the sapient paradox cat

the post-speciation epoch and the sapient paradox

1.  from (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.):

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, 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. from Merlin Donald, The sapient paradox: can cognitive neuroscience solve it?, in Brain.  A Journal of Neurology.  First published online: 2 December 2008.  This is a commentary on The Sapient Mind: Archaeology Meets Neuroscience, cited above.  Below is an excerpt from this commentary:

Colin Renfrew's keynote article in this volume focuses on what he calls the ‘sapient paradox’, a puzzle that has been a thorn in the side of prehistory researchers for some time. 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.

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, 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.

If human beings were biologically modern 70 000 years ago, why the long delay before this cultural potential was realized?

See Colin Renfrew, “Toward a Cognitive Archeology: Material Engagement and the Early Development of Society,” in Ian Hodder, Archaeological Theory Today (2nd ed.), (Polity Press, 2012)

from Steven Mithen, "When We Were Nicer," review of On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail, in LRB 24, January, 2008:

Some archaeologists (myself included) see a radical break, either with the emergence of Homo sapiens or rather later, at 70,000 years ago, when the first unambiguously symbolic artefacts and body adornments are known. Found in Blombos Cave in South Africa, they date from just prior to the great diaspora – the populating of Asia, Europe and eventually the Americas by Homo sapiens from its African home. This was also the start of cumulative culture change, along with symbolic behaviour in all its artistic and religious manifestations. My guess is that 70,000 years ago was most likely the time when the final stages of the evolution of language occurred, in itself probably the ‘catalysing event’ that kicked off the new type of historical process Smail warns us against accepting

from Timothy R. Pauketat, An Archaeology of the Cosmos: Rethinking Agency and Religion in Ancient America (Routledge, 2012), p. 30

Much of 20th-century anthropology considered religion separately from agency and the analysis of objective human experience in the world.  Many archeologists too, especially when it comes to questions of religion, have continued to separate subjective beliefs, cultures, ideologies, or cosmologieis from objective bodies, behaviors, histories or practices.  Indeed, this is the very basis of the Western world, with religions that profess beliefs while simultaneously disciplining bodies and purging them of their desires.

from T. D. Price and G. M. Feinman, Chapter 1, “Social Inequality and the Evolution of Human Social Organization”, in Pathways to Power: New Perspectives on the Emergence of Social Inequality (Springer, 2010)

In a very real sense, human society over the last 100,000 years or more may have been characterized by a fundamental tension between relations based on dominance, hierarchy, and kin altruism (part of our primate heritage) and new capacities for social cognition, cultural learning, alliance building, and cooperation, whether the latter behaviors were learned or part of recently acquired innate tendencies (Boehm 2000, Stone 2008: 79, Tomasello et al. 2005).

from Michael Tomasello, Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard University Press, 2014)

Importantly, this evolutionary scenario does not mean that humans today are hardwired to think in these new ways. A modern child raised on a desert island would not automatically construct fully human processes of thinking on its own. Quite the contrary. Children are born with adaptations for collaborating and communicating and learning from others in particular ways--evolution selects for adaptive actions. But it is only in actually exercising these skills in social interaction with others during ontogeny that children create new representational formats and new inferential reasoning possibilities as they internalize, in Vygotskian fashion, their coordinative interactions with others into thinking for the self. The result is a kind of cooperative cognition and thinking, not so much creating new skills as cooperativizing and collectivizing those of great apes in general. And so let us tell a story, a natural history, of how human thinking came to be, beginning with our great ape ancestors, proceeding through some early humans who collaborated and communicated in species-unique ways, and ending with modern humans and their fundamentally cultural and linguistic ways of being.   p. 6

from Philip G. Chase, The Emergence of Culture. The Evolution of a Uniquely Human Way of Life (Springer, 2006)*  pp. 1-2

Human behavior and ape behavior, like that of all mammals, is guided in part by ideas, concepts, beliefs, etc. that are learned in a social context from other individuals of the same species.  Among humans, however, some of these are not just learned socially but are also created socially, through the interactions of multiple individuals. . . .  Culture cannot be understood at the level of the individual alone.  Knowing the motivations and mental constructs of the individuals invlved may be necessary to understand cultural creations or cultural changes, but it is not sufficient.  It is also necessary to analyze the interactions of those involved.  In this sense, human culture is an emergent phenomenon in a way that nonhuman "culture" is not.  As Mihata (1997:36) put it,

what we describe most often as culture is an emergent pattern existing on a separate level of organization and abstraction from the individuals, organizations, beliefs, practices or cultural objects that constitute it.  Culture emerges from the simultaneous interaction of subunits creating meaning (individuals, organizations, etc.)

This emergent property of human culture has important implications.  It makes the nature of human social life different in fundamental ways from that of all other species (in spite of the continuities that also exist).  It makes it possible for groups of humans to coordinate their behavior in ways that are impossible for nonhumans.  It changes the relationship of the individual to the social group.  Because culture provides motivations for the behavior of the individual, it gives the group a means of controlling the individual that is absent among other primates.  Among all living humans, culture provides a (uniquely human) mental or intellectual context for almost everything the individual thinks or does.

*Reviewed by Leonid Vishnyatsky, Institute for the History of Material Culture, Dvortsovaya nab. 18, St. Petersburg, 191186, RUSSIA

two reviews of Flannery and Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Harvard, 2012)

Steven Mithen, "Foursomes and so on",  London Review of Books, 11 April 2013

Turning to ‘egalitarian’ hunter-gatherers, Flannery and Marcus stress various factors: the role of humour, teasing and ridicule as levelling mechanisms; how influence is won not by bullying but through generosity, modesty and diplomacy; how language and intelligence serve – and most probably evolved – to promote social networking; the absolute imperative to share. They remark how strikingly the urge to maintain egalitarianism contrasts with the jostling for power in chimpanzee societies. The explanation, they suggest, is that while apes put sex first, followed by food and then defence, the order for humans is food, defence and then sex, with marriage acting as a food-getting partnership rather than a hormone-driven sexual liaison. This is why marriage was always a flexible institution: one man one woman; two men one woman; two women one man; foursomes and so on. That said, hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is rather a sham. Flannery and Marcus argue that even the most egalitarian of them had a dominance hierarchy as clear-cut as that in any ape society. The difference is that for humans, the alpha elite were invisible supernatural beings, far too powerful to be overthrown, while the betas were ancestors who did the bidding of the alphas.  No ‘egalitarian’ hunter-gatherer was ever more than a gamma in the social hierarchy. [This misses the symbolic order entirely, and is a rather snide remark suggesting the author's discomfort with the notion of egalitarianism . . . ]

Eric Poehler, review in American Journal of Archaeology, Jan 2014
Department of Classics, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Part 1 of The Creation of Inequality takes the reader though Rousseau's "state of Nature" and sets the baseline in the Paleolithic for the development of inequality. Physical differences had always separated members of species—strength, agility, intelligence—and they form the basis of social organization in our nearest primate kin. Thus, in chimpanzee troupes, the strongest (the alphas) dominate the rest through violence, betas dominate all but the alphas, and so on. The authors compare this "natural" order to the stratification of beings in early cosmologies: gods are all-powerful alphas, ancestors are betas, and humans can only be gammas. What separated humans from chimpanzees and prevented our earliest societies from being ruled by force was our capacity for language. In these first chapters, Flannery and Marcus demonstrate how most early groups used shame, humor, and the clamor of the group to maintain fairness among its members.

from Richard W. Wrangham (Department of Antroropology, Peabody Museum, Harvard University) and Michael L. Wilson (Department of Ecology and Behavior, University of Minnesota, and Gombe Stream Research Centre, the Jane Goodall Institute, Tanzania), "Collective Violence: Comparison Between Youths and Chimpanzees"

cultural and biological approaches provide complementary rather than alternative perspectives in the analysis of human behavior. (p. 234)

Abstract: Patterns of collective violence found among humans include similarities to those seen among chimpanzees.  These include participation predominantly by males, an intense personal and group concern with status, variable subgroup composition, defense of group integrity, inter-group fights that include surprise attacks, and a tendency to avoid mass confrontation. . . .  Youth gangs . . . differ from chimpanzee communities as a result of numerous cultural and environmental influences including complex relations with non-gang society. . .  Nevertheless, the concepts that sociologists use to account for collective violence in youth gangs are somewhat similar to those applied by anthropologists and biologists to chimpanzees. . . .  We therefore view the similarities in aggression between humans and chimpanzees that we review here as being adaptive responses to local conditions, predicated on an inherent male concern for social status. (p. 233)


from William Calvin, A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2004).  See Calvin's Webpage

It is just in the last 1 percent of that up-from-the-apes period that human creativity and technological capabilities have really blossomed.  It's been called "The Mind's Big Bang."  In our usual expansive sense of "mind," the history of the mind is surprisingly brief, certainly when compared with the long increase in brain size and the halting march of toolmaking. xiv 

  . . . there are emergent properties lurking in anything that produces a steep gradient. . .  I can imagine softwiring emergents in the brain intensively engaging in structured stuff at earlier ages.  The steeper gradients between rich and poor may produce surprising social effects unless we do something about the rich getting richer. 177-8

"Yet once our education has the techniques to incorporate what is being learned about brain plasticity and inborn individual differences, we are likely to produce many more adults of unusual abilities, able to juggle twice as many concepts at once, able to follow a longer chain of reasoning, able to shore up the lower floors of their mental house of cards to allow fragile new levels to be tried out, metaphors and beyond--the survival of the stable but on a higher level yet again."   183

"Such education, perhaps more than any of the imagined genetic changes, could make for a very different adult population.  We would still look the same coming out of the womb, would still have the same genetics, but adults could be substantially different.  A lot of the elements of human intelligence are things like that, while they also have a genetic basis, are malleable; we ought to be able to educate for superior performance."

"But at the high end, what might pump us up even higher?  If our conscisness is a house of cards, perhaps there are techniques, equivalent to bending the cards, that will allow us to spend more time at the more abstract levels.  Can we shore up our mental edifices to build much taller "buildings" or discover the right mental "steel?""

Emergents are hard to predict, and they are not all beneficial . . . " (pp. 177-78) (p. 186)

from Juan Carlos Gomez, Apes, Monkees, Children and the Growth of Mind (Harvard University Press, 2004)

But is there any evidence that nonhuman primates may experience something akin to a cultural shaping of their minds in the way Vygotsky implied for human children?   . . . .  More recently, Tomasello (1999) has emphasized the "socialization of attention" and cognition in general as the explanation for higher achievements (by human standards) of human-reared apes.  Although the two approaches emphasize very different factors, in fact from a Vygotskian perspective they are complimentary.  Vygotsky's view was that adult mediation was optimally achieved through the use of signs and symbols, especially speech and language.  In his view, higher cognitive processes--the processes that differentiate humans from other apes--could only be created through this sociocultural mediation.  The possibility that, at a reduced scale, the mind of an ape can be upgraded by giving him, on the one hand, a regime of socally controlled attention and interactive experiences with humans, and on the other, a new, more explicit form of representing the world, would confer dramatic support to the Vygotskian notion that higher cognition can be created through cultural processes of develoment that change the nature of cognitive ontogeny. (pp. 262-3)


Lambros Malafouris and Colin Renfrew, How Things Shape the Mind : A Theory of Material Engagement (MIT Press, 2013): excerpt one

The image of the brain as an inherently plastic and environmentally contextualized adaptive organ is not new in developmental neuroscience. (See, e.g., Wexler 2006.) What has changed drastically in the past 20 years, however, is our understanding of the different types of plastic changes (functional, structural, and anatomical) and of what those changes imply for human development. Moreover, the rapid development of new imaging technologies offered new means of exploring the effects of culture on the human brain and of understanding the mechanisms of activity-dependent plasticity (Poldrack 2000; Kelly and Garavan 2005; Quartz and Sejnowski 1997) and “environmental enrichment” (Nithianantharajah and Hannan 2006). Social and developmental neuroscience can now confirm that our minds and brains are potentially subject to constant change and alteration throughout the human life span (Blakemore 2008; Blakemore and Choudhury 2006; Sowell et al. 2003)—change and alteration caused by our ordinary engagement with cultural practices and the material world.

There is little doubt, then, that the human brain is as much a cultural artifact as a biological entity, or that it is “both an artefact of culture and a cultural artefact” (Mithen and Parsons 2008). Like a piece of clay thrown on the wheel of culture, the human brain is subject to continuous reshaping, rewiring, and remodeling. On this view, the brain, far from a hardwired modular organ, emerges as a dynamic co-evolutionary process of deep enculturation and material engagement. The traditional neo-evolutionary view (also prevalent in archaeology) that takes the brain as a biological constant after the appearance of Homo sapiens needs to be revised. (See, e.g., Evans et al. 2005.) The possibility of ongoing evolution, with significant human genetic changes happening during historic time, continues to gain support. (See, e.g., Cochran and Harpending 2010.) It is precisely for these reasons that the focus of this book is not restricted to early prehistory but extends into more recent periods of human development. Grounded on a neural-constructivist (e.g., Westerman et al. 2007) developmental framework, MET recognizes that the hallmark of human brain evolution is not to be found in the ever-increasing sophistication or specialization of a modular mind, but in an ever-increasing projective flexibility that allows for environmentally and culturally derived changes in the structure and the functional architecture of the brain’s circuitry.  p.45-6


Malafouris, Lambros, and Renfrew, Colin. How Things Shape the Mind : A Theory of Material Engagement (The MIT Press, 2013): excerpt two

Epilogue: How Do Things Shape the Mind?

In this book I have sought to expose some of the prejudices, and have questioned some of the preconceptions, that are prevalent in our ways of thinking and in our ways of doing cognitive archaeology. In a radical and perhaps for some a puzzling manner, I have tried to reformulate the question of human cognition in a manner that will challenge us to reassess our intuitions about what counts as a cognitive process. Drawing on the general hypothesis of the extended mind, I have depicted human cognitive processing as a hylonoetic field —a mindscape quite literally extending into the extra-organismic environment and material culture. This is not simply the view—much more compatible with common sense—of a cognitive agent that depends heavily on external props and tools, as when we use pencil and paper to do a large multiplication. Such a view would simply recognize the importance of mediation in human thinking—a proposal already put forward, most famously by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, in so-called cultural-historical activity theory, decades before the cognitive revolution of the 1960s began.  Nor was it simply my intention to rehearse the well-known criticisms of the computational ideal of mind as an algorithmic, rule-governed, and sequential representational engine (an ideal that is characteristic of “good old-fashioned artificial intelligence”). Instead, the chief innovation of this book lies in the more radical idea that human cognitive and emotional states or processes literally comprise elements in their surrounding material environment. According to the hypothesis of the constitutive intertwining of mind with the material world that I set out in chapter 4, our ways of thinking are not merely causally dependent upon but constituted by extracranial bodily processes and material artifacts. Some people may find this stronger version of extended-mind theory hard to defend and difficult to embrace fully. Such a reaction is, of course, to be anticipated, because once the conventional demarcations of skin and skull are removed it appears that conventional cognitive science loses the analytical purity of its object of study. More important, as the philosopher Alva Noë points out (2009, 185), in view of the influential if not foundational role that the classical “internalist” plays in cognitive sciences, “whole research programs have to be set aside.” But what may appear to be a loss from one point of view may be an important gain from another. In any case, it is important to remember that, radical as it may be, the approach to the study of mind that I have set forth in this book emerges as a legitimate and natural ontological possibility once we “rid ourselves of the idea that our brains are somehow touched with the magic dust that makes them suitable to act as the physical machinery of mind and self, while the nonbiological stuff must forever remain mere slave and tool” (Clark 2007b, 118).

But why does it matter, for archaeology, where the boundaries of mind are drawn? Why should we abandon the well-entrenched view of human cognition as a strictly or primarily intracranial affair? How far are we willing to go with the idea of extended cognition? Precisely how does extended-mind theory relate to the study of material culture? In this epilogue, I will offer a few summary remarks on some obvious and some less obvious ramifications that Material Engagement Theory has for the archaeology of mind and for the study of material culture. Methodological ramifications

What do cognitive archaeology and anthropology gain by adopting the perspective of Material Engagement Theory? Starting at the level of method, one immediately obvious consequence, and one potential payoff, is nothing less than a reconfiguration of the intellectual landscape inhabited by the archaeology of mind. (See also Wheeler 2010b; Knappett 2005.) The spreading of mind transforms material culture into an important cognitive extension, not in some symbolic or secondary representational sense, but in a more immediate and direct way. As a result of this shift, we need no longer divorce thought from embodied activity, as we need no longer adopt the stance of methodological individualism and thus reduce the complexity of an extended and distributed cognitive system to the isolated brain of a delimited human agent.  pp. 227-8


Malafouris, Lambros, and Renfrew, Colin. How Things Shape the Mind : A Theory of Material Engagement (The MIT Press, 2013): excerpt three

Despite many archaeologists’ confidence in the notion of a “modern mind,” one could question the existence of such an identifiable human core that is sufficiently stable and enduring to be used as a single universal designation for the cognitive status of our species. In particular, I think the concept of “modernity” is too vague, underdetermining, and potentially question-begging to serve as a justification for such a transition in the mental profile of our species. I do not wish to question or deny the existence of a distinctly human mind; I only deny that such a mind exists as an essence—that is, as a set of fixed and biologically determined capacities whose origins can be explained by appeal to some fortuitous genetic mutation and whose products can be seen reflected in the archaeological record in a series of preconceived fixed behavioral traits, as the notions of cognitive or behavioral modernity seem to imply. Against that view, I hope, I have demonstrated in this book that the human mind exists as a historically situated actuality—that is, an emergent product of complex ecological relationships and flexible incorporative forms of material engagement. p. 239

Whichever list of early modern human behavioral traits one chooses, Eurocentric or not (see Henshilwood and Marean 2003), and whichever precise model of change one subscribes to, gradualistic or sudden (see d’Errico and Stringer 2011), there are two major and deeply entrenched implicit assumptions behind the debate over the origin of modern human intelligence. The first is that the brain’s anatomy and structure stayed the same after the main speciation event, whenever and wherever we decide to situate that. The second is that material culture, though it can be seen to express possible changes (genetic or other) in human cognition, has no causal efficacy with respect to these changes and no direct relationship with the mechanisms that underlie these changes, which should be sought in the domain of human biology. This means that the role of objects and things in the overall evolutionary scheme remains instrumental and their status remains epiphenomenal. Things are treated as a difference that doesn’t make a difference. For instance, changes in technology and innovations in materials such as those discussed in chapters 7 and 8 may suggest cognitive changes, such as enhanced working memory, inventiveness, recursion, and creativity, but ultimately they depend on, and must have originated because of, some sudden genetic mutation, such as the FOXP2 gene associated with the development of human ability for speech and language (Enard et al. 2002). This attitude, as I have pointed out, is symptomatic of a more general tendency in the mainstream cognitive sciences to leave material culture outside the cognitive equation proper. I consider this epistemic neglect of the object one of the most pressing problems in the study of mind. p. 240

From the perspective of Material Engagement Theory, none of the assumptions mentioned above can be sustained. For one thing, what is it about the human brain that remains the same? Although recent DNA studies (Mellars 2006a,b) suggest that the human genetic structure doesn’t seem to have changed much, the human brain almost certainly has. As was discussed extensively in chapter 3, cognitive development is no longer seen as the progressive unfolding of information laid out in the genome. The traditional view of a one-directional flow of cause and effect from genes (DNA) to RNA to the structure of proteins which they encode gives way to a subtler picture in which physical, social, and cultural aspects of environment and behavior can trigger the expression of genes (Westermann et al. 2007, 76; Quartz and Sejnowski 1997; Gottlieb 2003, 2007). 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.  pp. 240-41

from Making Human Beings Human: Bioecological Perspectives on Human Development, Urie Bronfenbrenner, ed. (Sage Publications, 2005)

The contemporary scientific study of human development is characterized by a committment to the understanding of the dynamic relationships between the developing individual and the integrated, multilevel ecology of human development.  This approach to development is marked by a theoretical focus on temporally (historically) embedded person-context relational process; by the embracing of models of dynamic change across the ecological system; and by relational, change-sensitive methods predicated on the idea that individuals influence the people and institutions of their ecology as much as they are influenced by them. (ix)

Especially in its early phases, but also throughout the life course, human development takes place through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interaction between an active, evolving biopsychosocial human organism and the persons, objects and symbols in its immediate external environment. (xviii)

Within the bioecological theory, develoment is defined as the phenomenon of continuity and change in the biopsychological characteristics of human beings both as individuals and as groups.  The phenomenon extends over the life course across successive generations and through historical time both past and present. (3)


The excerpt below from John Dupré, "Causality and Human Nature in the Social Sciences," in Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology (Oxford, 2012), is one of the best summaries available of what could be called the Progressive view of human psycho-cognitive development (Dewey, Vygotsky, Lunacharsky, Krupskaya, Bruner, Ceci):

It is . . . clear that recognition of the variety of factors involved in development makes possible a diversity of individual outcomes within even quite narrowly defined populations. (285)

 . . . the human mind . . . involves a new level of capacity to transform the world beyond the organism. (291)

If I simply act in pursuit of whatever passing whim is uppermost at the moment I exhibit no more causal power than any other animal.  If I choose to build a bridge, write a book, or cook dinner, and subordinate my choice of actions to this decision, I exercise to a greater or lesser degree a distinctively human ability to shape the world.  In the social realm, the ability to confrom to principle, above all moral principle, is the kind of regimentation of behaviour that constitutes a uniquely human achievement. (291)

 . . . it is the fitting of action into some kind of systematic pattern that distinguishes the truly free agent from one who merely has the ability to respond to the whim of the moment; and . . .  [what emerges is] the ontological picture of the human agent as an entity enabled to pursue complex goals or engage in patterns of action over time by the acquisition of a uniquely rich range of capabilities. (293)

I wish to emphasize particularly the ability of cultural evolution to transform the developmental niche.  And here, at least in contemporary developed countries, it seems clear that humans have learned in quite recent times to construct a remarkably novel environment for the development of their young. . . .  [T]hese prodigious changes to the human environment, concretizations of our rapidly evolving culture, profoundly affect the developmental resources available to growing humans.  For that reason their introduction should be seen as representing major evolutionary change. (284)

Jerome Kagan, The Human Spark: the Science of Human Development (Basic Books, 2013)

All children, excluding the small number with serious comromises in brain function, have the potential to acquire a large number of talents, beliefs, habits, values, and emotions. p. 2

A faith in the inevitability of a progression from less to more mature is present in the writings of the three major Western theorists of development: Freud, Erikson, and Piaget all posited a sequence of developmental stages through which children ascend to more satisfying, creative, or rational states.  Adolescents do reason and regulate emotion more effectively than infants, but they are more often angry, suspicious, deceitful, depressed, and anxious.  Psychological development should be seen as a sequence of additions, losses, and transformtions in which new traits emerge, no longer useful ones are discarded, and some remnants of earlier phases are retained as elements in new patterns. p. 3

The discontinuities in human development are analogous to equally salient discontinuities in evolution.  The emergence of the first animal with a backbone, about 530 million years ago, and the appearance of the first mammal, about 200 million years ago, are discontinuous with the life forms that had existed before.  These evolutionary changes were due to chance mutations and alterations in the ecology.  Psychological discontinuities, by contrast, are the result of maturation of the brain, unpredictable historical events that affect entire populations

Stephen J. Ceci, On Intelligence: A Bioecological Treatise on Intellectual Development, expanded edition (Harvard University Press, 1996)

The possibility that there exists a more restless relationship between intelligence and context, in which thinking changes both its nature and its course as one moves from one situation to another, is enough to cause shudders in some research quarters.  It represents a move toward a psychology of situations . . . xvi

The term intelligence is often used synonymously with "IQ", "g", or "general intelligence", especially in some of the psychometric literature. . .  however, the ability to engage in cognitively complex behaviors will be shown to be independent of IQ, g, or general intelligence . . . cognitive complexity will be seen to be the more general of the two notions and the one most theoretically important to keep in mind when referring to intelligent behavior. 22

The literature that we reviewed demonstrates that it is not sufficient for one to be biologically endowed with a cognitive potential and even to be exposed to appropriate opportunities for its crystallization: One also must be motivated to benefit from this exposure.  Performance is influenced by learning, refinement, shaping, etc., and the role of motivation cannot be ignored in such matters.  Extrinsic motivators (such as the value that one attaches to attaining success on a task), as well as intrinsic motivators (inculcated through various parenting styles, such as fostering autonomy, valuing schooling, and adopting a modern world view . . ) are equally important in shaping cognitive outcomes.  116

 . . . it would appear that no theory is capable of handling the diversity of findings reviewed earlier, unless it consists of the three prongs of biology, environment, and motivation.  An important feature of the bio-ecological framework has been to suggest mechanisms by which these three factors combine to produce contextually tied performances . . .  192

In closing, it is time to ask about the nature of the resources responsible for intellectual growth.  Past research on the influence of the environment has ducked this question, preferring instead to contrast global SES differences on IQ, surmising that some aspects subsumed under the SES rubric must be causative but never specifying what they might be.  In a recent article Uri Bronfenbrenner and I proposed specific mechanisms of organism-environment interaction, called proximal processes, through which genetic potentials for intelligence are actualized.  We described research evidence from a variety of sources demonstrating that proximal processes operate in a variety of settings throughout the life-course (beginning in the family and continuing in child-care settings, peer groups, schools, and work places), and account for more of the variation in intellectual outcome than the environmental contexts (e.g., family structure, SES, culture) in which these proximal processes take place.  Proximal processes refer to sustained interactions between a developing organism and the persons, symbols, and activities in its immediate environment.  To be effective, these processes must become progressively more complex and interactive over time. 244-5

"The influence of the environment on differences in IQ among children growing up in straitened circumstances is greater than that for youngsters raised in a more favorable milieu.  This in turn implies that efforts to enhance intelligence by improving the environment are likely to be most effective for children living in the most impoverished circumstances, the very group that many of the New Interpreters seem to consider beyond remediation."  247

from Hartmut Geist, "The Formation Experiment in the Age of Hypermedia and Distance Learning," in The Transformation of Learning: Advances in Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, edited by Bert van Oers, Wim Wardekker, Ed Elbers, and René van der Veer (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

 . . . the basic idea [of activity theory] is not "evolution," that is, the idea of adaptation to the environment, but "revolution," that is, change of the environment.  The dialectical analysis of human history, as it was done, for example, by Hegel and particularly by Marx, showed not only that humans adapt to the environment but also that they change it in accordance with their demands . . .  Activity is not an active adaptation to the environment but the transformation of the environment and--in interrelation with it--of humans themselves.  Although this idea is not new, it has only begun to prove its explanatory potental.  Among the first to apply this idea to psychology were Vygotsky and one of his closest students, Leontiev.  (pp. 103-105; emphasis added)

from Ulla Härkönen (University of Joensuu, Finland),  "Current Theories Related to Early Childhood Education and Preschool as Frames of Reference for Sustainable Education," in Institute of Sustainable Education, conference, 2004

 In Finland, for thirty years, theoretical frames for early childhood education and preschool have been outlined through Bronfenbrenner's ecological approach, Vygotsky's developmental theory, didactic theories and the psychological theories of learning, among which the latest is the constructivist theory of learning.

Bronfenbrenner's theory of ecological development (1979) has in Finland for almost thirty years been one of the most generally used theories to analyze the phenomena of early childhood education and, at the same time, of preschool. The importance of the theory of ecological development lies in the fact that personal development is seen in relation to different kinds and different levels of systems. This has introduced to the methodological principles of educational research a systems approach, according to which an object is studied as a system of its structural and functional relations.

Early childhood education and preschool have received strong theoretical stimuli from developmental psychology. This is true of Finland even today and evident also in this article. Developmental psychology theories are represented here by the often referred to theories of Bronfenbrenner and Vygotsky. They both focus their attention on human development and both have introduced a systems dimension to their ideas.

from "'Species-Being' and 'Human Nature' in Marx", by Thomas E. Wartenberg, in Human Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1982), pp. 77-95

Marx's great insight was to show how much of what we take to be' 'natural' ' and ' 'fixed' ' is the result of the social activities of human beings and therefore is subject to conscious manipulation. (Wartenberg, p. 82)

This critique asserts neither that capitalism will inevitably fall apart, nor that it is unfair insofar as it is based upon exploitation of the worker, although it is arguable that such critiques are also present in Marx's writings.  The best metaphor for this aspect of Marx's criticism of capitalism is that it stunts development of the human species, reducing the human being to a mere animal.  (87)

What I want to suggest is that, in rejecting the notion of a fixed human nature, Marx is following a basic claim of Hegel's social theory, the claim that the form in which individuality is conceptualized or instantiated in a given social structure depends upon that very structure itself. Marx accepts this view of human individuality as historically and socially conditioned, and then he turns it upon those theorists, both philosophers and political economists, who accept a particular stage of human development as definitive of "human nature." In a move similar to the one he makes against Hegel--but this time following Hegel's lead--Marx argues that such views of a fixed, ahistorical human nature treat a particular form of development--one that is empirically accessible--as yielding a metaphysical truth about the world. . . . 

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

 . . . modern culture contains within it a trace of each of our previous stages of cognitive evolution.  It still rests on the same old primate brain capacity for episodic or event knowledge.  But it has three additional, uniquely human layers: a mimetic layer, an oral-linguistic layer, and an external-symbolic layer.  The minds of individuals reflect these three ways of representing reality.  (p. 262)

from Merlin Donald, "The mind considered from a historical perspective: human cognitive phylogenesis and the possibility of continuing cognitive evolution." In D. Johnson & C. Ermeling (Eds.) The Future of the Cognitive Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 360-61

Mimetic representations are evident in human children before they acquire language competence. . . .  They continue to be important in adults, taking the form of highly variable social customs, athletic skills, and group expressive patterns (such as mass demonstrations of aggression or rejection).


Marshall Sahlins on "Human Nature"

from Marshall Sahlins, Hierarchy, Equality, and the Sublimation of Anarchy The Western Illusion of human nature.  The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at The University of Michigan, November 4, 2005

The Illusion of Human nature

The problem is not whether human nature is good or bad. The many “anti- Hobbists” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who attacked innate egoism on the grounds of natural goodness or natural sociability remained within the same sclerotic framework of a corporeal determination of cultural forms. But beginning in the enlightenment, the idea of the human condition as a culturalized nature appeared within the Western tradition. Thus Adam Ferguson’s observation that individuals do not exist before or apart from society but are constituted therein. In society they are born, and there they remain—capable of all the sentiments on which diverse peoples construct their existence, amity prominent among them and enmity as well. For Marx similarly, the “human essence” exists in and as social relationships, not in some poor bugger squatting outside the universe. men individualize themselves only in the context of society, as notably in the European society of the eighteenth century, which thus gave rise to the economists’ fantasies (“robinsonades”) of constructing their science from the supposed dispositions of a single isolated adult male. nor did Marx indulge in reading from social formations to innate dispositions, although again one could certainly read from bourgeois society to the mythical Hobbesian war of each against all. Born neither good nor bad, human beings form themselves for better or worse in social activity (praxis) as it unfolds in given historical circumstances.  One might suppose that some knowledge of colonized others contributed to this anthropology.  In any case, with the important proviso that “given cultural orders” replace “given historical circumstances” in the Marxist formulation, in other words that the praxis by which people make themselves is itself culturally informed, this notion of the human condition is an ethnographic commonplace.

No ape can tell the difference between holy water and distilled water, Leslie White used to say, because there is no difference chemically—although the meaningful difference makes all the difference for how people value the water, even as, unlike apes, whether or not they are thirsty makes no difference in this regard. That was my brief lesson on what means “symbol” and what means “culture.” regarding the implications for human nature, leading a life according to culture means having the ability and knowing the necessity of achieving our natural inclinations symbolically, according to meaningful determinations of ourselves and the objects of our existence. Human culture, it needs be considered, is much older than human nature: culture has been in existence for two million years or more, ten or fifteen times longer than the modern human species, homo sapiens.  Respectable biological opinion has come around to seeing the human brain as a social organ, evolving in the Pleistocene under the “pressure” of maintaining a relatively extended, complex, and solidary set of social relationships. This is to say that culture, which is the condition of the possibility of this successful social organization, thereby conditioned the possibilities of the human organism, body and soul. The “pressure” was to become a cultural animal, or, more precisely, to culturalize our animality.  For two million years, we have evolved biologically under cultural selection.  Not that we are or were “blank slates,” lacking any inherent biological imperatives, only that what was uniquely selected for in the genus homo was the ability to realize these imperatives in the untold different ways that archaeology, history, and anthropology have demonstrated.  Biology became a determined determinant, inasmuch as its necessities were mediated and organized symbolically.  We have the equipment to live a thousand different lives, as Clifford Geertz says, although we end up living only one [Cliff Williams et. al., Schiller, would differ]. But this is possible only on the condition that biological imperatives do not specify the objects or modes of their realization.

So who are the realists? Fijians say that young children have “watery souls,” meaning they are indeterminate until they demonstrate their social being by the practice of Fijian relationships.  As in many kinship-dominated communities, humanity is defined by reciprocity.   “The mind (will, awareness),” Strathern was told in Hagen, “first becomes visible when a child shows feeling for those related to it, and comes to appreciate the interdependence or reciprocity that characterizes social relationships.”  Although from Augustine to Freud the needs and dependencies of infants have been taken as evidence of their egoism—consider how we gratuitously speak of the child’s needs as “demands”—the prevalent interpretation among the anthropological others is simply that the child is incomplete, not yet defined as human by engagement in the cultural praxis of relationships.  Human nature then becomes a specific cultural kind.  So when in Java “the people quite frankly say, ‘To be human is to be Javanese,’” Geertz, who reports it, says they are right—in the sense that “there is no such thing as human nature independent of culture.”   Again, not that there is no such nature, but that its mode of existence and social efficacy depends on the culture concerned—a mediated and thus determined determinant.

What is most pertinent to the relations between physis and nomos is not (for example) that all cultures have sex but that all sex has culture. sexual drives are variously expressed and repressed according to local determinations of appropriate partners, occasions, times, places, and bodily practices. We sublimate our generic sexuality in all kinds of ways—including its transcendence in favor of the higher values of celibacy, which also proves that in symbolic regimes there are more compelling ways of achieving immortality than the inscrutable mystique of the “selfish gene.”  After all, immortality is a thoroughly symbolic phenomenon—what else could it be? (In The Theory of moral sentiments, Adam Smith observes that men have been known to voluntarily throw away lives to acquire after death a renown that they could no longer enjoy, being content to anticipate in the imagination the fame it would bring them.)  Likewise, sexuality is realized in various meaningfully ordered forms. some even do it by telephone. or for another example of conceptual manipulation (pun intended), there is Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.”

As it is for sex, so for other inherent needs, drives, or dispositions: nutritional, aggressive, egoistic, sociable, compassionate—whatever they are, they come under symbolic definition and thus cultural order.  In the occurrence, aggression or domination may take the behavioral form of, say, the new Yorker’s response to “Have a nice day”—“don’t tell me what to do!”   We war on the playing fields of Eton, give battle with swear words and insults, dominate with gifts that cannot be reciprocated, or write scathing book reviews of academic adversaries. Eskimos say gifts make slaves, as whips make dogs. But to think that, or to think our proverbial opposite, that gifts make friends—a saying that like the Eskimos’ goes against the grain of the prevailing economy—requires that we are born with “watery souls,” waiting to manifest our humanity for better or worse in the meaningful experiences of a particular way of life.  Not, however, as in our ancient philosophies and modern sciences, that we are condemned by an irresistible human nature to look to our own advantage at the cost of whomever it may concern and thus become menaces to our own social existence.

It’s all been a huge mistake.  My modest conclusion is that Western civilization has been largely constructed on a mistaken idea of “human nature.” (sorry, beg your pardon; it was all a mistake.) It is probably true, however, that this mistaken idea of human nature endangers our existence.

92. Ferguson, an Essay on the history of civil society, edited by Fania Ozsalzberger (cambridge: cambridge university Press, 1995). “If both the latest and earliest accounts col- lected from every quarter of the earth, represent mankind as assembled in troops and compa- nies; and the individual always joined by affection to one party, while he is possibly opposed to another; employed in the exercise of recollection and foresight; inclined to communicate his own sentiments, and to be acquainted with those of others; these facts must be admitted as the foundation of all our reasoning relative to man” (9).

93. seeLawrenceKrader,“Karlmarxasethnologist,transactionsofthenewYorkacad- emy of sciences, ser. 2, 35, no. 4 (1973); and his “critique dialectique de la nature humaine,” l’homme et al société, no. 10 (1968).

94. BernardG.campbell,JamesD.Loy,andKathryncruz-uribe,humankindEmerg- ing, 9th ed. (Boston: Pearson, allyn, and Bacon, 2006), 257 and passim.

95. Geertz,The Interpretation of cultures (BasicBooks,1973),45.

96. strathern,GenderoftheGift,90.

97. Geertz,TheInterpretationofcultures,52–53,49.

98. We would know more of the variety of cultural conceptions of human nature if anthropologists had bothered to investigate them.  Curiously, inquiry into peoples’ ideas of human nature is not in the standard protocols of ethnographic fieldwork.  There is no such category in the hallowed fieldwork manual notes and queries in anthropology.  In the Human relations area Files, it is a minor subcategory, rarely reported on.  Is this neglect because we already know what human nature is? Because we think it is a scientific category, thus the intellectual concern of the anthropologists rather than their interlocutors? or maybe because the other peoples have no such concept and the question would be meaningless? Probably all of the above.


Marshall Sahlins, “The Sadness of Sweetness: The Native Anthropology of Western Cosmology,” Current Anthropology Volume 37, Number 3, June 1996

Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the forest : the evolution of egalitarian behavior (Harvard University Press, 1999)

Colin Renfrew, Chris Frith, Lambros Malafouris, The Sapient Mind: Archaeology Meets Neuroscience (Oxford, 2009)

Robin Dunbar, Clive Gamble and John Gowlett, eds., Social Brain, Distributed Mind (Oxford, 2010)

Elizabeth DeMarrais, Chris Gosden & Colin Renfrew, eds., Rethinking materiality: the engagement of mind with the material world (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2004)

Timothy R. Pauketat, An Archaeology of the Cosmos: Rethinking Agency and Religion in Ancient America (Routledge, 2012)

Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (Harvard, 2013)

Niels Johannsen, Mads D. Jessen & Helle Juel Jensen, eds., Excavating the Mind: Cross-sections through culture, cognition, and materiality (Aarhus University Press, 2012)

Yannis Hamilakis, Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect (Cambridge, 2013)

 Lambros Malafouris and Colin Renfrew, How Things Shape the Mind : A Theory of Material Engagement (The MIT Press, 2013): excerpts

Michael Tomasello, Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard University Press, 2014)

Clive Gamble, John Gowlett and Robin Dunbar, Thinking big: how the evolution of social life shaped the human mind (Thames & Hudson, 2014)

The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Harvard University Press, 2012)

Jonathan Marks, Tales of the Ex-Apes: How We Think about Human Evolution (University of California Press, 2015)  VIDEO

Joseph Henrich, How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Princeton University Press, 2015)  VIDEO