virus: Tools, Language and Text by Joe E. Dees

Joe E. Dees (
Mon, 31 May 1999 17:41:26 -0500

                         Tools, Language and Text: The Serial Isomorphic 
Evolution of                                                                               
                                     Symbolic Capacity in Human Consciousness
By Joe E. Dees

Abstract- Tool use and language use evolve though an identical succession of developmental structures, and the evolution of text shares most of these stages. Notwithstanding this isomorphism, these three successively abstract further and further from the unmediated action/perception gestalt contexture from which their form derives. Thus each phase of the evolution of textual representation depends upon the prior completion of the evolution of a similar phase of language use, which in turn depends upon the prior completion of the same phase of the evolution of tool use. This can be observed in child development, and archeological and historical evidence suggests that the evolution of symbolic capacity in human consciousness pursued the same course.

The Substrate: Perception, Recursion and Conscious Selfawareness

Adult higher apes and infants eighteen months old and older demonstrate self-awareness as registered in the mirror test (Social Cognition and the Acquisition of Self, Lewis and Brooks-Gunn, 1979). When their noses are daubed with red paint and they are presented with themselves in a mirror, they will touch their own noses rather than the reflected ones, demonstrating that they recognize that the images are of themselves rather than of conspecifics (other apes or children). Lesser apes and infants one year old or younger attend to the reflected noses, indicating a lack of self- awareness. The appearance of self-awareness is a result of the internalization, by the infant, of the distinction between persons as material yet purposively mobile (responding to their entreaties) and physical objects as material and either inert, purposelessly mobile, or moved by persons. This internalization links the infant’s awareness – its spatio-temporal sense of a distinct position to which perceptions flow and from which actions emerge -- with its bodily location, as a unique subjectivity separate from others. As the awareness of others leads the infant to an awareness of self, the organism/environment interface is elaborated into the more complex schema of self/soma/world/society.
Why is it that higher apes achieve self-awareness and lesser apes do not? For that matter, why does self-awareness manifest when it does in child development, rather than earlier or later? I hypothesize that this is when the number of brain cells, combined with the degree and structure of complexity of their interconnections, passes a Godelian limit. Kurt Godel proved that any system of sufficient complexity could not be both complete and completely true (1931). The reason for this is the emergence of self-reference. When System A achieves a certain complexity, it is capable of generating a self-referential Statement B, which, in effect, asserts that it is not a part of System A. If Statement B is nevertheless included in System A, then it is false, and System A cannot be completely true; if, on the other hand, it is excluded, then it becomes true, and System A remains incomplete. When this Godelian limit is breached in the brain, the capacity for self-reference emerges in an organism which is already aware; in other words, participating in a dynamic interchange of action and perception with its environment. It becomes aware of inhabiting a unique perspective, neither identical with nor isolated from its surroundings. Perceived information provides the array from which attention, itself an action, selects and focuses upon an object, thus directing and refining its perception and setting the stage for action upon the object, action which itself will result in perceptual change. See how the feedback loop spirals? When this feedback loop is applied self-referentially (in phenomenology, not to the noema but to the noesis), that is, not to the perceived and acted upon but to the perceiving and acting of the organism itself, self-awareness results. The two conditions necessary for this are the size/complexity quotient of the brain and the conditioning of a both physical and social environment. That this system is incomplete, that is, open, allows for creative action when presented with novel situations rather than having its responses to stimuli circumscribed by instinct alone. Jean Piaget would say (The Grasp of Consciousness, 1976) that the moments when habits fail are those which impel reflection, a recursion provoking the advent of self-awareness, and that self-construction and world-construction are isomorphic and correlative processes, evolving from the central interface between organism and environment into progressively more elaborate polar self- and world- schemas. It also entails that conscious and selfaware beings can be neither completely self-transparent nor omniscient; nor can they completely forget either their own existence or the world’s. They can be neither gods nor things; each must be its own particular subjectivity, absorbing, through experience, its own memories, and using their constituents as building blocks to create its own imaginings and to choose towards which of these to strive.

(How) Are We Different from Chimps?

The great apes breach the Godelian limit, but just barely. While they demonstrate self-awareness, it is, at best, at the Piagetian level of concrete operations, and most likely remains at the pre-operational level. They hand-modify objects into implements in response to the exigencies of a present need, then discard them. They neither use a tool in the manufacture of an implement, nor do they retain the implement once its immediate purpose is achieved, much less assemble a toolkit, and they rarely combine implements in action. Their gestures are likewise prompted solely by the circumstance in which they occur (Tran Duc Thao, Investigations into the Origin of Language and Consciousness, 1984). They have a limited vocabulary of mostly instinctually based calls, with at best traces of syntax. While it is true that they can be trained to some degree in rudimentary forms of communication, they have not been observed to spontaneously create or transmit open-ended syntactical systems in the wild. They invent neither composite technology, nor languages composed of arbitrary and mutually defining signs, and the creation of text systems is far beyond them. We may share 98% of our DNA with apes, but that other 2% is responsible for immense differences.

The Genesis and Development of Symbolic Capacity in Children

Infants engage their world first through the engagement of the caregiver and the exploration of their bodily motility. When they can begin to coordinate actions with perceptions (age three to eight months), they begin an investigation of the properties of physical objects and their ability to affect them (experiments with contingency). As they learn person permanence, self-permanence, object permanence, means-ends relationships (rudimentary causality) and the self-other distinction (age eight to twelve months), they begin to experience specific emotional states and to exhibit imitative behavior. Between one and two years of age, children undergo a rapid linguistic assimilation, a grasp of more complex causal chains and the onset of symbolic representation (Lewis and Brooks Gunn, op. Cit.). They speak in single words, then in pairs, then with progressively differentiated syntax. (The Language of Children, Mathilda Holzman, 1997). Their vocabulary grows from the most concrete generic (“cat”, “dog”) into the more integrated general
(“animal”) and the more differentiated particular (“Persian”, “Siamese”,
“poodle” “terrier”)(The Modularity of Mind, Jerry Fodor, 1983). They rarely can be taught to begin reading before the age of three, and generally not until the age of four or five.

The Evolution of Technology

This evolution emerges from the substrate of bodily action, which involves the unmediated appropriation of the object. The second stage consists of the use of unmodified implements as a means of imitative bodily extension (using a stick to reach, strike or fend off). Next comes the bodily modification of the implement to more efficiently accomplish the task. The succeeding stage, which adds another layer of mediation, is the first appearance of a true tool, in which one object (the tool) is used to modify another (the implement) for the task, and toolkits may be assembled. At this point, true creativity begins: implements begin to be fashioned which perform their designated tasks in manners other than imitative extensions of bodily action. This is the stage where brute signification of created (rather than natural) objects occurs, and their meaning is identical with (a mental image of) their use. There are, however, only a finite (and small) number of basic shapes available; these are refined into multipurpose tool types (wheel, lever, wedge, spring, etc.), where the use of the tool in the particular task is subsumed by a conceptually idealized shape which facilitates general applicability. At this point the revolution begins. The machine principle of technology is developed; objects that are useless in isolation and derive their significance solely from their use as connectors are combined with these tool types into useful composite wholes, which themselves may serve as modules in more complex constructions, as long as they obey physical constraints. Now an endless variety of machines may possibly be constructed, an unlimited diversity of tasks may potentially be performed, and the ranges of action and perception may be extended into the micros and the cosmos, although certain standard machine types will predominate. Finally, in the theoretical physical sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.), all specific applications are transcended; such abstract principles may be instantiated for application to any task.

The Evolution of Language

This evolution also emerges from the substrate of bodily action, and begins with calls or movements intended to elicit the attention of a responsive other. Next comes the indicative gesture, which directs the attention of the other away from the gesturer toward something upon which the gesturer wishes the other to focus. This may be seen as arising from imitative bodily extension in the absence of an implement; one is pointing at that which one would have touched with a stick had one had a stick in hand. This indirect bodily action, directed toward a responsive other, constitutes primordial communication. The third stage involves modifying natural vocalization into an imitative representation of an absent referent (onomatopoeic words probably have their origin here). A small array of primitive signals may be assembled, but many objects make no sound to imitate. Genuine creativity makes its appearance here; the advent of rudimentary but genuine sign systems, where the signs still have specific referents, but are no longer constrained to imitate them. These are refined into multipurpose signs
(number names, primary color and shape names, etc.), where the use of a
sign to indicate whole, single and particular things is subsumed by its employment to represent general attributes which have been abstracted from them. Still, the array of possible monosyllabic sounds is inadequate for efficient discourse. A revolution, the phonemic principle of language, is required, where sounds that are meaningless in themselves are combined into meaningful wholes, some of which are multipurpose signs and some of which derive their significance solely from their use as links connecting and relating these multipurpose signs in varying ways. These words may be combined into sentences obeying syntactic laws that must themselves, to be useful, facilitate a reliable representation and communication of the physical entities, situations and relations being described. Now an unlimited number of signs may be created, and spun into boundless streams of discourse, although certain standardized constructions will predominate. Finally, in algebra and symbolic logic, all specific references are transcended, and any referent may be abstractly represented.

(6) The Evolution of Text

This evolution also emerges from the substrate of bodily action, and is initiated by the need to direct attention to others, such as predators, prey or conspecifics. It begins with mimicry, or bodily imitation
(representation) of the movements of present or absent others, most
likely paired with indicative gestures to indicate either the other(s) being mimicked (if present) or the direction in which the absent other(s) lie(s). Inanimate things (such as landmarks) are much harder to mimic, however, and if absent can not be pointed out. In such cases, the mimicry, or subjective bodily representation, would require external objectification into the depiction of things and maps (drawing in the dirt seems a likely first step). The picture represents by means of imitation, and is intended to evoke in the viewer the mental image of that which it depicts, or at least the capacity to recognize the depicted, when one encounters it, by means of its depiction’s remembered similarity to it. In the case of maps, the territory as a whole is the represented object. These pictures become simplified and standardized into glyphs. However, many meanings are not of corporeal entities; they are thus not subject to depiction. The glyphs therefore accumulate secondary meanings, which metaphorically refer to these undepictables. Such a glyphic vocabulary is unwieldy, however; the Chinese system has over one hundred thousand separate characters, many of which are barely distinguishable and easily confused. The phonetic principle of text overcame this difficulty. A small number of glyphs (an alphabet of letters and numerals) which have progressively lost their original reference meaning, are used to represent the phonemes of spoken language and the basic numbers. They may thus be efficiently combined into textual representations of any word or quantity, by means of punctuation (such as: ; ! ? etc.) and arithmetical symbols (+, -, =, etc.), which possess purpose solely as differing subspecies of mediations between representational groups.

(7) Similarities, Differences and Dependencies

Technology and language both pass through the stages of direct bodily action, mediated bodily action, imitative action, creative action, eclipse of particularity by structure, the creation of composites, and abstract generalization. Text evolves from mimicry through depiction of types and numbers of objects to the representation of their linguistic referents, first as individual glyphs and counting marks, then as alphabetical and numeric composites. Technology involves a physical action upon objects; language involves a symbolic reference to anything conceivable. The creation of tools also created meaning not found in nature –the tool came to represent its use. Thus the first signs were tools, and technology evolved prior to and was a condition for the possibility of language. Texts are both systems of signs in their own right, and tools by means of which we represent the language upon which their present form of existence depends. Text underwent (from its divergence as depiction) an independent though structurally similar evolution to language - independent due to the differences inherent in auditory versus visual media, similar since they were referred by the same species of mind to the same world. Once the phonemic principle of language took hold, however, the phonetic principle of text, with some exceptions (not all societies are literate), followed. Thereafter, as the increasing capabilities of an expanding spoken vocabulary co-opted progressively more of the tasks previously requiring depiction, text was primarily placed (with certain exceptions, such as maps, mathematics and musical notation) in the service of language representation, and graphic depiction was increasingly relegated to the realm of art.

(8) The Communication of Information in the Pre-linguistic Domain

Before telling (a kind of saying) became a viable means to communicate a knowing, it had to be transmitted by demonstration, or showing. This is the most intimate and concrete mode of communication, requiring the spatio-temporal co-presence of the shower, the thing shown, the showing of this thing, and those to whom it is shown. In fact, in this mode, the showing and the thing shown are only divisible if the latter is a separate physical object (pointing something out). If what is being shown is a doing, such as swimming, or a making
(which is a kind of doing) such as knapping a handaxe, the
instrumentality and the expressiveness of the body (or the ‘what to do/make’ and the ‘how to do/make’) are seamless. This knowing is transmitted through observation and imitation of the doing or making, and immediate feedback is available from the world concerning whether or not those shown are gaining the having of the knowledge for themselves (or whether they, too, can make/do). This knowing would most likely be best retained by routinizing the sequence of actions involved (Mind over Machine, Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986; The Logic of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu, 1990), a procedure easily generalizable into ritual.

(9) Linguistic Information Communication

Once people possessed a common language, a knowing could be transmitted by telling, which was more flexible than showing. The teller, the telling and those to whom it was told must still be spatio-temporally co-present, but the presence of the thing told is not required. This frees events to be communicated to those absent from their occurrence, but permits lying, mistakes, miscommunication and misunderstanding, for the feedback from the world required in a showing may be omitted. One can tell another what/how to do or make without doing or making oneself; one can only show by one’s own doing or making. Telling also permits the transmission of abstractions such as theories, speculations, and ideas, which, lacking physical instantiation, can not be shown. Unlike showing, telling is a coding of the thing told. One listens to telling not as a showing is observed, as a presentation of an event, but as a string of symbols bereft of any spatio-temporality which belongs to that told of rather than to its telling. There is no environmental context, no gestalt; the knowing received through telling carries no memory. Mnemonics such as rhythm, sibilance and rhyme (Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird, 1978, Donald Hall), used to retain the told as it was told, would naturally form the basis for early poetic epics.

The Advent of Text

A common written code further abstracts the knowing from any particular event. The writing must of course be co-present with the writer, but the presence of neither the written of nor the written to is required. The fluidity of discourse can be frozen like ice on a sheet of papyrus, ripped from the lived worlds of both the teller and the told, and sent unchanging across space-time to anonymous readers. Now history can be recorded and knowledge accumulated and preserved, freed from the vagaries of memory and the passing of masters. Science begins to gleam in the alchemical eye of superstition, music takes the first steps from melody to symphony, and from the synthesis of ritual and poetry, theatre may be born. Logo-centric ‘religions of the book’ may supplant prehistoric pagan rites and contend with each other, and philosophy may begin to probe both their assertions and its own.

(11) A Recapitulation of Terms

Being, knowing and having are states; doing, saying and making are processes. Knowing and having are modes of being, and knowing is a having of knowledge. Likewise, saying and making are modes of doing, and saying is a making of discourse. There are other dependencies, also; one must be (although since life is involved in dynamic organism/environment exchange even when at rest, all living being is actually a becoming) in order to do, one must know in order to say, and one must have in order to make. Showing, telling and writing may involve doing or making, but are essentially forms of saying.

(12) Why Technology Had to Precede Language, and the March of the

The coordinated system of perception and action which humans possess took millions of years to develop, and our huge and finely articulated brains required constant selective reinforcement from the environment in order to evolve. In this sense, our quick strong bright nimbleness is a result of the pre-reproductive demise of a lot of slow weak clumsy dumb ancestors. These are individual skills; those with them have a prima facie reproductive advantage over those without them. Language, however, is social. What possible use could it have been for the first mutant to have a modest capacity for linguistic expression in the absence of interlocutors? Language facility is simply not a likely candidate for gradual evolution in the same manner as hunting and gathering skills. It is much more likely that a genetically dominant second order mutation in brain systems organization hijacked an already elaborated hand-eye coordination system and applied it to the “mouth-ear” nexus (Uniquely Human, Philip Lieberman, 1991). In this way, the social benefits could be realized in just a few generations. Once this mutation spread within a group of hunter-gatherers, its members could yell for help better and both express and apprehend more subtle emotional states – useful skills in a nomadic foraging band. Being informationally rather than biologically based, the machine, phonetic and phonemic principles of tools, signs and texts were nevertheless most likely extrapolated from the gestalt contexture of action/perception; the structures underlining these therefore appear to constitute a combinatorial Ur-meme (The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, 1976). Remember the Gaia Hypothesis (James Lovelock, 1979)? It states that the aggregate of terrestrial life tends to regulate its own environment to facilitate its own perpetuation. Now, imagine human minds as, due to the evolution of their somatic perceptual structuring of their surroundings, already favorably disposed environments in which these principles, considered as informational forms of life, take root. They would need to protect their niches and to replicate; the first is accomplished by evolving to give the host environment a reason to have them around
(much like E. Coli bacteria facilitate digestion) and the second by
evolving ease of infection (transmitting/teaching the principles to others). Once tool-craft got going, tool forms would evolve to give the best selective advantage to those possessing them at the same time humans would evolve to more quickly and efficiently conceive of and produce better and better tools. Once language piggybacked onto the co-opted coordination system, it would evolve to be most easily absorbed into children’s brains at the same time it would offer a progressively greater selective social advantage to those children whose brains were most permeable to it (The Symbolic Species, Terrence W. Deacon, 1997). The evolutionary imperative is in this case exactly the opposite of that of biotic killers such as influenza, measles, and gonorrhea, which had to evolve to become less virulent to allow for their transmission before the death of the host. In their case, the more efficient lose the competition to those strains which manifest slower or less completely. On the contrary, incubation of these informational life forms grants a selective reproductive advantage to those infected; the evolutionary exigencies therefore gravitate towards more communicable forms with faster incubation and more global mental infestation. Rather than virulent, these memes are budding symbionts; like mental mitochondria. And so telling is more easily and widely communicable than showing, and writing more amenable to distribution than telling. So far this may seem mere speculation, but watch how it dovetails with history.
Once texts began to be created, they became more desired as the literati gained power and influence. Scholars and scribes seemed to exist solely for the task of creating and replicating libraries of texts, which seemed to exist solely to employ scribes and train scholars. Mass production of tools and texts has led to corporate culture, labor division and assembly lines, which in turn have allowed the construction of mass communications systems, and mass transit systems to distribute both the codes and their carriers. These dendritic hybrids of tool, sign and text are connecting human ‘neurons’ into a terran brain, communicating our codes by means of metacodes. Not only has the ground of past history beneath our feet been excavated by means of our textually informed gaze, but the horizon of the future has been dissolved into the present as our televisions and telephones abolish space-time through instantaneous communication (The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram, 1996). And we have made countless copies of them all.

(13) Staring at a Screen Darkly

The advent of the Internet recombines the abolition of space-time barriers to communication with the constant and instant availability of
(potentially) practically all textual knowledge, as computer aided design
and computer assisted manufacture threaten to leave the proletariat with little beyond bourgeois leisure and a subsistence stipend. The underclass will be known not as the unwashed, but as the unwired. With every computer terminal a samizdat, governments (and religions) will progressively lose their ability to tell the big lies and make them stick
(see Zapatista). Guerilla semioticians will increasingly ‘poach’ the icons
and symbols of governmental, religious and corporate institutions and imbue them with different and frequently subversive meanings (The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau, 1984). Authority will issue not from age, race, gender or status, but from the internal consistency, logical cogency, linguistic clarity and external coherence of one’s positions. Spoken and written language forms will continue vanishing as quickly as endangered species, as informational selection takes its Darwinian toll. The hegemony of employment over location will melt away as more and more jobs can be performed from anywhere with power and a telephone line. Global democracy will supercede multiple national sovereignty as humanity’s attachments to borders and boundaries will shrink along with their relevance to the lives of an increasingly individually sovereign citizenry (as Francis Fukuyama foresaw in The End Of History, 1992). The policy debates now occurring within electronic ‘town meetings’ will be settled by cyber-votes. The Human Genome Project will allow human beings to genetically know themselves
(Socrates and Hippocrates would be pleased) and to re-engineer their
codes to remove textual errors (inherited defects). If they like the result, genocopies (clones) will be possible, and there is already talk of exploiting the shared binary codes of computer language and the double helix to create DNA computers. The meme will then have traveled full circle, finding its way back to the gene. In the coming millenium, homo sapiens will be both weavers of and woven by, for better or for worse, the informational warp and communicational weft of a co-evolutionary New Web Order.

Try not to unattributedly plaigarize me again, Brettster; hokay? Your attempts at this are so poorly executed that they misrepresent, taint and pollute my original intentions.