Thursday, April 25, 2019


What were they thinking?  Seriously, what does the Ethiopian mother, gaunt and barely walking, carrying her dead starved baby and an empty can meant to be for water -- what does she think?  What does the fat politician, disobeying his doctor, think while he sits with friends, overeating and drinking?  What did the Vikings think?  What did pre-contact NA indigenous people think?  What does that kid over there think -- the one staring at back you and wondering what you think?

This is the best explanation I've found of the most recent evolutionary leap in human thinking, which has left a lot of people behind, been scorned by others, and may be lost in computer communication.  The explication I'm following here is written by Merlin Donald.  (I'm tempted to call him "Merlin" to distinguish him from Trump, but Merlin would connect him to magic.)

"Human cognitive evolution is characterized by two special features that are truly novel in the primate line. The first is the emergence of "mindsharing" cultures that perform cooperative cognitive work, and serve as distributed cognitive networks. The second is the emergence of a brain that is specifically adapted for functioning within those distributed networks, and cannot realize its design potential without them."  (I added emphasis.)

J Physiol Paris. 2007 Jul-Nov;101(4-6):214-22. doi: 10.1016/j.jphysparis.2007.11.006. Epub 2008 Jan 8.

Donald's belief is that "Brain and culture were co-evolving in a symbiosis."  We've described previously how the functioning human begins as an internal genesis in the mother's body, continues by pressing against experience for several years while learning how to speak and walk, using a special "space" (which is virtual, meaning it's not physical) between infant and caregiver, and between five and eight begins the basics of a primitive human.  

"The critical period hypothesis is the subject of a long-standing debate in linguistics and language acquisition over the extent to which the ability to acquire language is biologically linked to age. The hypothesis claims that there is an ideal time window to acquire language in a linguistically rich environment, after which further language acquisition becomes much more difficult and effortful.
The critical period hypothesis states that the first few years of life is the crucial time in which an individual can acquire a first language if presented with adequate stimuli. If language input does not occur until after this time, the individual will never achieve a full command of language—especially grammatical systems."  The acquisition of reading and writing skills is considered one aspect of intelligence.  But the acquisition of the culture comes through the "holding environment" of family, school, community, and so on.

Between eight and twelve, children develop their understanding of systems and social interaction.  Twelve to eighteen is adolescence when sex is integrated due to internal body drives, and eighteen is adult capable of more advanced thought.  Evidence is that by about 26 the brain is mature and doesn't keep growing unless challenge continues.  This is usually supported by the culture, esp. one that is rich enough for some people to begin specializing and participating in what Donald calls high level literacy, like the study that college grads do in universities and then lifelong on a self-propelled trajectory.

The importance that comes next is called by Donald "distributive cognitive systems" which he also calls "The Slow Process."  This name will NOT catch on!  We equate "smart" and "high status" with FAST.  This idea is sort of being elite, privileged, specially equipped, and that's another major handicap.  It runs headlong into the moral principle of equality, a basis for democracy's "one person, one vote" idea of self-governance, which prevents stigma from sorting everyone into a hierarchy that justifies the oppression of those who don't meet certain criteria: disabled, dark, female, and all that stuff.  These distinctions have nothing to do with "distributive cognitive systems" and in fact, interfere with the ultimate goal by preventing access to what is needed.  Wealth distorts the process by substituting for thought.

"Distributive cognitive systems" develop when people who can deeply communicate with each other are thus able to collaborate and share thought.  This ability to communicate depends upon the mature social development of Porgas' myelinated half of the third autonomic vagus nerve that connects the brain directly to the "presentation screen" of face, voice, hearing, processing, and upper chest with heart and lung.  (This physiological apparatus also needs a good name.)  This allows "deep empathy", mind-sharing, engages "culture," and enriches, enlarges, develops it into communities with common interests, whether the study of math or the building of skyscrapers or the composing of concertos.

The rigid enforcement of the scientific method (Ask a question, gather evidence, develop an hypothesis, test the hypothesis) and the forced division between mind and body have allowed the development of enormous skill in technological augmentation of experience, coded perception beyond what the human body can perceive.  All this has demanded emotional participation and stability, which is part of what Porgas' apparatus does.  Morality, which comes from the part of the brain behind the forehead, is often an interference even as it tries to supply order.

I'm particularly interested in Donald's thought because I empirically see major differences in the thought of people around me, not just in Valier but everywhere.  Donald describes the evolution of thinking humans as three levels.  The first is "episodic" which is mostly about getting through the day with work and socializing.  It is common among agricultural cultures, esp. those preceding the industrial revolution.

Then comes "mimetic and mythic," the time of storytelling and mythic theories of the world, when people can take breaks to create Turner's "liminal space" with arts and liturgy.  These introduce flexibility and alternatives to the daily routine.  Donald's third level of evolution he calls theoretic.  Unfortunately, to me it sounds entirely too academic.  In fact, he identifies it with the creation of institutions, a very mixed achievement IMHO.  Maybe I need to read more of his work.

I consider the highest level achieved by the evolution of communicative capacity to be in fact Donald's "distributed cognitive networks."  This is close to being "virtual." My advisor in seminary and I went round and round about what "virtual" means.  I did NOT connect it to virtue, which he tried to, but more than that he wanted to connect it to the supernatural.  He did NOT want the loss of the supernatural, the idea that there is another world, unseen, where the gods live, though he was willing to give up the gods  themselves.  Most of the people around me (including those on media) are the same.  The great virtual advantage is that it allows participation in historical cultures, fictionalized experience, and openness to the multiplicity of life on this planet.  Ask that kid who is watching you what he thinks.

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