On Behavioural Modernity

For a while now I have been looking into the concept of Behavioural Modernity. This falls into two possible theoretical models. The great Leap Forward: which posits a sudden change in the human brain, or the change over a period of time.

50,000 years ago, our ancestors made this change from having minds on a par with other animals, to minds that developed language and a capacity for symbology. My own deductions favour the slow development. This note explores that conclusion.

First a note on Evolution. A common misconception held by opponents of the understanding of evolution is that “Humans descended from Apes” at no point did Darwin say this, what he said is that several historic strains of human and ape were descended from a common ancestor.

I began to explore this concept after observing my dogs and pondering on the nature of thought. When we think, we think in terms of language. I certainly cannot think in abstract without the use of language or image, and it is with the use of language that I truly comprehend and internally communicate. I assume this to be common and shared by members of the human race who have grown out of babyhood and are not brain damaged.

It is apparent tome, however, that the dogs communicate with each other – mainly non-verbally- and with us. My observations show that they prefer non-verbal communication, mainly indicated by their tails, ears and mouths, but that they resort to making a variety of noises when non-verbal indicators fail to put their message across. They have particular barks to ask to play, to scold me for going out without them and putting the pack in danger, and a bark that says “pay attention” and is followed by having us watch where they go to indicate what they want to do (I need to go out, I want to cool down in the bathroom, it is time we all went to bed) . But is this language in a pure sense? I don’t believe so, but it indicates a prelanguage state that can reveal something of early humanity.

I have sat facing my dogs, holding my hands against my head as if they were pointed ears. With every movement of my hands to indicate ears forward, back, down etc, the dogs show an emotional reaction. Too many conflicting messages in a short space of time sees them tip their heads to one side, then the other – indicating their confusion. Prelanguage gestures indicate emotional states, not abstract ideas or symbols.

Humans (and Apes), are blessed with the opposable thumb, a biological key to the use of tools. I believe that before we developed tools we were in that same prelanguage state. Things were fairly simple when the tools were a handy rock, stick or bone, but as the tools our ancestors used became more complex, and the need developed to teach the next generation how to craft them, emotional indicators became insufficient as a means to communicate. We therefore developed verbalisation in an increasingly complex pattern to pass on these abstract ideas.

we are told that our brains developed a facility for creating and interpreting symbolic ideas within the prefrontal lobe in order to adequately develop this facility. we are further told that Humans are the only species to have developed this capacity. I disagree.

My dogs have adapted to the rudiments of interpreting symbology. They recognise certain words – their names, words like “Doggies” “puppies”, “out” “walk”etc as a symbol of an abstract idea. They cannot create symbols, but are able to learn and interpret them.

Dogs however, are not a self-aware species, unlike Elephants, Apes, monkeys and some other mammals, which have also demonstrated a capacity to understand symbology. The test for self awareness is simply this. In humans, a blob of colour is applied to the forehead and then a mirror produced. Children (usually under three) are not self aware, and will touch the blob they see in the mirror. A self aware child (usually over two years of age) will see the reflection and touch their own forehead. Dogs are not self aware, and always see their reflection as another dog. Some Elephants have been able, when learning to paint, to compose a picture of their choice (usually from nature).

Undoubtedly, The human has the most developed capacity to create and interpret symbols. No doubt we have had the most practice. But I conclude that our current complexity of thought, language and communication developed slowly over a very long period of time, rather than in a single quick leap forward, and that the capacity exists in other animals to develop along their own lines given a long enough development period.


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