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The Eve Theory of Consciousness
My answer to the Sapient Paradox
Note: a more recent version of this theory appears here.
O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all一 what is it?
And where did it come from?
~Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Origin merits such an opening salvo, for in the subsequent pages Jaynes argues that consciousness emerged just 3,200 years ago. Prior to that fateful moment humans had a cognitive arrangement he calls the bicameral mind for its divided functions. Analogous to a “two-chamber” system of government1, one half of the brain produced commands as auditory hallucinations. These would have been in the voice of authorities (ie. parents, the chief), or the gods. The other half executed these commands. There was no ruminative space between hearing and doing. There was no self. For Jaynes the soldiers of the Trojan war were “...not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did”.
Jaynes spends the first chapter defining consciousness. Briefly, this can be summed up by what is implicated in “I think therefore I am”. Remove from your psyche whatever is introspectable and you are bicameral, give or take the odd hallucination of your disembodied taskmasters. Sapient may have been a better word, for what he is describing is the type of thinking that makes us human; Homo Sapiens is literally Thinking Man. But perhaps dating the delineating factor of our species to this side of literacy was a bridge too far, even for Jaynes. Whatever the case, in this article, I will follow suit and use conscious in the sense of cogito, ergo sum. Are plants conscious? Sure. But none has, to my knowledge, obtained the level of Descarte. That is the level I mean by conscious.
In small groups these hallucinated gods could be shared: “Enki told you to wash the dishes? Me too!”. As society became more complex people realized not everyone heard the same voices nor did they make the same commands. Imagine the confusion of the people of Ur trading in foreign lands with people who swore on foreign gods. In finding their Ur gods were not ur-gods their worldview was shattered. Consciousness emerged from this wreckage. They began to identify with a single voice, their own self. A jealous entity, it displaced all other voices. The main evidence that Jaynes brings to support his conclusion is that there are differences between the Iliad and Odyssey with respect to cognition verbs, which are notably absent in the earlier Iliad.
“The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon (I :197ff.). It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath on the beach by his black ships, a god who whispers low to Helen to sweep her heart with homesick longing, a god who hides Paris in a mist in front of the attacking Menelaus, a god who tells Glaucus to take bronze for gold (6:234ff.), a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, who urges the soldiers on or defeats them by casting them in spells or drawing mists over their visual fields.” ~Julian Jaynes, Origin
From this ancient verbiage he concludes consciousness began circa 1,200 BC. This seems wild but the 1970s were a wild time. Richard Dawkins didn’t pan it outright: “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I'm hedging my bets.” In a tribute one philosopher wrote: “The weight of original thought in it is so great that it makes me uneasy for the author’s well-being: the human mind is not built to support such a burden. I would not be Julian Jaynes if they paid me a thousand dollars an hour.”
Origins has garnered 5,000 citations. Despite this, a retrospective summarized the acceptance: “Although book sales soared, followed by invited talks, lectures, conferences on his ideas, and great respect from his peers, Jaynes’s theory lived at the margins of academic validation. In part, this was because his component theories were so broad that very few people felt competent to engage all the issues.” (Retrospective: Julian Jaynes and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind)
Nobody had the breadth to refute the ideas? In my estimation, a far bigger problem is that the thesis is obviously wrong. Consciousness (or, if you prefer, Sapience) is a once-in-a-solar-system event. Jaynes asks us to believe that it does not grant categorically different mental abilities. That all of the things we use conscious thought for now—planning, inventing, writing—were accomplished subconsciously until 1,200 BC. That there was no material lifestyle change after the event, nor evidence of its diffusion. He claims the breakdown occurred to literate people. The experience would be the topic of epic poems, and not obliquely! Why can he muster no more evidence than verb shifts from a moment that should be the Big Bang for culture? It is a theory of everything, but also a theory of nothing. Indeed, applied to history it has essentially zero predictive power. If you say it affected language, then show me the language family it founded. He waxes eloquent about the “analog I” which ostensibly would have followed breakdown. And yet the first person singular is well attested 10,000 years ago. The theory does not fare well in the real world. Consider his explication of the conquistadors’ success:
While it is possible that the sixteenth-century Inca and his hereditary aristocracy were walking through bicameral roles established in a much earlier truly bicameral kingdom, even as perhaps the Emperor Hirohito, the divine sun god of Japan, does to this day, the evidence suggests that it was much more than this. The closer an individual was to the Inca, the more it seems his mentality was bicameral. Even the gold and jeweled spools which the top of the hierarchy, including the Inca, wore in their ears, sometimes with images of the sun on them, may have indicated that those same ears were hearing the voice of the sun.
But perhaps most suggestive of all is the manner in which this huge empire was conquered. The unsuspicious meekness of the surrender has long been the most fascinating problem of the European invasions of America. The fact that it occurred is clear, but the record as to why is grimy with supposition, even in the superstitious Conquistadors who later recorded it. How could an empire whose armies had triumphed over the civilizations of half a continent be captured by a small band of 150 Spaniards in the early evening of November 16, 1532?
You’ve heard of the Noble Savage? To Jaynes the gulf is wider still: the Noble Automaton. One would think the Catholic missionaries would have noticed. Or that La Malinche would have trouble picking up Spanish in a few months. More broadly, there is no getting around Jaynes’s automatons persisting into the last few centuries. If not in the Americas, try Australia.
Jaynes attributed his idea to a voice from nowhere. Like many prophets before him, he predicted the end of the (bicameral) world. Failing fireworks, he asks us to believe the world did indeed end, it’s just that nobody noticed.
Okay, now that that is out of my system. The truth is, the idea has staying power because it contains compelling philosophy and neuroscience. Why is language, this new skill, built into the bedrock of that which we can introspect? Where did my inner voice come from? And why? As something of a romantic, I think I can save bicameral breakdown.
The fatal flaw is Jaynes’s date. It simply has to be more distant and aligned with the documented psychological revolution of our species. Consciousness, taken seriously, would have extraordinary ramifications. We would see a phase change in creativity, planning, and searching for meaning. We would see minds blown. Surely not everyone would be copasetic after being dropped from nowhere into a mind palace. Coincidentally, did you know that 10% of all Neolithic skulls have been trepanned? Seriously, it’s a worldwide phenomenon, commonly a treatment for epilepsy or possession. This is the type of stranger-than-fiction archeology that a historical theory of consciousness needs to be able to explain: mankind, in the frenzy of incipient self-awareness, inventing agriculture and boring holes in their skulls to let the demons out. Instead Jaynes asks adherents to believe that Aztec metaphysics were developed by philosophical zombies.
(This is quite a short summary of a big idea. For more depth, wikipedia and this psychology wiki both have good articles; there is an active community of the persuaded. Scott Alexander also has a review.)
Eve Theory of Consciousness
“Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul.” ~Carl Jung
I believe Jaynes is right about the first function of our inner voice. That it used to be experienced as the voice of the gods (or at least one’s mother). A kind of truncated internal dialogue where there was no self to respond. Jaynes’s path to the idea involved “autistically pondering…how we can know anything at all” until a voice intervened: “Include the knower in the known!”. My path was more pedestrian. I let the Vectors of Mind point the way.
My dissertation was on the personality structure implied by natural language. Very briefly, I studied how people are described in books and comments online. If a character is extroverted, what can we say about their neuroticism? Basically, I was a gossip cartographer. Because we are social creatures, this is also a fitness landscape. A map of what society would like us to be. In the words of Darwin: “After the power of language had been acquired, and the wishes of the community could be expressed, the common opinion of how each member ought to act for the public good, would naturally become in a paramount degree the guide to action”.
In line with his understanding I found that, according to the whole of English literature, by far the most important thing about someone is whether they follow the golden rule: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. This single trait explains most of the variance in the data. Putting yourself in others shoes is also just the sort of substitution that would have pushed our Theory of Mind to new limits.
In a previous post I argued that our inner voice could have first been a mechanism to live the golden rule, a proto-conscience. The commands would have been fit when life was simple: “share your food” or “protect the sacred cow!”. Only later did we identify with a single voice and carve out a space to reason about which voice to follow. This would have coincided with language becoming the substrate of our thoughts and is our subject today. We imagined minds, and then joined them. We built a map which then became the territory.
This project is much more than an attempt to save Jaynes’s idea. Saving a theory usually involves lopping off exotic features as they present surface area to attack. I add them in spades. I present bicameral breakdown taken to the logical conclusion, back to the beginning when we walked with god.
Eve first creates ruminative space between hearing and doing—a self with which to wrestle hypotheticals, a land of symbols. She becomes like god, able to judge between good and evil. Above the gods, even, for she can reject those familiar voices. This opens Pandora’s Box of self-knowledge, and is the birth of emotional derivatives that define our species. Fear festers into anxiety. Lust and an imagined future blossom as romance. She is the mother of what we now call living.
This birth also brought death. Lions do not envision their demise as they lay sated. Or even when hungry, for the pang does not carry existential weight. Sapient beings are not only capable of considering their end, but of planning to prevent it. Further, an interior self paves the way for private property. These three forces—death anxiety, planning, and private property—set the stage for the invention of agriculture the world over.
Judging from cultural artifacts—myths, megaliths and the analog “I”—our genesis was not so long ago, perhaps as recent as the end of the Ice Age. Women first tasted self-knowledge. Seeing it was desirable, they initiated men with mind-rending rites of passage. Man henceforth lived separated from nature and from god. This consciousness meme, like wildfire, spread to the whole of humanity; a Great Awakening recorded in creation myths worldwide.
Today the self is acquired trivially as a child, for the self is integral to our culture. Not only that, for thousands of years there has been strong genetic selection for brains amenable to the seamless construction of ego. Like the Wooly Mammoth and Giant Sloth, Bicameral Man could not compete with the power of abstractions.
Bicameral breakdown is unique among theories of consciousness in that it is historical. From a truth-finding perspective this is a great advantage for it opens the theory to falsification from a whole slew of fields. It is harder to build a castle in the sky if it makes contact with archeology, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, population genetics, developmental psychology, comparative mythology, and anthropology.
The hardest part to believe is that consciousness could have initially spread memetically yet now be our genetic inheritance. I’ll address that at length in a future post, but it does not make sense to develop that idea until the explanatory power of Eve Theory of Consciousness (EToC) has been established. Showing that is necessarily involved. It will take some time. In the next several posts I hope to demonstrate this version of genesis fits well-attested facts, and accepting it resolves many seemingly unrelated mysteries.
The Sapient Paradox
There are a few strategies to date the origin of our species: genetics, anatomy, or the production of “cognitively modern” cultural artifacts. The first two methods give dates on the order of 200,000 years ago. It may seem strange to essentially use
phrenology skull shape to date the beginning of the modern mind (ego is stored in the Occipital Bun, I hear), but that’s pretty standard fare. To my knowledge, nobody wholly commits to using evidence of creativity. There is always the constraint that the date must be no later than 50,000 years ago and the location must be in Africa in order to accommodate a purely genetic model of consciousness.
Strictly speaking, genetic transfer doesn’t require this constraint. According to population geneticists all humans share a common ancestor who lived more recently than the Ice Age. Consider the impassioned position of one population geneticist claiming that if Cheddar Man (who died in Britain ~10,000 years ago) has any descendants, then everyone on earth is his descendent.
If that sounds like bluster, it’s at least peer reviewed bluster. Here is another geneticist backing him up, literature in hand. Still, even if not required by genetics, the constraint that we left Africa with a modern mind is usually accepted. This commitment leads to some weird places.
The great leap forward that wasn’t
For Chomsky language is far more than communication. It is our mode of thought2, and the only thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. When he says that recursive language is the result of a single mutation in Africa 60,000-100,000 years ago, he means that is the beginning of thinking or what I have been calling consciousness. According to Chomsky: “We know by now that human language does not postdate about sixty thousand years ago. And the way you know that is that's when the trek from Africa started.”
This constraint is presented in conjunction with evidence of creativity: “The archeological-anthropological record suggests similar conclusions. As mentioned before, there is what is sometimes called a “great leap forward” in human evolution in a period roughly 50,000-100,000 years ago, when the archeological record suddenly changes radically.”
Now, if there is anything I have learned from the communists it’s that a Great Leap Forward may not live up to its name. Anthropologists appear to be collaborators on this front. Consider the level of art being produced at the time.
Chomsky believes there was a single mutation in Africa that allowed for modern language (and abstract thought). If so, why didn’t that group paint anything interesting? Something that would impress us if a child drew it. Why does symbolic art emerge ten (or fifty!) thousand years later on another continent? And perhaps more importantly, why was that cultural development regional and not global?
The technical name for this question is the Sapient Paradox. First posed by archeologist Colin Renfrow, it deals with the unexplained gap between the emergence of modern humans 50,000-300,000 years ago, and the start of civilization ~12,000 years ago. There are fundamental aspects of the human condition (eg. the existence of commodities and religion) that aren’t present, or are only regionally present, up to about that point. To give an idea why this gap is so problematic, consider if you, dear reader, were transported back to the upper paleolithic, brain wiped. Would you make a better spear? Doodle a self-portrait? Invent pronouns4? What if we performed this exercise 40 million times? With a generation length of 25 years and population size 1 million, that is how many brains there were devoted to such problems over 1,000 years. And there were millennia where the spears stayed the same. Why do we observe relative stasis until, like a light switch, things take off globally? Introducing his paradox, Renfrow says “From a distance and to the non-specialist anthropologist, the Sedentary Revolution looks like the true Human Revolution.”
The beauty of bicameral breakdown is that it is a memetic path to cognitive modernity. It allows us to relax the genetic constraint on the question of humanness and fully commit to using cultural artifacts. If anthropologists see a Human Revolution, then let’s use that as the date for bicameral breakdown. This also solves the conundrum of why it took so long for humans to get going. Renfrew mentions 12,000 years ago as a start date for the revolution, when agriculture was first adopted as a way of life. Elsewhere he uses 10,000 years. His object is the nature of the gap—whether it even exists—not the precise end. We seek more granularity.
EToC contends that the development of self-awareness caused the agricultural revolution. Domesticating plants takes thousands of years, so we hope to find a change of around 15,000 years ago. The paper Archaeological evidence for modern intelligence provides exactly that.
Anthropologist Thomas Wynn goes through the archeological record looking for evidence of abstract thought5. Specifically, he would like to show how Homo Sapiens outcompeted our archaic ancestors (ie, Neanderthals, Denisovans, whoever else). As such the most convenient date for him would be near the establishment of our species. Failing that, it would be compelling to show a transition about the time Neanderthals went extinct, 40,000 years ago. Instead, the earliest possible example of abstract thought he finds is just 16,000 years ago. Even that relies on a controversial interpretation of cave art, which posits that animals are grouped by gender.
We may infer from the topographical division that the male human figures, the horses, the ibexes, and the stags form a group distinct from that of the female human figures, the bison, the oxen, and the mammoths. The division of the repertory of figures into a “male” group and a “female” group seems very probably to be a fact.
…At Lascaux the most important section of each panel is occupied by oxen and horses-this occurs not only once but at least six times from the cave entrance to the back, in every chamber. At Pech Merle, the clearly delimited compositions repeat the themes of bison/horse and bison/mammoth at least six or seven times.
…The fundamental principle is that of pairing; let us not say “coupling,” for there are no scenes of copulation in Paleolithic art. The idea of reproduction perhaps underlies the representation of paired figures but what we shall see subsequently does not absolutely establish this. Starting with the earliest figures, one has the impression of being faces with a system polished in the course of time—not unlike the older religions of our world, wherein there are male and female divinities whose actions do not overtly allude to sexual reproduction, but whose male and female qualities are indispensably complementary. ~André Leroi-Gourhan, Treasures of Prehistoric Art
Anthropology is pretty cool. A quest for the beginnings of intelligence can end up with arguments like “they seem to think mammoths are girls”. There is enough meat on the new cultural dynamics one dissertation spends 400 pages on the subject (Gender in the making: Late Magdalenian social relations of production in the French Midi-Pyrenees). Gender springing up with more complex culture is a good sign for the Eve Theory of Consciousness. Further still if the art was about the complementary nature of the sexes. Wynn argues this organization requires abstract thought.
Unfortunately, even if this assessment [stag/mammoth representing male/female] were true, we have documented formal operational intelligence [abstract reasoning] only for the Magdalenian, perhaps 16,000 years ago, and this is so close to the present as to be unremarkable.
What is remarkable is that this anthropologist could find no evidence of abstract thought in the whole of the archaeological record before 16,000 years ago. (Before reading this, what date would you have guessed?) Indeed, he had to rely on a controversial interpretation to go even that far back. Renfrow identifies “intrinsic value” (eg. valuing gold) and the “power of the sacred” as fundamental human traits that are surprisingly recent. Perhaps we can add abstract reasoning to this as well.
I want to emphasize that adding this doesn’t rely on just one paper6 or one cave system. Undoubtedly, the first abstract thought left no trace. But one thought tends to beget many more, and I don’t think the sum total will be hard to spot. As Jaynes put it: "It is as if all life evolved to a certain point, and then in ourselves turned at a right angle and simply exploded in a different direction". The human condition is unique, and we should be able to locate its beginning based on grand lifestyle changes.
Obvious Sapient Postulate: Cognitive adaptation necessarily changes lifestyle. Sapience is a large change and will produce obvious lifestyle differences.
That is, a transition of the magnitude of consciousness should be so stark that it should be clear “from a distance and to the non-specialist anthropologist” (or even to an engineer) surveying the cultural remains. We don’t need to understand which animals particular cave painters meant to symbolize the feminine. We can take a giant step back and ask, everything together, what was the largest lifestyle change our species has experienced? This is a good candidate for our transition to Sapience. To my knowledge, nobody has taken this most simple approach. That's why Renfrow introduces the evidence as a paradox.
This is of course just a postulate, an assertion. But it does strike me as more likely than the modern mind not producing significant lifestyle change wherever it went. This view is at odds with Jaynes and Chomsky who both claim Sapience was abrupt but date it to a period with no abrupt change.
A Jaynesian may protest and say bicameral breakdown is connected to the Late Bronze Age collapse. Surely that is significant! Reader, without looking it up, name one story that event inspired. Grab someone on the street and ask the same. Okay, now try the Agricultural Revolution. Do they recall the part where Adam and Eve must till the land after tasting knowledge?
The Gossip Trap
The winner of the ACX book review contest addressed the Sapient Paradox. Much like myself, Eric Hoel “spins a yarn” about what life was like in the intermediate period between the cradle of our species and the cradle of civilization. His solution to millennia of stagnation is the Gossip Trap. In this version of our beginnings cancerous humans pull any would-be inventor back in the proverbial bucket. There were popular kids and unpopular kids; desire to be cool kept everyone conformist. It is only once populations got large enough to surpass Dunbar’s number that humans began to abstract relationships and gain some anonymity. This allowed us to escape the trap and invent god, geometry, and the rest.
The power politics of high school lunch tables don’t strike me as phenomena powerful enough to prevent innovation over the whole world. Or universal enough to let up at the same time. Many cultures make room for nonconformists, be it jesters or two-spirits. Farther from the confines of culture, there are even odd pairs like this badger and coyote. Neither the natural nor social world is so predictably uniform.
As noted by Hoel, human origins are political. And the implications of the Sapient Paradox are dour. It means our base state is to be scratching diagonal lines in rocks, collectively eking out an invention every millennia or so. All of our vaulting ambition and wrestling with the divine, all of our demons, art and metaphors: all non-essentials, an optional cherry on top. How erasable our souls must be!
With EToC our story begins with the Human Revolution. From the dawn of time—for there was no time before self—we lived in the land of symbols, manipulating the world and each other. The stuff of myths and legends is our natural habitat.
Memes or genes?
If someone accepts a minimum marker of sapience (eg. symbolic art, abstract thought) was regional in the past, that implies a gene x environment interaction produced sapience. That is, given the correct training or circumstances humans were capable of living a symbolic life, but it was not an automatic base state. Perhaps analogous to the special mental states achieved by meditators. If one accepts the facts of the Paradox, the only other way out is biting the bullet and saying there was a recent genetic mutation which endowed humanness. Have fun with that!
If consciousness is an interaction effect, then the relevant genes can accumulate slowly and over the whole planet. The account in EToC is that our genus—including Neanderthals and Denisovans—was being selected to have better theory of mind, with many genes having small positive effects. At some point, and likely due to mixing, this ability developed enough so that a sapient state could be entered—a trance where one identified as the originator of word-based thoughts. Some prodigies, like Eve, could stay in this state and taught others how to do so. Consistent pedagogic methods were codified into “The Ritual” ~15,000 years ago. This cognitive “technology” spread over the entire world. Since then, there has been strong selection for this invisible agent; even without ritual it is now developed 99% of the time with limited disruption.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, of course. But I’d also like to highlight that the facts on the ground require the explanation to be extraordinary. There are good reasons to believe the ability for abstract thought (at least initially) was nature and nurture. No theory that treats the Human Revolution as “business as usual” can account for that, for it’s not at all what we observe today. This is what Hoel, a real neuroscientist who studies consciousness, sought to explain with the Gossip Trap, a theory he uses to sound the alarm about the existential threat of social media. The Sapient Paradox is taken seriously by smart people. Seriously enough to be used as evidence for how we ought to organize our modern world.
I think the change had to do with our relation to our inner voice. In the words of Chomsky “What is [language’s] characteristic use? Well, probably 99.9 percent of its use is internal to the mind.” At some point language went from a way to communicate to a way to think. Chomsky assumes this is genetic and then also assumes this must have happened before Out of Africa. This requires a convoluted story where our creative inheritance lies fallow—only coming to fruition tens of millenia later halfway around the world—but the mechanism is still purely genetic.
To me it makes more sense to look for abstract thought before narrowing down the mechanism. Evidence for this just precedes the grandest lifestyle revolution our species has experienced. The first time we were obviously imposing our will on nature across the globe.
The Smithsonian’s Human Origins Initiative asks users to submit their definition of what it means to be human. Many responses are like Emma’s: “To learn from the past, live the present and dream for the future.” Other answers quote Genesis. If EToC is true, those quotes are memories from the moment it became possible to imagine the future. A missive from when our world was cut from the cloth of language. Or, as Saint John put it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
EToC strings together a few propositions, namely:
Women became self-aware before men
The ability was initially transferred memetically
The transition to sapience
Was recorded in creation myths, including Genesis
Can be dated using only cultural artifacts (no need to use phrenology or genetics)
Consciousness went global around the end of the ice age
None of these ideas are new (save perhaps the last). But the combination is unique, as is some of the supporting evidence. On that front, future posts will discuss:
How long myths can survive
The synchronized, worldwide, development of agriculture
Sex differences in Theory of Mind
Pronouns as linguistic markers of self-awareness
Understanding consciousness is a fool’s errand. But I’ve caught the bug and I’m going in, eyes wide to the carcasses of all the theories that went before. Wish me luck! And if you think there’s a chance EToC is true, share it broadly. We do peer review different on substack✌️
Given how long metaphors can last in language, it is a red flag that he must make analogy to government. For example, Proto Indo-European, which today preserves cognates across Eurasia, is 2-3x as old as Jaynes' proposed Bicameral Breakdown. If humans indeed were bicameral in the Bronze Age, there should be plenty of natural references to that psychology that don’t involve government.
The Science of Language: interviews with James McGilvray
JM: What about the idea that the capacity to engage in thought—that is, thought apart from the circumstances that might prompt or stimulate thoughts—that that might have come about as a result of the introduction of the language system too?
Noam Chomsky: The only reason for doubting it is that it seems about the same among groups that separated about fifty thousand years ago.
I use Chauvet Cave as representative of early cave art as Europe is where we have found the most examples. However, the earliest known cave art of an animal is actually in Sulawesi, a region of that looked very different during the Ice Age. There could be many more examples swallowed by the sea. Much we don’t know.
Okay, the evidence for pronouns being recent is not as strong, but will be the topic of a future post.
Technically, Wynn is looking for formal operations, the last stage in Piaget's stages of reasoning (popular in the child development literature). This draws on the surprisingly powerful idea that ontology recapitulates phylogeny. That is, that an individual’s developmental path tends to follow the same developmental path the species took to its current form. Wynn sums up the final two stages of reasoning:
“Concrete operations are characterized by all of the organizational features of operations: reversibility, conservation, precorrection of errors, and so on. They are the first operations to appear and are used to organize tangible things, like objects and people, and simple concepts, like numbers—hence the term concrete. Hypothetical entities or abstract concepts are not the stuff of concrete operations.”
“The structures of formal operational thinking are more generally applied than those of concrete operations. No longer is the logic applied only to objects or to real data sets; it is used to establish generalities about all possible situations. This development also includes the capacity for hypotheticodeductive reasoning, the use of propositional logic, and the ability to disassociate form from content. In other words, formal operations are characteristic of the most sophisticated kind of reasoning we know. It is the final stage of Piaget’s scheme and also the most controversial. I will here investigate the possibility that formal operations were associated with the appearance of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) and that this development supplied them with some advantage.”
Not that it substantially changes things, but another paper in the same issue (The Origins of Human Behavior) makes a similar argument about the complexity of thought at that time: The invention of computationally plausible knowledge systems in the Upper Palaeolithic