Enculturation and Minds: The Evolution of Consciousness in Individuals and in The Human Species

Book #6: A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness by Merlin Donald.

I started reading this book a long time ago, when it was sent to me in a box of books by my good friends in Austin. I started, and stopped, and then started again, and then stopped again. I think the last time I was working my way through it was last spring, because I found, between two stray pages, a four-leafed clover that Lime picked and gave to me one afternoon at that time. How I wished I’d not set the book aside, but instead finished it then. It’s a tour de force, really.

This book has changed the way I think about human consciousness and its development. Until I delved back into it, I had stuck with my older ideas of the way in which human consciousness came to be: basically, than we come out of our mothers mainly pre-wired and that culture’s effects on the development of human minds are mostly cosmetic: this or that language, this or that custom, flowing across a deeper matrix of anxieties, concerns, attitudes, and deep-seated strategies and algorithms for viewing the world.

The question, of course, is how these deeper structures came to exist, underlying all human cultures, as they obviously seem to do. The answers offered by some, such as Stephen Pinker, seem to serve well enough when applied to one area, or another area; language is inbuilt, because look how we learn it! The argument that we have an instinct for language (or, at least, for abstract representational symbol systems) makes sense, the way Pinker argues it. But how we ever came to have that capacity at all, let alone an instinctual appetite for it, Pinker doesn’t seem to broach. Donald’s answer to this is both simple and profound, and as far as I can understand it, calls some of Pinker’s ideas into question.

Now, at this point you, the reader, should have picked up that I’m far from well-read in this subject. The five writers, as of now, who have most profoundly formed my thinking about the workings of the human mind are Richard Cytowic, Stephen Pinker, Susan Blackmore, Pascal Boyer, and, now, Merlin Donald. Chances are good that many readers of this post know more than I do about the subject, or could easily come to know more than I do with only a little dedication. I’ve read other works, of course, articles about infant proprioception and responses to facial expressions, pieces on the development of the infant brain and on mental conditions related to deprivation of contact with species-mates in infancy and early childhood, stuff about mirror neurons, and so on. But I really don’t know anywhere near enough about this stuff to expect anyone to take me seriously.

Still, I find the whole model presented by Donald to be very interesting, because it seems to be a kind of fertile ground for a synthesis of memetic models by people like Blackmore, and a much-reduced “genetic programming” type of model a la Pinker. In addition to that, it’s crisply and clearly written, obviously for the layperson reader. It’s full of wonderful examples and amusing asides, and Donald’s musings on all kinds of subjects, from the Sistine Chapel to the relationships between a chimps, to himself in the process of writing the very book, show his awareness of—and help to illustrate for the reader—the very profundity of the model he’s advocating.

The main arguments of the book, as I understand them, are these:

  1. The dominant models from consciousness, and explanations for its development, are generally mistaken and lacking. The part of the human mind in which consciousness operates is neither wholly tabula rasa at birth, ready to be programmed by culture, nor fully programmed before birth by genetic routines. Self-aware consciousness is not something to be reduced away and ignored, but must be grappled with in scientific models of the mind.
  2. Our models of the way the mind works tend to allow for a functional short-term memory, and a functional long-term memory. However, there is also an intermediate-term memory which is demonstrably extant, and profoundly important to the way consciousness operates in the human mind.
  3. The human mind is not constructed by genes alone, nor by culture from the outside. Rather, the human mind is, in an infant, startlingly different from adult human consciousness as we know it. It is in a pre-linguistic state of consciousness, and while essentially human, it is radically different from ours. The process of infant development is, at the heart of it, the process of the self-construction of a mind via its interaction with the culture in which it is, from birth onwards, embedded. The interaction occurs along lines of basic programmed human interactions—facial expressions and other forms of mimickry or mimesis, for example—as well as via complicated symbol systems like language, narrative, and so forth. The experience of language, profoundly essential to the development of an adult human mind that is conscious in a way we can recognize, suggests that human minds are actually profoundly altered by the primary acquisition of language and of culture. We essentially are naturally programmed to want to acquire knowledge of some sort; when, as infants, we encounter culture, via language as well as other interactions, we use whatever algorithms exist within us to figure it out, and in the process rewire our own brains in order to become linguistic beings. The universality of linguistic structures, such as suggested by Chomskian/Pinkerian Universal Grammar, exist not because of innate brain structures but because of the simple pragmatics of what humans, as a gregarious species of hominids, tend to need to express— subjects, objects, verbs, directions, differentiation between colors, shapes, and so on.
  4. Donald then suggests, rather convincingly, that language became necessary as a logical consequence of the development of human culture … that in fact, culture (in the sense that we use the word to describe gregarious species’ interactions, I’m thinking, just as chimps can have an enculturated experience). Human mimesis—body language, nonverbal communication including prosody (emotionally or otherwise suggestive voice sounds without linguistic content), ennactment of events or skills to be acquired, and so on—was a fundamental part of what made human cultures so successful, such good hunters and gatherers. A natural development of tools to render mimesis less ambiguous, more precise and exacting, is what would give rise to language… and from oral culture, the step to writing systems and offine storage of massive amounts of data simply further transformed human cultures. Essentially, we get a picture of human minds and human cultures as developing symbiotically, and of humanity as two things: a mass of individually conscious beings of little consequence on their own, and of a kind of massive collective network of minds existing in a superstructure we could call human culture, which is made up not only of the minds of the living, but also all the linguistically captured and recorded information of the culture, from books and paintings to film and roadsigns.

When you grasp what Donald actually means at this point, it’s a little bit mind-blowing, because it actually seems quite right to observe the way non-experiential knowledge, received mythic and narrative models, and mediated understandings of our own existence all shape our thinking and “individual consciousness”—whatever that term can actually mean. It’s also a little dangerously new-age feeling, to me: I get flashbacks to samples of Terence McKenna used by the techno group The Shamen, rambling about eschatons and eschatology and rave culture as a summation of Western civilization, which I think by now we can see it clearly hasn’t been.

But setting aside the theory’s possible misuses, I think that this idea of the Hybrid Mind, the mind both as formed by genetics, and self-formed by its embeddedness in culture, as well as reciprocally formative of culture, is a compelling one.

I would like to know where Donald draws the line for the inbuilt routines and algorithms of the mind, and to what degree components of the mind are preexistent; if language is acquired by rewiring the brain, what module facilitates the rewiring, and how? Is it an older module dedicated to observation of patterns? In what ways has it been genetically modified in human evolution, and how does it differ from the same structure in our closest relative species? Does Donald believe, like Blackmore, that even our sense of self is in fact a memetic construct, derived from our experience of culture and our narratives of selfhood? Essentially, I wonder how much of the human mind he believes is rewired in the process he describes, and how much of the self as we perceive it (post-adult, post-enculturation, post-language-acquisition) he believes exists natively. Of course that could easily have expanded the book a hundred pages.

Still, despite all the unanswered questions that remain for me—or, perhaps, because of them—I think this book is important. It certainly has helped me in my thinking about the way our human minds work.

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