The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The US anthropologist Ralph Holloway ("The evolution of the human brain", 1967) claimed already in the 1960s that brain reorganization must have preceded brain evolution: ancient hominids still had a small brain like apes but could already do things that an ape's brain couldn’t do like full bipedalism. He posited a form of positive feedback between “mental” evolution and bodily evolution.

The US anthropologist Terrence Deacon believes that language and the brain co-evolved. They evolved together influencing each other step by step. In his opinion, language did not require the emergence of a language organ. Language originated from symbolic thinking, an innovation that occurred when humans became hunters because of the need to overcome the sexual bonding in favor of group cooperation.

Both the brain and language evolved at the same time through a series of exchanges. Languages are easy to learn for infants not because infants can use innate knowledge but because language evolved to accommodate the limits of immature brains. At the same time, brains evolved under the influence of language through the Baldwin effect.  Language caused a reorganization of the brain, whose effects were vocal control, laughter and sobbing, schizophrenia, autism.

Deacon rejects the idea of a universal grammar à la Chomsky. There is no innate linguistic knowledge. There is an innate human predisposition to language, but it is due to the co-evolution of brain and language and it is altogether different from the universal grammar envisioned by Chomsky. What is innate is a set of mental skills (ultimately, brain organs) which translate into natural tendencies, which translate into some universal structures of language.

Another way to describe this is to view language as a "meme". Language is simply one of the many "memes" that invade our mind. And, because of the way the brain is, the meme of language can only assume such and such a structure: not because the brain is pre-wired to such a structure but because that structure is the most natural for the organs of the brain (such as short-term memory and attention) that are affected by it.

Chomsky's universal grammar is an outcome of the evolution of language in our mind during our childhood. There is no universal grammar in our genes, or, better, there are no language genes in our genome.

The secret of language is not in the grammar, but in the semantics. Language is meaningful. Deacon envisions a hierarchy of levels of reference (of meaning), that reflects the evolution of language. At the top is the level of symbolic reference, a stable network of interconnected concepts. A symbol does not only refer to the world, but also to other symbols. The individual symbol is meaningless: what has meaning is the symbol within the vast and ever changing semantic space of all other symbols. At lower levels, Deacon envisions less and less symbolic forms of representation, which are also less and less stable. At the lowest, most fluctuating level of the hierarchy there lie references that are purely iconic and indexical, created by a form of learning that is not unique to language (in fact, it is widespread in all cognitive tasks).  The lower levels are constrained by  what humans can experience and learn, which is constrained by innate abilities. The higher level, on the other hand, is an emergent system due to the interaction among linguistic agents.


Gesturing in the Mind

According to US neuroscientist Rhawn Joseph, one of the youngest parts of the brain, the inferior parietal lobe of the left hemisphere,  enabled both language, tool making and art itself. It enabled us, in other words, to create visual symbols. It also enabled us to create verbal symbols, i.e. of writing.

The inferior parietal lobe allows the brain to classify and label things. This is the prerequisite to forming concepts and to “abstracting” in general.  Surprisingly, this is also the same organ that enables meaningful manual gesturing (a universal language, that it is also shared with many animals). Thus the evolution of writing is somehow related (neurally speaking) to manual gesturing. The inferior parietal lobe was one of the last organs of the brain to evolve, and it is still one of the last organs to mature in the child (which explains why children have to wait for a few years before they can write and do math).

This lobe is much more developed in humans than in other animals (and non-existent in most). The neurons of this lobe are somewhat unique in that they are “multimodal”: they are capable of simultaneously processing different kinds of inputs (visual, auditory, movement, etc). They are also massively connected to the neocortex, precisely to three key regions for visual, auditory and somatosensory processing. Their structure and location makes them uniquely fit to handle and create multiple associations. It is probably this lobe that enables us to understand a word as both an image, a function, a name and many other things at the same time.

Joseph claims that the emotional aspect of speaking is the original one: the motivation to speak comes from the limbic system, the archaic part of the brain that deals with emotions, and that we share with other mammals. The limbic system embodies a universal language that we all understand, a primitive language made of calls and cries. Each species has its own, but within a species all members understand it. Joseph believes that at this stage the “vocal” hemisphere is the right one. Only later, after a few months, does the left hemisphere impose structure to the vocalizing and thus become dominant in language.


Language as A Sexual Organ

The US evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes that the human mind was largely molded by sexual selection and is therefore mainly a sexual ornament. Culture, in general, and language, in particular, are simply ways for males and females to play the game of sex. When language appeared, it quickly became a key tool in sexual selection, and therefore it evolved quickly.

Darwin had already speculated that language may have evolved through sexual selection(as a means to impress sexual mates). Miller agrees, finding that the usual explanation (that language helps a group trade key information) is only a small piece of the puzzle (individuals, unless they are relatives, have no motivation to share key information since they are supposed to compete).

Even more powerful is the evidence that comes from observing the behavior of today's humans: they compete to be heard, they compete to utter the most sensational sentences, they are dying to talk.

Miller also mentions anatomical evidence: what has evolved dramatically in the human brain is not the hearing apparatus but the speaking apparatus. Miller believes that language, whose intended or unintended effect is to deliver knowledge to competitors, must also have a selfish function, otherwise it would not have developed: individuals who simply delivered knowledge to competitors would not have survived. On the other hand, if language is a form of sexual display, then it makes sense that it evolved rapidly, just like any other organ (bull horns or peacock tails) that served that function. It is unique to humans the same way that the peacock’s tail is unique to peacocks. It is pointless to try and teach language to a chimpanzee the same way that it is pointless to expect a child to grow a colorful tail.


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