(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Merlin Donald argues that
the modern mind of symbolic thought arose from a nonsymbolic form of
intelligence through gradual absorbtion of new representational systems.
Donald advances a theory of evolutionary development of the human mind in
four stages, which roughly correspond to stages of cognitive growth in
modern humans. Early hominids were limited to episodic representation of
knowledge, which was useful in remembering repeating episodes (the "episodic"
Homo Erectus developed a "mimetic" (prelinguistic but roughly symbolic) system of motor-based representations, which enabled it to communicate intentions and desires and, on a larger scale, enabled generations to pass on cultural artifacts (the "mimetic" mind). Homo Sapiens acquired language and therefore the ability to construct narratives and build myths, and myths represent integrated models of the world by which individuals could generalize and predict (the "mythic" mind).
Modern humans, helped by written language, achieved higher, symbolic representational capabilities such as logic (the "theoretic" mind). According to Piaget's and Vygotsky's epistemological theories, children follow a similar path to full-fledged thinking, from event to mimetic, from narrative to symbolic.
Language and thought are tightly related: some forms of thought require language, and language reflects what forms of thought are possible. Symbols per se did not cause any revolution in thinking: the kind of mental models that the mind could build caused the revolution. And language (or symbols) was simply a means to represent those models. The purpose of language was to allow individuals to share a common model of the world. Narrative was the natural product of language. Narrative led to unified, collective models of reality, in particular those embodied by myths.