a. The functional arbitrariness of language-influenced thought
Despite a vast variety of circumstances in which humans apply reasoning, the basics are the same, an intrastructural connectivity provisional of extrapolative and interpolative inferencing, mapped onto the causality observed and inspected as we perceive and conceive. Psychical blending of the unconscious with perceptual, conceptual and inferential association as well as intentionality, reflection and egoism, all typically admixtured in the context of cultural meaning, of course differs by situation, whether it be intuitive, technical, socially personal, educational, or some hybrid of these, but the activity of inventively generating linkages between mental contents is present in all forms of higher thought.
The more succinctly associations are produced, the more rapidly processes of the mind can proceed. Consciousness develops shortcuts for honing in on features of the environment as indications of larger scale phenomena existing in the background, which in fact-based contexts of modern human reasoning involves summing and condensing explicit information. As the mind cognizes experiences and makes associations, it often tends towards parsimonious frameworks, forms of interpretive representation that strike a balance between fidelity and efficiency, streamlined for utility at the inevitable expense of accuracy, a mental truncating upon which even reason depends, that always has a degree of arational arbitrariness, more functionally adequate than indicative of existence’s essence. Thinking, memory, imagination, stream of consciousness, phenomenal qualitativity in general do not give us total reality, but rather a working awareness sufficient for propagating reproduction, survival, and additional drives of greater theoretical obscurity, all fitted to naturally selecting circumstances.
We can see this abridgement effect in the mnemonic facet of language. Consider acronyms for instance: “LGN” has no necessary relationship to the brain structure “lateral geniculate nucleus” beyond affinity for the first letter of a word, which is unrepresentative of this thalamic subregion’s nature. Furthermore, even our mental impression of the thalamus, the synthesis of apperception with an immediately perceived particularity, is largely dependent on an interposition of neuroscientific theories that are schematic concepts derived from an evolutionarily parochial history of experimentation. More recently conceived notions of nonlocal phenomena such as those modeled by quantum physics may revolutionize our image of the relationship between the physical world and the psyche, and if we can find a way to base laboratory methods and instrumentation on the PSU (Planck Scale Unit), which is almost infinitesimally more finely grained than the AMU (Atomic Mass Unit), new theorizing may entirely usurp traditional chemistry’s explications of brain tissue, with further seismic shifts perhaps possible. At least since the beginning of civilization, ongoing observation and revampings of conceptualizing practices change the apparent structure of the world at fundamental levels, rendering even potent, economical, convincing truths mere relics of arbitrarity.
So efficiency-enhancing arbitrariness seems key to our thinking, conceptual contractions such as “L” for “lateral”, comprising structures of meaning which can be envisioned as generalization pyramids ascending from the most dispersed conceptualizations to the more compact. It seems obvious that most if not all linguistic thought conforms to this mold, with grammar having a hierarchical arrangement of phonemes into parts of speech and sentences, loosely congruent with our conceptual organizing of perceptual material.
The closely related great apes, who also engage in problem-solving of high intelligence, have the primary grammar center Wernicke’s area in their brains, but lack the total apparatus from which human language emerges. It thus seems probable from comparative anatomy as well, in addition to introspection, that grammarlike hierarchization plays a pivotal role in humanlike reasoning as such by scaffolding and organizing many kinds of higher concepts, to which verbalization has been bootstrapped in synergistic coevolution.
Grammar is not only almost universal to the human species in its hierarchization, but also in its minute details, as natural languages are composed of something like atoms, parts of speech unconsciously underlying formal grammars, which scientists have organized into a periodic table of compositional elements with combinatorial properties reminiscent of chemistry. These basic forms with their limited range of interactions can arise identically in the languages of societies that have been separated for numerous millennia. The trait profile of human grammar is surprisingly narrow, a universal template within which we only slightly diverge from each other and can readily converge as well. This supports the intuition of deep compatibility between the thinking of individuals in any variety of collectives, a human nature empowering us to culturally synthesize in dramatic ways as we attempt to disseminate the content and methods of science for the sake of globalized objectivity. It likewise means that both old and new social ills with accompanying catastrophe are probably universalizable.
b. The coevolution of cognition, socializing and the body
In terms of intentional communication between organisms with common interests, there is little selection pressure for perfected truth and high selection pressure towards being gullible, reflecting the simple fact that reacting to even dozens of false alarms is more conducive for subsistence than not responding to one veracious alarm, with alarms under most conditions not being disruptive enough to jeopardize feeding, reproduction, or caring for the young. We see this in monkeys with smaller brains than ours: they contagiously howl and scamper up trees at the slightest predatorlike sign without much analysis, though not to a maladaptively frequent extent, while capable of being desensitized at least temporarily. These raw communicative acts allow the group to preserve individuals, promoting survival and ultimately the reproduction of all, resulting in persistence of this interpretive style of cognition.
It is likely that gullibility is a natural emergence from the instinct of offspring to imitate their parents long before any sort of advanced reasoning ability has developed if one ever materializes at all. We see this in the way newborn ducks imprint onto their first caregiver even if it is a human being, following the object of their devotion around heedless of consequences. This trust can be linked with increased requirement to care for the young; the more dependent a newborn is on its chosen adult for survival and maturation, the more impressionable it will be, all else being equal. This can be contrasted with an animal such as a crocodile that receives no care from its parents and as a result has minimal imitative instinct, conscious or not, though these reptiles do obviously recognize each other and convene to the extent required for reproduction and territorial stability.
The less invested parents are in the success of their young, and the more precarious the young’s survival in general, the more young required to preserve the population’s size: ducks have a few young ranging over wide territory, crocodiles have a dozen young in smaller territories, frogs can have hundreds of young in a single pond, and some fish species such as salmon have thousands of young in a single stretch of river that must migrate back to the ocean alone as fry, for their parents die before they hatch, from which only a small percentage survive as the next generation. The less shelter provided by parental care or otherwise, the more vulnerable young are to predators or the elements, and the less metabolically intensive maturation of behavior can be, so that these species tend to be more asocial – under most circumstances. In the absence of predators, a huge growth in the population of relatively asocial species may even result in adults consuming their own young. In organisms that display bonding behavior, a reverse imprinting of the parent on the offspring often takes place that is not quite as strong or pervasive because it is not as universally indispensable, and can become detrimental if reproductive success depends on the development of independent maturity.
The relationship of intelligence to culture is far from straightforward. Bees and ants have large and complex societies with individuals that are highly coordinated and communicative, but the small size of their brains makes it doubtful whether they can be of much intelligence unless their cognition is based on different structural and functional rules, such as an electromagnetic blindness relative to humans coupled with some kind of pheremone-based analytical capacity; it is tough to tell how much they are improvising, deducing, or rather behaving randomly and reflexively. Housecats have an affinity for humans and socialize, but display obvious limitations that reveal their reasoning to be inferior and absent of culture. Tigers have much larger brains than housecats but are not nearly as social, hunting about anything sufficiently nutritious and accessible to be worth their effort, including humans, and engaging in minimal interaction between adults. Lions are also big cats but are highly social, living in prides of a dozen or more that hunt and spend all their time together, though upheaval does exist as their societies are based around gangs of males competing to possess females. Wolves hunt in packs of up to dozens, and some have been bred by humans into dogs for their sociality to be perfect pets and communal companions who play and show affection to the same extent as we do if not moreso. Orcas and dolphins live in pods and hunt creatively, with dolphins showing evidence of proper names while pursuing the pleasures of recreation in clever ways. Chimpanzees are intelligent at coming up with technical innovations for activities such as food-finding, but lack complex cultural transmission, especially between generations; like lions and humans they have disruptive conflicts over status. Bonobos live in highly social groups of a hundred or more, but their bonds do not seem to involve technological creativity or educational sophistication, being organized around sexual behavior. Sperm whales have huge, complex brains but do not provide evidence that they are extensive socializers. And domestic chickens are rather unintelligent but seem to have social hierarchies we call pecking orders. Perceptual type, environmental need and evolutionary history allow for a plethora of intraspecies types of relations, to this point fractionally evaluated by research, but an introductory understanding of cognitive uniqueness in human nature can be obtained by focusing on a couple well-defined and simple analogies, comparing us to our nearest cognitive relatives – the primates – and our nearest linguistic relatives due to convergent evolution – songbirds.
To start with, it has been mentioned how more cognitively primitive primates such as monkeys have an erroneous communication style with high levels of gullibility, which social arrangements and status as prey species give rise to; their mentalities are designed to combat collective dangers by reflexive, affect-driven responses. Gorillas, though intelligent, have a far different social structure than modern humans, primarily consisting of all male groups, and also less common mixed sex groups of females and their young headed by an alpha male. They are herbivores with enough food available in the wild to munch all day and little incentive for tool use. Gorillas are smart and social, but though troupes go through transition periods with shifting roles and status, these communities tend to lack the kind of egalitarian power dynamics that would result in selection pressure for increased guile, greater lie detection capacity, and more nuanced communication in terms of the true and false. Bonobos are also intelligent, but analysis of their natural socializing has been somewhat limited since they are quite vigilant of human presence in the wild. Their complex, sexually charged social lives discompose in research facilities. Chimpanzees, by contrast, seem not to mind the intrusion of researchers in the wild to a greater extent. They are apex omnivores like us, smart, sociable, and their societies are egalitarian in a way that is similar to basic human associations, so are ideal candidates for study and comparison.
We immediately notice that chimpanzees are creative, coming up with solutions for acquiring food and getting what they want from other chimpanzees; they plan both technologically and socially. They also have some mores and higher concepts, evincing a sense of humor and ideas of fairness that hold everyone accountable. They play, interact in complex ways, and even try to outsmart each other to gain ascendance in the group, also with intergroup conflicts similar to human tribalistic rivalries. However, upon close inspection it appears that the psychology of their societies is much different than humanity’s, especially in the wild.
A single generation of chimpanzees will adopt partially conscious, partially unconscious sets of coordinated gestures and mannerisms as they grow up interacting, and individuals will learn from other individuals. However, this is all unorganized culturally: chimpanzees do not proactively teach peers or imitate their compatriots in response to intended meanings, and they do not attempt to transmit knowledge to the next generation in a systematic way. If a chimpanzee learns something, it is by observing the products of success – usually food – and then figuring it out for him or herself. Observation of behavior is an offhand adjunct to personal discovery. If chimpanzees sync their behavior, it is not something taught or reflected upon extensively, but in the main what works first and best for that generation. Chimpanzee protoculture evolves its form in each generation and then is mostly lost to the next, an incidental waxing and waning. There is no building on discoveries of elders, and so it rarely happens that chimpanzee societies learn something like using a rock from one location to make a tool somewhere else for use at still somewhere else. Their high creativity is limited to immediate needs, and behavior means “affection”, “fair”, “food”, “sex”, “danger” or recreation, not the “true” and “false” of human communication and instruction.
As an aside, meerkats are a contrasting case, living in societies that transmit culture between generations without intelligence at the level of chimpanzees. They have scorpion school: grades of maturing meerkats will be presented with dead and disabled scorpions, live and disabled scorpions, then dangerous ones, with adults teaching juveniles the techniques for catching them. This tradition is not much individualized, however; upon hearing a recording of “cheeping” sounds of a particular pitch, adult meerkats begin preparing scorpions at the appropriate level without much regard for the presence or absence of students. Their behavior seems to be triggered by the pitch of the calls they hear, with deeper calls indicating more advanced pupils, not an understanding of true and false content or much of any deduction, results assessment, and evolution or nuance in teaching method, though at least something in this area would escape human notice.
Songbirds have language ability comparable to humans, with basic grammar that develops during a critical period in the juvenile’s maturation and, in the more intelligent species, a capacity to expand one’s repertoire in adulthood, even sometimes mimicking the calls and sounds of other species. Cerebral cortices of birds are much smaller than primates, so it seems probable that their range of meanings is more limited, though the chattering of a flock of songbirds on a sunny day is reminiscent of utterances made by human crowds. This recreational communicating must have perceptual significance, perhaps saying something about food, the weather, mating, migratory or territorial planning, nesting, or gossipy content of interest to birds; maybe it is also for the sake of aesthetics or concepts of sound itself. Like humans, birds have technical expertise, though of a more constrained variety, building complex nests resistant to the elements and navigating long distances by recognizing landmarks while keeping track of flight directions and durations. Their songs have a correlation with access to territory and mating arrangements, so they must be indicators of fitness and symbols of status, just as humans order their relationships linguistically as well as impress each other with verbal wit and musicality. Sexual and social selection pressures probably maintain and enhance bird vocalizing as they do in humans. We must wonder then, if birds and humans converged on similar form and function, facility with linguistic sound, once inclined towards that developmental direction, what constitutes the superiority of humans and how it arose.
Of course larger cranium size in primates than songbirds allows for more brain matter and a greater array of functions, but the key to understanding human intelligence with its unparalleled linguistic ability is recognizing ‘neoteny’ – the persistence of juvenile characteristics into adulthood – as a component of cognitive evolution. The majority of animals, including fish, amphibians, birds and most mammals, mature to adulthood fast, in only a few years or less. Like all growing organisms, they have an expanding surplus of neurons in their brains that are pruned and tailored to environmental need, making the behavior of adults stringently directed toward particular goals, whether it be hunting, eluding predators, raising young and roosting, communicating, exemplifying fitness by courting, or anything else naturally selected via individual, social and ecosystem dynamics. Our distant hominid ancestors such as Australopithecus and like species had similar maturation constraints, so though the transition to bipedalism was made, they did not have brain power much exceeding modern day chimpanzees, as indicated by a lack of technology, artifacts that would require complex, hybrid tool concepts.
A major leap forward took place when cranium size in hominids increased, simply the neotenous continuation of growth past previous limits, likely tied to an enlarging of the body fueled at least in part by competition with and threats from large predators, other intraspecies groups and intragroup rivals. This made possible an expansion of the brain’s size in its own neotenous process, which probably boosted solidarity and cooperative action for acquisition and defense of food sources, likely among additional roles. More brain tissue was retained and a greater body of cortical associations emerged before adulthood with its hormonal inhibitors curbed the process. This must have involved a succession of selection phenomena bridging the gap to an intellectual adaptation, increase in brain size relative to body mass, which roughly corresponds with the beginnings of tool construction as culture, revealed by fossils and nearby archaeological finds. As the ability to reason about the environment and ways to manipulate it increased, so would the ability to analyze and understand behavioral tendencies of other members in one’s social group, and mating most likely became increasingly cerebral, stimulating further neoteny by more acutely perceived cognitive capabilities, pushing these species towards less neuronal pruning during brain maturation, a more intricate development over longer periods.
This provided for all kinds of mental faculties, and of course neoteny in bodily characteristics proceeded along with that of the brain, maybe even regarded as signs of thinking prowess, pushing evolution away from a thick coat of fir, towards new facial features such as larger eyes in females and softer skin, along with many additional changes. Duration, rate and degree of cognitive growth increased, but the age at which sexual maturity is reached remained young even with these transformations because selection pressures upon survival and reproduction could still be rigorous, pushing the species towards neoteny from above as well, with physically youthful individuals participating in mate selection before traits of full-blown mammalian maturity appeared. The behavioral stage of reproductive selection would have then ascended upward in age as brain function caught up with and overcame primitive inhibitors, extending the timeframe of neotenized mate preference, its selecting for mutationally enhanced cognition together with a youthful body type. Links between behavioral repertoire and rigid, early maturity were relaxed by neotenized attraction and upsurging intelligence. Plasticity in the evolution of brains, biochemistry and physique eclipsing that of any other primates came to prominence.
A further evolutionary step influencing brain expansion was birth at a nascent level of development: babies of Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and ultimately Homo sapiens had to pass through a narrower birth canal resulting from the switch to bipedalism. Caring for less matured newborns increased intensiveness of parental investment, invasiveness of social and environmental selection pressures on early growth, and the scope of traditions for inculcating knowledge in the young. This stimulated an earlier onset of evolving facility with concepts tied to language, tool use, structure building, and understanding the motivational inferences of fellow minds, an allometric enhancement of higher level thought’s role in a blossoming psyche.
As hominin and then human life became more technological, communicational and educational in step with a neotenizing trajectory in brain growth, modern speech, artistic ability, the fabrication of instruments, more complex theory of mind, teaching practices, division of labor, trade, elaborate beliefs about the connection between natural and supernatural, modern bodily form, all the hallmarks of contemporary humanity took shape. It should be noted that many animal species are smart enough to display some of these abilities we consider distinctly human and do under some circumstances. The main difference is our spontaneousness, for humanity often does not need an optimum environment in order for behaviors such as artistic and spiritual creativity or teaching to occur; they happen almost instinctively.
c. Evolution of the cultural template for expression-saturated civilization
The relationship between social structure and cognition in humans, both historically and in the present, is not simple. Each family has a hierarchy due to birth order, personality, and parent/child association, typically linked with relative maturity, ability, and the leadership or deference role that entails. In hunter-gatherer cultures where familial instincts originated, children are apprentices of parents and sometimes older siblings, while they compete and collaborate with those close to them in age, their peers. Children from different families have played together in bigger groups, and in combination with disciplinary action and adult guidance, large-scale social order emerges from what would otherwise be quite anarchic. Children acquire subordinate roles in the family, then a functional role in communities as they come of age, establishing accord or enmity in peer relations between relative equals.
So humans naturally have an inclination towards both respect for authority and a sense of fairness or unfairness at the root of compromise; absolute or egalitarian concessions must be made depending on context. A disposition to conflate spirituality with contacting the dead, regardless of how corroborated – perhaps it is merely a convincing conjecture from dream content, spells and possession experiences – produced reverence for ancestors, and the combination of these eternal caretakers and advisers with notions of spiritual forces instated god pantheons and creational mythologies over hundreds of generations of mutating oral tradition and ritual. Some members of hunter-gatherer cultures become especially prominent in the spiritual hierarchy and are entrusted with managing relations within a tribe; these are shamans, chiefs and the like. Their children are apprentices in social leadership and default heirs to authority, so ruling tends to run in families, along with more subservient skills essential to the society’s division of labor. A strong connection is commonly drawn between talent and heredity that drives hereditary privilege, an adaptive form of stereotyping at this stage, for it ensures stability.
Archaeology suggests that even before the advent of agriculture and what we regard as civilization, hunter-gatherer populations convened to hunt in sizable groups, supplicate the gods, as well as honor and bury the dead at symbolic meeting grounds. Many social interactions included then as well as today a large amount of feuding and warring due to competition, divergent languages and bigotry. Councils to establish accord between populations became common, hierarchies of leaders and subjects were encoded in legal practices, and where no resolution proved possible by verbal means, some cultures subjugated others by victory in battle and incorporated them as underclasses, tributaries, servants to domination, even if like ancient Greeks to the Romans, intellectual independence and influence persisted.
As technological and social practices became more elaborate, all kinds of factual content materialized: facts about how to accomplish things, relate to other human beings, about the nature of the world, which cultures and classes have prerogative to do this or that, what is likely to happen in the future, what can be inferred from the past, what human nature is, and all the auxiliaries of these. Some institutions were based on precedents, some on collaboration, some on conflict, some on race, on caste, on autocratic mandate, punishment, reward, retribution; conflicting values were merging as civilization expanded and brought traditions into interactive alignment. This confluence was the beginning of systemic uncertainty and the profundity of questioning true vs. false, our decision-making about how civilization should proceed based on beliefs regarding what is real or factual as opposed to illusionary or mistaken and what constitutes improvement.
Three general approaches have been possible: multiple parties conceding something for the sake of mutual action followed by reassessment, deferring to a higher power and fighting it out violently if this proves ineffective, or imposing a nonnegotiable set of norms on every society and individual encountered in order to attain harmonious conformity. The mutual analysis and modulation approach is the democratic process, achieved most sustainably in the sciences as peer review and joint evolution providing the lifeblood of our academic system. It has been instituted more perishably in political systems, which instead often utilize the force of power hierarchies to resolve disputes, often with much destruction, but greater legal equality has been fostered at times by a reasoned survey and nurturing of human nature. The strategy of attempting to induce uniformity has been an undercurrent of much civilized organization, perpetuating conflict in most instances, though it can occasionally pacify a populace. Coercion of a static cultural template tends to eradicate the independence that is vital for innovation, consequently paradigmal progress as opposed to fluctuation amongst a constrained set of nonmutating, nonadapting conventions, and most important, the feasibility of overcoming social inertia in order to enact emergency transitions, which becomes a claimant issue in the context of advanced technology and larger scale civilization.
In all societies, institutions exist that transmit culture from one generation to the next, in contrast with the unorganized, relatively chance commencement and extinguishing of chimpanzee culture. We have written language to express practices and truth claims with symbols as well as robust methods of education, a capacity that has hugely expanded and brought us to the Information Age. But as has been indicated, the essence of truth is to be rather arbitrary, a collection of mnemonic devices, abbreviations functioning for quick and sure response, which means progress cannot be defined as simple verity. Advancement of truth past current levels will consist in complex treatments that enrich and also overturn established mental shortcuts with unintuitive and sometimes difficult reasoning, taking into account theoretical history, uncertainty, all kinds of present analytical contexts, and even the basic issue of how to make ideas implant in the heads of human beings or at least remain close enough to the foreground for later reference.
Contemporary knowledge, the fact-based models upon which we found many of our newest beliefs, are more determined by methodological, conceptual and technological elements whose interplay fashions the morphing episteme than in consort with a so to speak actual state of the world providing some fixed benchmark. Our inability to even define what we could possibly mean by this external absoluteness given cultural variety and change, the persistent discovery of fallacy, and our perceptual and conceptual constraints, asymmetries, revolutions and mutations shows that interpretation of the world as fact, exacted by native reasoning, collective culture and universalizing objectivity, is a mentally generated compounding of technique, fundamentally a work in progress, never during our entire two hundred thousand year legacy being unconditionally true. The challenge is to keep incumbent conventions of language, culture and comprehension along with prejudicial inclinations towards these conceptual and symbolic contents from swamping cognition so we do not end up in some eternal “scorpion school” stasis, or worse, a cascade of disintegration as we face growing complications in civilized environments. We must maximize our modicum of objectivity without stunting individual diversity and autonomy in order to optimize society.
A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below. Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.