Language and Culture as Evolutionary Mechanisms

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Brendan Graham Dempsey:

"When it comes to human brains, the nervous system doesn’t tell the whole story. Building on the capacities provided by our large animal brains, Homo sapiens hit on an even better mechanism for information processing—one that would literally change the world: language.

This evolutionary adaption was such a profound game-changer, it led to the emergence of an entirely novel level of reality: Culture. Just as animal nervous systems provided an evolutionary leap in information processing over genetic learning, so did symbolic language provide an evolutionary leap over experiential learning. With language, it was now possible to learn conceptually, without even needing to directly experience a phenomenon first-hand or figure out a procedure for one’s self. Culture itself became the living memory system for individuals. And whereas all the individually learned information acquired by an organism was lost when that organism died, Culture allowed information to persist and accrete over generations, indefinitely.

But language brought an even more profound emergence: self-consciousness.

In A New Unified Theory of Psychology, Henriques provides a model for the emergence of self-consciousness within the linguistic context of Culture and the appearance of what he calls “justification systems.”

For, with the emergence of advanced minded animals, the physical environment was no longer the only one that needed to be navigated; there was now a social environment as well, whose successful navigation also had important implications for survival. “That is,” writes Henriques, “like nutritious food, social influence reflects a basic, primary need and desire.”

Facilitating social exchange, the development of language allowed hominids to communicate information not just about their outer world, but also about their inner mental one, including motivations, intentions, desires, etc. The social influence (and, thus, evolutionary advantage) this conferred led to an evolutionary pressure to render interior mental states more communicable—in a sense, selecting for self-refection. So it happened that we became fully conscious of ourselves as individuals with our own subjective worlds precisely because we were in collective contexts that rewarded inter-subjective justification. The self is born—through communion.

“What is the self-consciousness system?” asks Henriques.

- In a nutshell, it is an evolutionarily novel mental apparatus that functions to build justification narratives that legitimize actions and claims. To put this in everyday terms, the self-consciousness system is the language-based portion of one’s mind that is narrating what is happening, why it is happening, and why one is doing what in that context.

Surprising as it may sound, self-consciousness required other selves to render it possible. The sense of self could not have emerged outside of society, because it is based on language and inter-subjective accounting. That is why self-consciousness is rightly understood as emerging not with Mind (which all animals possess), but with Culture. Only at the level of Culture has self-awareness and self-knowledge appeared in the universe.

The individual and their social environment are thus intimately linked. They exist in symbiotic relationship and co-evolve.

As Henriques puts it,

- The point of the Justification Hypothesis is that the self-consciousness system is designed so that it allows the individual to “download” the justification narratives of the current cultural context and utilize those narratives to navigate the social environment.

Because social contexts are, like other environmental niches, always changing, collective justification narratives are always evolving. Symbolic information adapts and changes.

So Henriques notes:

- Justifications are a great example of what Dawkins (1989) called a meme, which is a unit of cultural evolution. Much like genes, justifications interlock to form complex, functional systemic networks. And such systems can easily be envisioned to evolve.

Just as Life evolves by accretive modifications to DNA and Mind by accretive adjustments to experience, so Culture evolves by accretive conceptual development. Collective intelligence shapes meme networks — called “Metamemes” — which individual self-conscious minds “download” to better navigate their environment. Such metamemes serve to justify, legitimate, and explain human behavior and natural phenomena in their unique contexts—making them effectively equivalent to what we have been calling worldviews.

Because worldviews are evolving, they are also complexifying, generating more sophisticated wholes by incorporating more and more of the knowledge from previous justificatory worldviews. Like other evolving organisms, as they complexify, their energetic input and output likewise increases. As energy structures what it flows through, so human societies reconfigure into “more elaborate forms” over time. As more complex environments produce more complex challenges, knowledge is forced to increase, further driving the evolution of worldviews.

Scientific fields established in the 20th century — such as the study of human developmental psychology and cultural evolution in sociology—have shed considerable light on these processes.

For example, the research of Clare Graves, a professor of psychology at Union College, led to Emergent Cyclical Theory (ECLET) in the 1960s and 70s, which identified a series of distinct, emergent “levels” of justification systems and value structures based on specific life conditions."