[Marxism] Re: human origins

Nick Halliday halliday.nick at gmail.com
Tue Aug 2 06:11:10 MDT 2005

My apologies. That last post was supposed to be to the thread 'human
origins'. So, for the sake of the record, here is that again, with a
real subject given it.


The exchange between AA and CB

>>)Austin, Andrew 
 "Chimps have 'monkey see monkey do' or imitation learning. They don't
learn with symbols."
This statement does not correspond to contemporary fact.  Chimps can
expertly read maps to find hidden objects.  It is not "imitation
learning."  It is symbolic understanding.
CB: On this issue of Chimps reading and following maps, this is actually
more imitative thinking than symbolic.  We discussed this with the late Jim
Blaut here. Andy may have been in that discussion.
A map "imitates" ,in miniature, the area it represents. This is the opposite
of symbolizing. Symbolizing would be for example the word "Michigan" to
represent the land that is Michigan. The letters or sounds  M-i-c-h-i-g-a-n
in no way imitate the land mass they represent. This symbolization. An
arbitrary representation of something by something that it is not.
At any rate, chimps reading and following maps is exactly an imitative or
"monkey-see/monkey-do"  skill.>>

Maps aren't limited to presenting information isomorophically. In
order to understand and interpret a map for a real world task, one
must grasp the transformative relationship between points on the map
and points in the known landscape. For example, one must grasp
'scale'--that something much smaller represents something
true-to-life. That is rather arbitrary. Also the reader of the map
must somehow take a three dimensional landscape and accept it in a
two-dimensional plane. Again, a somewhat opaque symbolic leap.

Even if much of the key information isn't 'arbitrary and
conventional', it is still textual. And that takes quite a leap in
reasoning to understand (that information is to be got from written
form as opposed to face-to-face spoken encounters).

Most maps that humans use are in fact a mix of the arbitrary and
conventional with the motivated and iconic presented in highly
compressed, textual form.

Even human language has elements of iconicity to it. Many languages
have words or somewhat meaningful sounds that are imitative and quite 
suggestive of the sounds of nature or actions or processes otherwise
perceptible outside of language--even states of mind or expressible
emotions. So the relationship between the language and what it is
being used to represent in the process of trying to communicate is not
wholly arbitrary.

Spoken language has to rely largely on arbitrary , conventional
relationships to take mentally controlled speech sounds and combine
them into large sets of syllable types and even larger sets of words.
The 'logic' is to use a minimum number of units at each level
(sub-lexical, lexical, phrasal-clausal, textual-discoursal)
efficiently but with enough redundancy for communication to take place
when and where needed. For all their differences, human languages end
up in their mature states more alike than different.

Languages end up written in equally arbitrary ways when the writing
system sticks closely to some sort of stripped down but 'native
speaker intuitions' about their spoken language's phonetics and
phonology. However, even here iconic and motivated elements can
intrude. For example, the letters <l> and <r> would appear to be
either by accident or design in some way motivated, that is the shape
of the letter refers to the manner of articulation (with the tongue)
that makes a typical /l/ not a typical /r/. And the letter <o> in
English is often associated with vowel sounds that involve a
noticeable degree of lip rounding.

Korean 'hangul' is presented to beginning readers at least as largely
motivated in a phonetic sense (with quite specific phonetic
information), though it would appear fluent readers of the Korean
language perceive it more in terms of syllables (if phonologically)
and whole words.

Humans appear to enjoy a convergence of their considerable phonetic
gifts with their abilities to use symbolic systems. One theory is that
the arbitrary (but at times motivated and not so arbitrary)
symbolizing began with elaborate gesturing accompanied by sounds
(except in times of danger, though obviously sounding out has a
benefit over visual signalling in the dark), but that the consciously
controlled but largely automatised and overlearned gesturing moved
towards the face and converged with the sound-making. Hence the theory
that phonologically controlled speaking (that is, the psycholinguistic
control of visual, face-to-face speech) is predominantly phonetic but
also to an important extent visual. OTOH, speech as it became
linguistic might have been, at first, rather motivated (such as some
loud noise as a type, everytime used as a token representing a certain
kind of danger).

This doesn't mean other animals can't use symbols or think
'symbolically'. Consider remembering what a tool is used for. The
sight of that tool evokes the memory of what that tool is used for.
Which is in some way and to some extent symbolic. However, as for
evidence that other animals have somehow converged their symbolic
abilities with their visual-gestural-phonetic abilities in
phonologically, lexically and grammatically embed meaning in
controlled systems in order to communicate and produce linguistic
speech or text--well, that evidence is lacking, however interesting
some forms of animal communication are. Still, we might be reminded
that Wittgenstein said something to the effect: if a lion could speak,
we wouldn't understand what he was saying.

NH (with input from and in interaction with a web reader of marxmail)

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