3.What’s Involved In Interpreting The Human Problem Of Learning To Read From A Biological Rather Than A Psychological Perspective?
Arguing that a certain form of behaviour has been ‘selected by evolution’ is a contentious claim. Justifying such a claim involves reading deeply in the literature of biological and cultural evolution, for evidence that the behaviour which has been ‘selected’ developed (i.e.‘evolved’) from non-human and proto-human species. While there is a plethora of such research and documentation , the constraints of space allow only this general summary.
Summary of Research and Documentation Supporting Evolutionary Selection Of Meaning-Making Using Symbols in Homo Sapiens.
Homo sapiens ability to construct and communicate complex meanings using a wide range of symbol-systems (oral and written language, art, dance, sign, music, etc.,) is grounded in the fundamental necessity for cooperative, shared intentions. (Tomasello 1999, Deacon 1997, Donald 1991, 2002, Grice 1957, Fauconnier & Turner 2002)
Modern humans’ ability and willingness to engage in cooperative communication rests on a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality manifested through joint attention in shared contexts. It evolved originally for the explicit purpose of enhancing collaboration and developing shared cultural norms. (Grice 1957, 1975, Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll, 2005)
The basic motives of this infrastructure are helping and sharing. Humans communicate to request help, inform others of things in order to help and support them, and share attitudes as a way of bonding within the cultural group. (Vygotsky 1978, Richerson & Boyd 2005,Tomasello, Kruger, & Ratner, 1993, Tomasello 1999, Tomasello et al 2005)
With respect to the predominant and most powerful medium of communication manifested by the 6000 or so fully developed oral languages ever spoken on earth, the motives to cooperate listed above created different functional pressures for conventionalising grammatical constructions. Tomasello comments that “Requesting help in the immediate you-and-me and here-and now, for example, required very little grammar, but informing and sharing required increasingly complex grammatical devices”. ( Tomasello, 2008)
Research into gestural and vocal communication of both great apes and human infants indicates that humans’ cooperative communication must have emerged first from gestures of pointing and pantomiming. (Call & Tomasello, 2008) Conventional communication, first gestural and then vocal, evolved after humans already possessed these natural gestures and their shared intentionality infrastructure. These must have been supported by skills of cultural learning which enabled creating and passing along jointly understood communicative conventions. (Tomasello1999, Deacon 1997, Donald 1991, 2002, Grice 1957, Fauconnier & Turner 2002,)
This biological research and theory building seriously challenges the dominant psychological perspective based on the Chomsky-an view that linguistic knowledge is innate. (Chomsky 1993, Pinker2000)
Instead the major thrust of this approach is that the most fundamental aspects of the uniquely human ability to construct and communicate complex meaning using vocal and written symbols are biological adaptations for cooperative social interaction in general. However the purely linguistic dimensions of human communication are cultural conventions and constructions created by and passed along within particular cultural groups. ( Deacon 1997, Tomasello, 2003)
Evidence from archeology and paleontology further supports this summary. It supports the hypothesis that survival as a species for our relatively physically weak ancestors depended on their ability to meet a complex set of needs, including, organising hunts, sharing food, communicating about distributed food resources , planning warfare and defence, passing on tool making skills, sharing important past experiences , establishing social bonds between individuals, communicating with and establishing mutually supportive relationships with potential sexual partners and/or mates and other members of the tribe or group, caring for and training young, and so on. (Deacon 1997, Feldman 2008, Donald 1991, 2002, Fauconnier & Turner 2001, Ramachandran V.S (2003) , Tomasello 1999, 2003)
Symbol use it seems offered them a range of new, previously unknown cognitive behaviours which not only ensured their survival but which were responsible for our species subsequent ability to out-compete all other species on the planet. The survival of the first hominid groups who adopted an habitual hunter/gatherer mode of existence depended on them developing ways conceptualising and communicating a set of abstract social "contracts" which would stabilise the inter-group relationships necessary for the needs of procreation, food, security, and child care to be satisfied in mutually supportive and socially cohesive ways.
A symbolic system, albeit, an extremely crude one in the beginning, seemed to provide an effective option for meeting these needs, especially as there was also an already existing suitable “raw material” which could become a medium for symbolic behaviour-- namely the vocal noises our ancestors could make.
In the beginning it may not have been very much like speech. Only a few types of symbols and only a few classes of combinatorial relationships between them would have been necessary. These groups also would have required considerable complexity of social organisation to bring their unprepared brains to fully comprehend the abstract meanings they were struggling to construct and communicate.
Fauconnier and Turner paint this word picture of the process of developing a first primitive, sound-based symbol system which was capable of achieving these outcomes:
Two million years ago, australopithecines, equipped with non-linguistic ape-like mental abilities, struggled to assemble by fits and starts, an extremely crude symbolic system—fragile, difficult to learn, inefficient, slow, inflexible, and tied to ritual representation of social contracts like marriage. We would not have recognised it as language. But language then improved by two means. First invented linguistic forms were subjected to a long process of selection. Generation after generation, the newborn brain deflected linguistic inventions it found uncongenial. The guessing abilities and intricate nonlinguistic biases of the newborn brain acted as filters on the products of linguistic invention. Today's languages are systems of linguistic forms that have survived. The child's mind does not embody innate language structures. Rather the language has come to embody the predispositions of the child's mind. (Fauconnier & Turner, 2002, p. 173)
These crude and difficult language forms imposed evolutionary selection pressures on neural architecture. This evolving neurological hardware both 'shaped', and was shaped by the culturally appropriate social conditions which nurtured our species' meaning-making behaviour. The end product of this process is a species (us), which despite its puny body, its lack of speed, teeth, and claws, had constructed a system of symbolic communication called language, and this in turn made us the most powerful species on the planet.
In the next (and final) blog in this four part topic I will address the question
‘What does a “biological perspective for addressing the problem of learning to read” look like?
I shall also list all the references referred to in the four parts of this topic