroke damaged.

>In this regard, to first tools themselves may have been symbols of a sort.
>Levi-Strauss' notion of the logic of the concrete is suggestive in this

I have problems with these incrementalist approaches. Following Gould I
would see quick leaps followed by extended periods of stability in the
evolutionary record - it makes sense dialectically as well.

>I will mull over your computation hypothesis. At another level of
>development, writing, I have noticed that much of the earliest writing was
>computational - the wedge forms of the Sumerians ( I think) were used by

Yes I agree with this, proto-writing is very important to look at - often
passed over as a form of mnemonics (just memory prompts) increasing
evidence is that much was used for quite complex astronomical calculations,
critically important in exploiting natural resources (some very old as well
- Paleolithic).

I also take seriously the computational (astronomical) function of some
older monuments (although I know of many examples when this is taken far
too far and becomes completely ridiculous). As far as I am concerned the
functionality of Stonehenge has been proved over and over again and
supported by many other megalithic monuments in Europe before the
introduction of multi-season crops (dependance on a single crop seems to
have gone hand in hand with excessive ritual reliance on astronomy - which
makes sense).

The early tally systems were I think more computational than we give them
credit for - in otherwords rather than being a receipt as is often assumed,
no one seems to notice how often such tags are stored in or near the
products they supposedly tally and how few seem to show ownership as such
(of course this is not true in all examples - personal seals became
widespread amongst the Indus valley and latter Mesopotamia).

>CB: The notion of something developed for one purpose becoming useful for
>others , "exponentially useful" , seems likely.

I go one step further and make it a rule (there will be exceptions) not
only in biology but socially as well - when Marx emphasised irony in
history I think he was making the same point.

>CB: Yes, the key is the qualitative shift from imitation to unifying
>differences .
>And then I would say the next key becomes passing "it" along to the next
>generation. By the way , in this regard,  length of childhood, a
>biological issue is as important as brain size, in a way.   The whole
>system of symbols takes a longer and longer time to learn, because it gets
>bigger and bigger.

Yes, but a break we can point to in the archaeological record - the point
of Homo Sapien where all the previous foundations suddenly came together
into a new form of being.

Sorry to be so pedantic on this but I feel we must separate the initial
foundations very clearly in time from their latter elaboration (hence it
may have only been a change to vocal control and brain size in order for
all the rest to rush through - a couple of simple steps which unleashes the

>CB: I have to think about this computation issue more. We are talking
>about counting. We have right now a thread going on fundamental mathematics.
>Of course, we have ten fingers, and so the origin of base ten is suggestive.

I am afraid maths is not a strong subject with me, but by way of making
things even more complex, base ten is a relatively modern invention. For
some reason I don't understand, ancient civilisations seem to have adopted
less obvious base systems at first (perhaps based on astronomical counting
methods) and then latter as scribes become more common and the application
of maths more widespread there is a movement towards base ten calculating
(but not always).

I might also remark that many societies get by with a very rudimentary
ability to count (if at all). Reputably the traditional Masi (wrong
spelling they live in Kenya and to the north) could not count at all, but
could glance at a herd of cattle and see which one is missing.

Likewise I had a great great uncle who worked as a shearer who could count
thousands of sheep as they entered a paddock accurately but by family
tradition was quite unable to add up accounts of money.

I use this just to illustrate how wrong headed incrementalist ideas can be
and that we must be very wary of them where-ever they turn up.

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia

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