Philobiblon: Those smart hominids

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Those smart hominids

I have to thank the Blogcritic Roger Asbury for pointing me to a fascinating book, Peter Gardenfors's How Homo Became Sapiens: On the Evolution of Thinking.It is one of those all-too-rare syntheses of thought drawing in material from a range of fields and schools - lovely to find a generalist in a complex field.

Inevitably, this produces the occasional exclamation of "what!" when you come across something that seems questionable from a field with which you are familiar. My moment was the claim that "an oral culture has no experience of a lengthy, epic-size or novel-size climatic linear plot" (quoting W. Ong). To which I reply, Homer!?

Nonetheless, the exploration of the state of knowledge of evolutionary psychology generally seems well-informed and up-to-date. (Though I make no claim to specialist knowledge.)

My particular area of interest is hominid evolution: I hold in the British Museum a 350,000-year-old hand-axe made in what is now Kent by a predecessor of the Neanderthals and wonder: if you could hop in your time machine and go back to meet her (or him - no way of knowing, although they were obviously right-handed), could you communicate with them. Would they understand a summoning gesture as "come here" or a pushing-away motion as "go away"?

Then of course there's the fascinating question of the smile. At some point a grimace of anger or threat became an expression of friendship or pleasure: when?

Gardenfors doesn't answer those questions, but he does provide some hints about the intelligence of hominids.

Some are convinced that Homo habilis in Kenya and Tanzania carried flint tools and raw materials for them several kilometres, indicating a form of planning well beyond chimpanzees; "the longest time elapsing between the manufacture and the use of a tool by a chimpanzee that has been observed is 17 minutes". (p. 79)

There is also the point that humans sweat much more than other primates, meaning they must either remain close to water sources, or learn how to carry it. Sadly, if H. habilis did carry water, the chances of an organic vessel - probably a skin - being preserved are vanishingly small. But when I hold that Homo heidelbergensis hand-axe, I think she would have worked it out.

This slim volume ranges well forward of this point, however, also saying that much of our current mode of thought didn't evolve until the Middle Ages.

"Before the Middle Ages writing only functioned as a support for memory - it was never a replacement for memory. The content of what was treated existed in the mind and not int the text. The idea that written language carries an autonomous meaning, that is independent of the author and the reader, is established first in the Middle Ages - that is when writing is assigned a literal meaning that does not change with a change in context ... linguistic markers for speech acts such as 'claim', 'doubt, 'deny', 'confirm' and 'interpret' are introduced first during the Middle Ages or even later. Such markers are not needed in an oral tradition where sentence melody and other expressive forms make it clear what kind of speech act is performed."

I'm going to have to think about that one (is this only a European view, I wonder?), but it does remind me of the fact that in the early Middle Ages, at least, university students were not allowed to read books on their own, for fear they would get the wrong idea, but had to listen to their teacher reading it out to them. (This is a reminder of one of my favourite themes, that books and the written word are not some fixed reality like gravity, but cultural artefacts with different meanings in different contexts.)

Read this book and I can pretty well guarantee you'll find some new view of one of your favourite puzzles.


Anonymous Zebee Johnstone said...

Not being a historian or formal student, I'd never come across the "fact" that students were not allowed to read books on their own. I know that books were expensive, so few students would own one, and owners would fear damage, so reading aloud was probably the only way for an entire class to get the information. How has this fact that they were forbidden been determined? Are there primary sources such as university regulations? It has some interesting implications about ways of thinking and transferral of knowledge so I'd like to know more.

8/04/2005 10:21:00 pm  

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