IMITATION AND THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURE

Let’s [address] the question of how humans acquired music and language, since it helps us to understand the revolutionary power of imitation. Music and language are skills, and skills are not like physical attributes – bigger wings, longer legs: not only can they be imitated, which obviously physical characteristics on the whole can’t, but in the case of music and language they are reciprocal skills, of no use to individuals on their own, though of more than a little use to a group. An account of the development of skills such as language purely by the competitive force of classical natural selection has to contend not only with the fact that the skills could easily be mimicked by those not genetically related, thus seriously eroding the selective power in favour of the gene, but also with the fact that unless they were mimicked they wouldn’t be much use. Imitation would itself have a selective advantage: it would enable those who were skilled imitators to strengthen the bonds that tied them to others within the group, and make social groups stable and enduring. Those groups that were most cohesive would survive best, and the whole group’s genes would do better, or not, depending on the acquisition of shared skills that promote bonding – such as music, or ultimately language. Those individuals less able to imitate would be less well bound into the group, and would not prosper to the same degree.

The other big selective factor in acquiring skills and fitting in with the group would be flexibility, which comes with expansion of the frontal lobes – particularly the right frontal lobe, which is also the seat of social intelligence. Skills are intuitive, ‘inhabited’ ways of being and behaving, not analytically structured, rule-based techniques. So it may be that we were selected – not for specific abilities, with specific genes for each, such as the ‘language gene(s)’ or the ‘music gene(s)’ – not even ‘group selected’ for such genes – but individually for the dual skills of flexibility and the power to mimic, which are what is required to develop skills in general.

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ATTENTION

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Attention is not just another ‘function’ alongside other cognitive functions. Its ontological status is of something prior to functions and even to things. The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to, the very nature of the world in which those ‘functions’ would be carried out, and in which those ‘things’ would exist. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.

So it is, not just with the human world, but with everything with which we come into contact. A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to the prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There is no ‘real’ mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking which reveals the true mountain.

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