from Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare: the Evolution of Human Consciousness (W.W. Norton, 2001)

The literary brain did not evolve, in the Darwinian sense.  Humans evolved as a species long before external symbols came into existence, and thus the brain could not have evolved specifically for their use.  Moreover, literacy is neither natural nor universal.  Humanity was illiterate until a few thousand years ago, and more than 90 percent of existing human languages have no indigenous form of literacy.  Yet the children of all human cultures are able to acquire literacy if given a chance.  This shows that the neural demons of literacy, in all their exquisite complexity, are entirely cultural in origin.  Literate culture has capitalized on untapped cerebral potential and reprogrammed the human brain in its own image.  (p. 304)
Mind, 304

from Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (HarperCollins, 2018), pp. 151-2

Human beings were never born to read.  The acqusition of literacy is one of the most important epigenetic achievements of Homo sapiens.  . . .  The act of learnng to read added an entirely new circuit to our hominid brain's repertoire.  The long developmental process of learning to read deeply and well changed the very structure of that circuit's connections, which rewired the brain, which transformed the nature of human thought.

Every national and international index of how well US children are doing in reading indicates that, despite all the nation’s wealth, they are failing in droves and performing considerably behind children in both Western and Eastern countries.  We cannot ignore what this portends for our children or for our country.

only one-third of twenty-first century American children now read with sufficient understanding and speed at the exact age when their future learning depends on it.  The fourth grade represents a Maginot line between learning to read and learning to use reading to think and learn.

More disturbing  altogether, close to half of our children who are African-American or Latino do not read in grade four at even a “basic” reading level, much less a proficient one.  This means that they do not decode well enough to understand what they are reading, which will impact almost everything they are supposed to learn from then on, includiing math and other subjects.  I refer to this period as the “vanishing hole in American education” because if children do not learn to read fluently before this time is over, for all educational purposes, they disappear.
the ‘speciation phase’ of human evolution 

1)  What we may term the ‘speciation phase’ of human evolution (Renfrew 2006, p. 224, 2007a, p. 94), the period when biological and cultural coevolution worked together to develop the human genome and the human species [Wrangham 2019], as we know it, was fulfilled already 60 000 years ago. This implies that the basic hardware—the human brain at the time of birth—has not changed radically since that time.

That brings us to the sapient paradox.

2)  There seems to have been a long—in fact, inordinately long—delay between the emergence of anatomically modern humans and our later cultural flowering. Both genetic and archaeological evidence converge on the conclusion that the ‘speciation’ phase of sapient humans occurred in Africa at least 70 000–100 000 years BP, and possibly earlier, and all modern humans are descended from those original populations.

the ‘tectonic’ phase

2)  Renfrew labels a later period, extending from 10 000 years ago to the present, as the ‘tectonic’ phase. This has been a period of greatly accelerated change, stepping relatively quickly through several different levels of social and material culture (but see James C. Scott, Against the Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States; Yale, 2017), including the domestication of plants and animals, sedentary societies, cities and advanced metallurgy. It has culminated in many recent changes, giving us dramatic innovations, such as skyscrapers, atomic energy and the internet. The paradox is that there was a gap of well over 50 000 years between the speciation and tectonic phases. The acceleration of recent cultural change is especially puzzling when viewed in the light of the hundreds of thousands of years it took our ancestors to master fire, stone tool making and coordinated seasonal hunting.

1.  Colin Renfrew, "Neuroscience, evolution and the sapient paradox: the factuality of value and of the sacred," Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2008 Jun 12; 363(1499): 2041–2047.); Colin Renfrew, The Sapient Paradox: Social Interaction as a Foundation of Mind (Video. 2016 Duke U. seminar)
2. Merlin Donald, "The sapient paradox: can cognitive neuroscience solve it?," in Brain.  A Journal of Neurology.  First published online: 2 December 2008
from Philip Roth unbound: interview transcript (Daily Beast, October 30, 2009)

Tina Brown: You said in an interview that you don’t think novels are going to be read 25 years from now. Were you being provocative or do you believe that to be true?

Philip Roth: I was being optimistic about 25 years really. No, I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them, but it’ll be a small group of people—maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range. . . .  To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. . .  I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by. It’s hard to find huge numbers of people, or large numbers of people or significant numbers of people who have those qualities.
from Lambros Malafouris and Colin Renfrew, How Things Shape the Mind : A Theory of Material Engagement (The MIT Press, 2013)

If the intrinsically plastic human brain undergoes constant change subject to various developmental, environmental, and cultural factors, it cannot simply be assumed that “anatomically modern human intelligence” refers to a fixed and stable speciation event. As we saw in chapter 3, for Material Engagement Theory the hallmark of human cognitive evolution is metaplasticity—that is, ever-increasing extra-neural projective flexibility that allows for environmentally and culturally derived changes in the structure and functional architecture of our brain.

from Joseph Margolis, The Unravelling of Scientism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 15

 . . . the great question of history's constitutive role in the formation and transformation of our cognizing powers is now largely ignored . . .

from “Naval Collision Adds to Fears About U.S. Decline in Asia” (NYT 8-22-17)

"It drives home growing worries about a competence deficit within American organs of power under the increasingly besieged Trump administration,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst at De La Salle University in Manila.


Mathematical education in the U.S. is in deep crisis. The World Economic Forum ranks the quality of math and science education in the U.S. a dismal 48th. This is one of the reasons the 2010 report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" by the National Academies warned that America's ability to compete effectively with other nations is fading. . . .  the current lock-step march to the bottom of international student performance in math and science

from Yrjö Engeström and Reijo Miettinen, "Activity theory and individual and social transformation," in Reijo Miettinen, and Raija-Leena Punamaki, Perspectives on Activity Theory (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 25-6:

Differences in cognition across cultures, social groups, and domains of practice are thus commonly explained without seriously analyzing the historical development that has led to those differences.  The underlying relativistic notion is that we should not make value judgements concerning whose cognition is better or more advanced--that all kinds of thinking and practice are equally valuable.  Although this liberal stance may be a comfortable basis for academic discourse, it ignores the reality that in all domains of societal practice value judgements and decisions have to be made everyday.

1.2  George W. Bush Tried to Suppress Publication of PISA Data

from How Pisa became the world's most important exam,, 26 November 2013 (emphasis added):

Among the starkest revelations has been the decline of the US school system. This former education superpower has been caught up and left behind by many other countries, particularly in Asia.

This was distasteful medicine and Mr. Schleicher says that the U.S. administration was deeply unhappy with the 2006 results and was trying to apply pressure on the OECD.

The U.S. politician who intervened to defend the importance of publishing the results was Ted Kennedy, says Mr. Schleicher. Kennedy, who had chaired the senate committee on education, had become very supportive of the Pisa project.

"It was Senator Kennedy who saved my life at the OECD," he says.

This article appeared about two weeks before the release of the 2012 results (on Dec 7, 2013), and thus was based on the 2003, 2006 and 2009 evaluations.  As can be seen in Figure 1, since then U.S. scores have plunged.

Politically, it is a concept of fascism that most closely accomodates the phenomenological minutiae of "Trump".  But what strikes the literate observer at first is Trump's stupidity:

Donald Trump Talks Like a Third-Grader.  (Politico, August 13, 1915.)
For presidential hopefuls, simpler language resonates: Trump tops GOP field while talking to voters at fourth-grade level, (Boston Globe, August 20, 2015).
McMaster Mocked Trump’s Intelligence At a Private Dinner (Buzzfeed, November 20, 2017)
H.R. McMaster reportedly thinks Trump is an “idiot” with the brain of a “kindergartner” (Vox, Nov 20, 2017)
Trump’s latest big interview is both funny and terrifying  (Vox, Oct 23, 2017)

Trump’s latest big interview is both funny and terrifying  (Vox, Oct 23, 2017)
Clubbable, but in the Worst Way (NYT 1-18-18) Fascism

1.1  Emotion and cognition
from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio R. Damasio, “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education,” in Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)

. . . learning is dynamic, social, and context dependent because emotions are, and emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when, and why people think, remember, and learn. (p. 17)

In general, cognition and emotion are regarded as two interrelated aspects of human functioning.   (p. 36)

from David R. Olsen, "History of Writing, History of Rationality," in Eurasia at the Dawn of History (Cambridge, 2016)


Quotes Ong: "Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . .  More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness." (48)

from Almudena Herndando, "The Impact of Social Differentiation on Identity," in Eurasia at the Dawn of History

Research on the contrast between orality and literacy unanimously confirms that writing individualizes people. . . .  writing allows subjects to establish abstract, more rational connections with phenomena outside their own personal experience, whereas in oral societies only that which can be experienced in person may be processed as part of reality." (58)

In this context read The President Who Doesn't Read: Trump’s allergy to the written word and his reliance on oral communication have proven liabilities in office (David A. Graham, The Atlantic  1-5-18).

from Sophia Rosenfeld, A Revolution in Language: the Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France (Stanford, 2001), pp. 150-51

"As the Abbé Grégoire warned his fellow deputies, 'this inevitable poverty of language, which confuses the mind, will mutilate all your addresses and decrees.'  In a political system built upon a series of mental abstractions, popular linguistic confusion, according to this reasoning, was and would continue to be one of the principal sources of political and civil discord. 

How did these well-placed intellectuals know that many ordinary people failed to comprehend the language of the Revolution?  For the Abbé Grégoire, it was a matter of common sense.  Like the savages of late eitheenth-century travel literature, peasants--the often illiterate speakers of foreign idioms, dialects, and ungrammatical French--were widely thought to have great difficulty generalizing their ideas or forming clear conceptions of abstract, nonmaterial terms.   Indeed, Voltaire's conclusion that 'more than half of the habital world is still populated by two-footed animals who live in a horrible condtion approximating the state of nature. . . barely enjoying the gift of speech' retained its force.  Consequently, even when the population in question was the vast rural citizenry of France, its ability to understand the key debates and decrees of the Revolution was assumed to be extremely limited.  As the Abbé Sernin bluntly states before the Convention, 'Artisans and people in the countryside, although elevated by the law to a new level of Liberty and destined to fill the most important positions in the State, these men are, for the most part, still deaf and mute' when it came to any public functions that they might be called upon to play.

. . . reports . . . often contained ominous tales of public incomprehension of the formal language of France's laws and constitution.  A correspondent from the department of Seine-et-Oise, for example, wrote to express his fear that the young children he regularly heard reciting the Declaration of the Rights of Man from memory did not actually understand what they were saying: "I am sadly convinced by questions which I have posed to the oldest among them that they understand the significance of none of the words used in it.  I have reproached their fathers in a fraternal way for not bothering to explain these words to their children.  They have replied that they do not understand any more than their children and that they themselves need someone to explain these words to them as well."  Similarly, a schoolmaster from Fourny wrote to La Feuille villageoise to say that every Sunday he read this journal aloud to the local peasants and answered, to the best of his abilities, their frequent questions about vocabulary that they did not comprehend.  But, he complained, he was afraid that he was spoiling the journal's lessons and deceiving his disciples, because "I often encounter words that I know only a little or badly."  Unfortunately, the words that the schoolmaster failed to grasp ranged from "democracy" and "coalition" to "analysis" and "metaphor."

from James R. Flynn, What is Intelligence?  Beyond the Flynn Effect (Cambridge Univesity Press, 2009):

Our ancestors in 1900 were not mentally retarded.  Their intelligence ws anchored in everyday reality.  We differ from them in that we can use abstractions and logic and the hypothetical to attack the formal problems that arise when science liberates thought from concrete situations.  Since 1950 we have  become more ingenious in going beyond previously learned rules to solve problems on the spot.  pp. 10-11

The scientific ethos, with its vocabulary, taxonomies, and detachment of logic and the hypothetical from concrete referents, has begun to permeate the minds of post-industrial peoples.  This has paved the way for mass education on the university level and the emergence of an intellectual cadre without whom our present civilization would be inconceivable. 29

Science altered our lives and then liberated our minds from the concrete.  This history has not been written because, as children of our own time, we do not perceive the gulf that separates us from our distant [circa 1900] ancestors: the difference between their world and the world seen through scientific spectacles. . . .  As use of logic and the hypothetical moved beyond the concrete, people developed new habits of mind.  They became practiced at solving problems with abstract or visual content and more innovative at administrative tasks." 172-174