The Subject. Part II. The Individual. Andy Blunden 2006


The individual cannot be understood as he or she is other than by understanding his or her process of development, for the individual is a process of development.

The development of the human individual entails three interlocking processes: phylogeny (the origin of the human species which has given us our physiology), culture and history (which has given us our ‘second nature’) and ontogeny (the development of each individual person from embryo to adult).


Whereas ontogeny is acted out countless times before our eyes, and historical development is documented, the origin of the human species from our hominoid predecessors is necessarily shrouded in doubt and speculation because of the paucity of available evidence about this process.

Phylogeny is the origins narrative of the scientific view of human nature. All theories of human nature have their origins stories – from the dreamtime stories of the Australian Aborigines and the founding stories of all the nations to the Old Testament, the ancient Greek and Norse epics, the tales of the Hindu deities and historical materialism. Given that the evidence on which science has to draw is so slight, there is a danger that any phylogenetic narrative will be nothing more than a reconstruction of some view about human nature in the form of a story of origins, a mythology, in other words.

Despite this cautionary observation, it remains the case that any view of human nature must have its origins story, whether or not it is made explicit; the only questions are: how sound is the evidence, how plausible is the story and, above all, how does it contribute to an understanding of human beings as we find them today. Any theory of phylogeny means looking back from the present, making some kind of reconstruction on the basis of the evidence we have today, and deploying it for the purposes of today.

Marx on origins

Darwin’s publication of the On the origin of species by means of natural selection in 1859 launched the modern scientific theory of the origin of humankind, though at that time Darwin held back from spelling out the obvious conclusion. Every theory of human phylogeny with a pretence to science must begin from Darwin’s theory of natural selection. But little is settled by the idea of human beings evolving from apes.

Marx and Engels observed how in presenting his theory of natural selection, Darwin himself was engaged in a process, to be repeated by so many others, of inscribing a theory of society back into Nature. In his letter to Engels of 18 June 1862 Marx remarked:

“It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.”

Engels expressed this same idea in a letter to Lavrov 17 November 1875:

“The whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’s doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus’s theory of population. When this conjurer’s trick has been performed ... the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved. The puerility of this procedure is so obvious that not a word need be said about it. But if I wanted to go into the matter more thoroughly I should do so by depicting them in the first place as bad economists and only in the second place as bad naturalists and philosophers.”

The puerility of the procedure has not prevented it being emulated countless times since, with recent decades giving us Konrad Lorentz’s “On Aggression,” Robert Ardrey’s “Territorial Imperative,” Richard Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” and now “Evolutionary Psychology,” all aimed at legitimising a social theory by positing its pre-existence in the animal kingdom and therefore, in human society. These currents of pseudoscience have to be shown to be poor theories of the animal order, and independently to be poor theories of human nature. But this is not the place to enter into these disputes.

I am going to confine myself to just two works on the subject of human origins. The first is Engels’ The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man, written in 1876, only 4 years after Darwin published his only explicit treatment of human origins: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. The second is Merlin Donald’s work, as set out in Origins of the Modern Mind. Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition, published in 1991.

Engels in 1876

At the time Engels wrote “Part played by labour” there was no palaeontological evidence on early humans at all; the only human societies known at that time were at various stages of cultural evolution, but despite superficial differences, all were fully modern homo sapiens sapiens. So Engels’ essay was entirely speculative. Engels could draw on Hegel’s theory of the origins of civilisation (discussed in Chapter 6 above) and Marx and his own theories of history; these he combined with Benjamin Franklin’s observation that man is a tool-making animal and Darwin’s idea of natural selection operating among populations of individuals who resembled their parents with slight variations. At the time Engels wrote, the nature of these variations, the manner of their inheritance and the distinction between soma and gene, were as yet unknown.

The drift of his argument was this: the predecessors of human beings were apes who left a life in the trees to live on the ground; this freed up the hands, whose facility was developed in the making and using tools. Making tools entailed giving a material form to human powers; living in an environment, not just of natural objects, but of artefacts, facilitated the development of conceptual thought. Collaboration in the labour process brought people together in larger groups and promoted the use of language: “people had something to say to each other.” “The combined functioning of hand, speech organs and brain,” stimulated the growth of the brain, the refinement of all the senses, and brought a wider and wider range of habitats and foods under the sway of the labour process, successively refining the organs of labour, speech and thinking.

Engels took the argument about the centrality of the labour process in historical and cultural evolution, and in particular, of the historical destiny of the proletariat, and extended it backwards so as to make labour “the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.”

So in the first place, Engels’ article was part of his life-work to promote the self-consciousness of the working class as an historical agent. Engels was also participating in a vigorous political struggle which produced a broader body of popular literature during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. This was a struggle of materialism against idealism, in particular the struggle for scientific views against religion and superstition. Helmholtz’s work to disprove the existence of a “life force” by establishing the Law of Conservation of Energy in connection with living organisms, and Boltzmann’s work on statistical mechanics are but two examples. Religious ideologists saw evidence of God’s intention in the wonders of the natural world, and materialists like Thomas Huxley and Ernst Haeckel, as well as Engels, saw defence of Darwin’s theory of evolution as crucial to progressive politics at that time.

Brilliant as Engels’ basic idea may have been, there are some errors which are obvious to a modern-day reader familiar with the basics of evolutionary biology.

(1) Engels does not seem to have grasped the idea of natural selection of chance variations. He seems to presume that facility in the use of hands acquired by an ape through the experience of simple manual operations is inherited by its offspring:

“It stands to reason that if erect gait among our hairy ancestors became first the rule and then, in time, a necessity, other diverse functions must, in the meantime, have devolved upon the hands. ...

“The first operations for which our ancestors gradually learned to adapt their hands during the many thousands of years of transition from ape to man could have been only very simple ones. ... the hand had become free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity; the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation.”

That Marx at least was clear on this distinction is evidenced when Marx quotes Darwin: “natural selection preserves or suppresses each small variation of form no less carefully than if that organ were destined for one special purpose alone” in a footnote in Capital. Elsewhere, for example in Anti-Dühring and Origins of the Family, Engels also demonstrates that he understands the principle; but it is obscured in this essay. In most cases natural selection works just as if acquired characteristics were inherited and resembles a learning process. That teleological reasoning works in biology is one of those great mysteries which modern science was able to resolve. Darwin himself did not know the mechanism, only that creatures resembled their parents, but with slight, random variations, and that these random variations were the object of natural selection, rather than the adaptation of the parent itself being heritable.

(2) It seems that Engels presumed that use of the hand for labour followed upon the freeing up of the hands by bipedalism, whereas it would appear more consistent and convincing if bipedalism resulted from use of the hands for labour, or at least co-evolved with labour. Engels was right in seeing erect gait as preceding tool-use and most agree that it was leaving the forest environment that stimulated the move to an erect gait. But the earliest form of labour is surely carrying things from one place to another, for which an erect gait is required.

(3) Engels’ speculation about the cognitive ability of domestic animals and parrots are questionable, though hardly bears on any substantive point; his exposition of the “law of correlation of growth” is confused; likewise, his speculation about man’s omnivorous habits creating the “chemical premises” for the transition to man, especially his emphasis on carnivorism. There are a number of very minor point like this, which in an unfinished sketch of 1876, is hardly an issue.

(4) In terms of the sequence of the major adaptations – erect gait, tool-making, social complexity, language, brain size – Engels was about 100 years ahead of his time. There are also many brilliant insights, such as the environmental degradation which follows on the ‘mastery’ of nature. The key suggestion was:

“Mastery over nature began with the development of the hand, with labour, and widened man’s horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown properties in natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. Necessity created the organ.”

This remains convincing and stands up today, and has since been elaborated on and refined by Marxists, particularly utilising Hegel’s concept of artefacts as the objectivity of thought, or what has come to be called ‘extended mind’. However, Engels emphasised the labour process itself to the exclusion of the maintenance of increasingly complex social formations, a factor which is now accepted as a major factor in the growth of intelligence among social mammals. In the context of the social and political problems of today, this is a significant issue.

(5) Despite clear distinctions elsewhere in the writings of Marx and Engels, between historical and biological evolution, Engels seems to blur the transition from phylogenesis to cultural evolution. From “Just as man learned to consume everything edible, he also learned to live in any climate. He spread over the whole of the habitable world ...” we go without a break into “The work of each generation itself became different, more perfect and more diversified. Agriculture was added to hunting and cattle raising; then came spinning, weaving, metalworking, pottery and navigation. Along with trade and industry, art and science finally appeared” – without any recognition of how the distinction between biological evolution and cultural evolution has been elided. Such an elision works at the descriptive level, but it is not satisfactory to blur the distinction between cultural achievements which are inherited physiologically and those that are inherited culturally. Whereas all extant communities were already fully modern homo sapiens sapiens, Engels could be read as regarding pre-literate peoples as biologically less developed. This would be a serious error.

Marx and Engels’ knowledge of the processes at work in evolution may have been hazy, only a few years after the publication of Origin of the Species. Engels seems to ascribe changes in the form of the body to changes in the chemical composition of the diet. In Marx’s letters to Engels of 7 August 1866 and 3 October, we find Marx accepting scientific ideas about the influence of soil-type on racial characteristics as well as the African negro being a “degenerative type.”

Nevertheless, Engels’ idea that it was a behaviour centred on the invention and use of artefacts which promoted the later development of language and intelligence, rather than the use of material artefacts being the product of a large brain and the concomitant gifts of language and intelligence, stands up. Further, even though Engels’ blurring of the distinction between biological evolution and cultural-historical development is confused, the contrary conception of a long period of biological evolution during which there was no cultural or historical development, followed by a period of cultural development, has proved to be wrong – culture and physiology co-evolved, as we will see below.

Let us go directly to what I take to be the most convincing, well supported and fruitful of recent theories of human origins, that of Merlin Donald.

Merlin Donald 1991


While a great deal of effort has been spent trying to see whether or to what extent apes can adopt human ways of thinking and communicating (understood in the most general possible sense), the more interesting question would seem to be how apes normally think and communicate amongst themselves.

The first question did establish that there is a definite physiological discontinuity between apes and human beings when it comes to the invention and use of symbols. But if it is valid to assume that human beings have evolved from a hominid whose way of thinking and communicating was broadly the same as that of present day apes, then surely an understanding of ape thinking would give us a starting point from which the evolution of human subjectivity must have begun.

As the key concept to discuss what is at issue here, Merlin Donald uses the word ‘culture’, defined as ‘the shared patterns of behaviour characteristic of a species’ (Donald 1991: 9) or ‘a collective system of knowledge and behaviour’ (Donald 1991: 148). Some qualifications are necessary in relation to this definition. Insofar as a culture is shared by the entire species, then it is not ‘culture’ in the normal sense of the word; on the contrary, it is precisely the variability of culture across a species which makes culture what it is. We normally understand by ‘culture’ that which is at some point invented but then shared and passed on through interaction between individuals and learning. We understand ‘culture’ as differing in the manner of its production and inheritance from those forms of activity which are instinctive for each individual organism even if acquired through interaction with others of the species by means of instinctively programmed learning schemes (e.g. how birds learn to recognise their predators).

Nevertheless, if we allow that different species have ‘culture’ then there will be a type of culture which is characteristic of a species. All social mammals create, use and pass on some kind of shared patterns of behaviour, even if these tend to be stereotypical. For humans, culture is primarily the creation and use of artefacts; but in this context, it is necessary to broaden the concept of culture so as not to restrict it to the use of artefacts. I will adopt Donald’s usage of referring to ape culture, meaning the type of shared patterns of behaviour which apes create, use and pass on to other apes.

From what was discussed in the previous chapter it is already clear that apes do not have a culture of inventing and using artefacts. That is to say they do not fashion objects and invest them with symbolic meaning. What kind of culture do apes have?

Episodic Culture

Donald classifies cultures according to the representational strategy that is employed. According to Donald, apes have an episodic culture: apes are able to recognise and remember ‘episodes’ (events or scenarios). The lives of apes ‘are lived entirely in the present, a series of concrete episodes, and the highest element in their system of memory representations seems to be at the level of event representation. ... rich in specific perceptual content ... bound in time and space ...’ (Donald 1991: 149)

Episodic memory, the capacity to recall an event in toto and in detail, involves neural mechanisms distinct from procedural memory, which allows you to remember how to do something about kinds of things or otherwise generalise perceptions in activity, and semantic memory which is tied to the use of symbols. Procedural memory is found in most animals and can be created by means of conditioned reflexes, episodic memory is restricted to birds and mammals and symbolic memory is unique to humans. Episodic memory is however particularly highly developed amongst our primate cousins, for whose complex societies, the ability to ‘read’ and ‘interpret’ complex scenarios is crucial. It is likely therefore, that when an ape (such as Kanzi) learns to associate a sign with its object, they are relying on being able to represent the large variety of scenarios in which the given artefact has figured. It is also going to be the case that their use of signs and more broadly, problem solving of any kind, will be limited to a single perceptual field.

“Event perception is the most evolved form of cognition and the basic component of episodic memory. The episode it the ‘atom’ of ape experience and event perception is the building block of episodic culture.” (Donald 1991: 153)

Event perception is the ability to perceive complex, moving, clusters and patterns of stimuli as a unit, taking into account not only objects but motion and context. Apes can perceive not only patterns of motion, but also social situations in which many different characters, expressions and things may be involved over a period of time.

Apes can perceive, act rationally on and recall episodes, but they cannot re-present an episode in order to reflect on it, either individually or collectively or communicate it to one another; they cannot abstract from an episode, and mentally isolate the different components of the episode in themselves, in order to represent symbolically an episode which is not actually in play. Apes have a vocabulary of about 35 gestures and calls, only slightly more extensive than that of bees. It has been shown that they have a limited capacity to use signs provided by human trainers, but they have never taken the step to create gestures or calls to represent an episode, let alone go on to create a language. They just haven’t got that sort of brain. They do not have a ‘binding problem’, they have a ‘differentiation problem’.

This capacity to perceive episodes which apes share with other social mammals they also share with human beings. Our capacity to communicate and comprehend by means of using and inventing artefacts is built on this fundamental mode of perception and behaviour.

So ape culture exists only in and through the behaviour of individuals participating in scenarios. Lacking the capacity to represent episodes either in utterances which can be repeated as part of an on-going linguistic practice, or material objects which take on an independent existence in the world, ape culture is, like their perception, immediate and context-bound. Consequently, the capacity to accumulate innovations and the knowledge implicated in a material culture is missing in ape culture. The question is: how did the peculiar capacity to invest objects and utterances with meaning and respond semantically to such objects come to be added to this capacity to perceive events and scenarios.

Mimetic Culture

Whilst the two ends of this process of development of cultural behaviour can be observed in the present time, with an indefinitely rich field of observation available for study, the intervening forms of behaviour are shrouded in mystery. The cultural behaviour and capacities of the now-extinct hominid species bridging the gap between apes and humans has to be reconstructed from a very thin base of archaeological and palaeontological data. Nevertheless, Donald has brought a knowledge of neuroscience and psychology to bear on a study of available archaeological and palaeontological evidence, and the interpretation he makes is compelling.

According to Donald, the crucial break from the episodic culture of the earliest hominid, Australopithicus afarensis, was the development by later Australopithicus species, of a mimetic culture. Mimetic culture entails subtle behavioural improvements on episodic culture and certain cognitive developments, without entailing the complex voice box required for human language, or the capacity for symbolic representation, or any of the complex of anatomical changes that are implied in human culture. The production of crude, stereotypical stone tools did emerge with homo habilis about 2 millions years ago, but the Australopithicenes developed an erect gait, shared food and exercised a natural division of labour around a nuclear family structure, raising a larger number of children with a longer weaning period.

Mimesis, or mime, involves a crucial step towards semiosis without the invention of symbols, but rests on the capacity to behave, and the capacity to perceive and interpret behaviour which is already implied in episodic culture. Behaviours are, however, reproduced not in response to the actual stimuli which are normally associated with the behaviour, but intentionally and independently of context. Instinctual and routine motions and the conditioned responses to expressive actions are not included in the concept of mimesis, which also excludes mimicry and imitation, as mimesis is intended to represent what another does, rather than to copy it or do it oneself. Mimesis is therefore an act of invention and intentional representation. Interpretation of a mimetic act requires that the perceiver understand the actor’s intention. Mimesis also implies being able to represent an act to oneself, so that it can be repeatedly analysed and reflected upon, as well as being used for social communication.

Donald outlines the cognitive capacities which are implied in mimetic activity:

Mimetic skill allows the development of much more complex social structures and the passing on of custom and rituals, and the deliberative education of children. It also clearly facilitates the creation of artefacts and the improvement of visuomotor skills. Donald suggests that mimesis was supplemented by prosody, the modulation of voice, which does not yet imply the complex control of breathing and the vocal apparatus required to produce the wide variety of sounds implied in a spoken language.

Donald believes that mimetic culture, without language as such, is sufficient for the achievements of homo erectus in the production of very refined tools, the taming of fire and migration across most of the climates of the world. He suggests that the refinement of hand-eye coordination required for production of tools helped sharpen mimetic skills, which in turn improved tool-making and -using skills. The period of evolution from homo habilis and homo erectus to the linguistically equipped homo sapiens extends from 2 million years ago until 2-400,000 years ago. By this time, archaeological evidence points to a wide range of artefacts, including clothing, body marking, ritualised burial and religious rites, warm shelters, a wide range of weapons, carving and decoration of artefacts, etc. All this culture was developed without language, as homo habilis and homo erectus simply did not have the anatomical prerequisites for speech. Speech emerged only about 200,000 to 50,000 years ago with the immediate precursors to modern human beings, homo sapiens.

What Donald proposes then is that the episodic culture of the earliest hominids (the later australopithicus and homo habilis) was developed into a mimetic culture, and it was on the basis of the representational and communicative abilities which mimetic culture made available that the beginnings of artefact production were achieved. The production of artefacts allowed the meanings developed within the mimetic culture to begin to be vested in material objects. Donald does not dignify this use of artefacts by the earliest hominids with the naming of a new type of culture, but Engels was correct when he claimed that the activity of producing tools and other artefacts created the foundation for conceptual thinking, predating language by a couple of million years.

The point is that these representational capacities which were fixed by an adaptation in the physiology of early hominids were inherited by the species which followed. Human beings have within them the capacity to perceive and remember episodes, to voluntarily mime events, both outwardly and inwardly, and perceive and interpret the mimetic events of others, and manufacture and use material objects as artefacts, all independently of language. These capacities constitute distinct forms of activity with distinct physiological bases in the nervous systems of modern human beings.

Mythic Culture

According to Donald, between about 400,000 and 50,000 years ago a new evolutionary adaptation took place which culminated in the development of speech, with all the complex of nervous and anatomical changes necessary to manipulate the throat to produce a wide variety of sounds in rapid succession without interfering with breathing, and to be able to analyse the speech of others into syllables and understand their meaning. After having ruled the hominid world for over a million years, homo erectus disappeared rapidly from the archaeological record in competition with the newly emerged homo sapiens.

Donald claims that although an explosion of material culture followed upon the linguistic adaptation, linguistic development ran ahead of tool making and other technological practices. Tool-making and technical skills, he claims, are passed on, up until very recent times, by mimetic means, by apprenticeship rather than by linguistic instruction. According to Donald, language developed, and developed rapidly with sophisticated grammar and semantics as well as vocabulary from a very early date, through the development of mythic culture. Mythic culture is about story-telling, using narrative to establish social structure, a view of the world, custom and ethical life and forms of social cooperation.

“The myth is the prototypal, fundamental, integrative mind tool. It tries to integrate a variety of events in a temporal and causal framework. It is inherently a modelling device, whose primary level of representation is thematic. The pre-eminence of myth in early human society is testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought. Therefore, the possibility must be entertained that the primary human adaptation was not language qua language, but rather integrative, initially mythical, thought. Modern humans developed language in response to pressure to improve their conceptual apparatus, not vice versa.” (Donald, 1991: 215)

Language, in the form that Donald proposes that it first emerged, is essentially an enhancement of mimetic story-telling. It is rich in proper names and action verbs, but by means of narrative it makes sense of the world and people’s place in it. The earliest literature which emerged 10,000 years ago, and up to recent times, is testimony to the role of drama in the earliest human societies, in understanding how the world and human society works. Such a culture lacks concepts in the proper sense of the word, but for the individual who can understand themselves as part of a story, a rational relation to the world can be built up through mythology.

But how did language in this form develop from mimetic culture? Donald proposes that gestures which begin as purely mimetic devices become standardised in just the way that reaching for something becomes standardised in the pointing gesture. Iconic gestures are borrowed directly from mime, such as shrugging the shoulders or waving, or by representing visual images such as by tracing shapes or indicating motions. Metaphoric gestures build on these by using metaphor to indicate more abstract ideas, such as pointing over the shoulder to say “in the past,” or pointing to the head for “crazy.” Then there is emblematic gestures, such as thumbs up for “ok.” Donald says that these gestures can develop independently of a spoken language, drawing their meaning from mimetic culture, but build up a vocabulary of standardised meanings, moving towards a protolanguage of mime. But the cognitive pre-requisites of oral-mythic culture are fully present in a society using this language of gestures.

Language, developed out of mime in the practice of story-telling, led to an explosion in the creation of material culture. The practice of creating words and the enhanced communication that it brought, accelerated the practice of creating all kinds of artefacts. The capacity for focusing attention, reflecting on problems, accessing and auto-cueing of memory, discussing and sharing knowledge, passing on knowledge to new generations, are massively enhanced, even while knowledge remains relatively concrete, integrated via a mythic culture. The place of the individual, along with every plant, animal, artefact and social custom is set in myth.

Theoretic Culture

Mythic and mimetic cultures embodied a narrative style of thinking, whether using gesture or speech, in which knowledge was inherently held, expressed and passed on by individual story-tellers. Aside from a limited array of tools and suchlike, what these and earlier cultures lacked was external memory, especially graphic invention, and theory construction. The third major evolutionary adaptation, according to Donald, was achieved with the emergence of modern human beings, homo sapiens sapiens, more than 50,000 years ago, in which these revolutionary changes were added to the existing capacity for narrative thinking. This change culminated in the development of literacy around 10,000 years ago and the beginning of modern, written history and what Donald calls theoretic culture.

The crucial change is the shift from reliance on internal to external memory storage devices. Once homo sapiens adapted to use objects as symbols so as to be able to retain and pass on knowledge through material culture, the capacity for accumulation of knowledge of all kinds entered an entirely new curve, with the achievements of each generation being added to that of previous generations. On the basis of a physiological resources of the oral-mythic culture of homo sapiens allowed for the creation and symbolic use of artefacts, cultural evolution proceeded from one generation to the next at a pace incomparably faster than that of biological evolution.

It should not be forgotten that the production and use of artefacts had accompanied hominid evolution since the time of homo erectus 4 million years ago; but according to Donald, it was the symbolic capacities of the oral-mythic culture of archaic human beings which opened the way to artefacts playing the role of ‘extended mind’ and laid the basis for a literate, fully modern human being.

The unique cultural achievement of this period is theory; theoretical thinking is a distinct mode of thinking alongside narrative thought which had been the dominant mode of thinking of earlier hominids. Theoretical thought is essentially the mode of thinking which uses symbols. For the creation of symbols, it is necessary that a whole world of symbols already exists, whose meaning is understood by others and is implicit in their relation to other symbols, as well as in relation to signified objects. The way in which material culture determines the conditions for theory will be dealt with elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the invention of symbols pre-supposes the prior existence of a material culture, things vested with meaning. It was not enough for homo erectus to be able to produce tools or for homo habilis to be able to decorate graves or for homo sapiens to be able to tell stories. The use of artefacts had to reach a point where they played the role of a ‘second nature’ or what Merlin Donald called an ‘extended mind’. Little or no biological inherited adaptation may have been necessary for this last transition, as henceforth the neural physiology of every individual would be ‘programmed’ by a rapidly evolving material culture inherited directly from generation to generation.

The story does not stop here of course. Donald continues the story with the evolution of culture through various phases up to the present time. There are however, many theories of history. The point is that Donald has given us by far the best theory of the creation of the physiology of modern human beings which makes history possible. According to Donald, the structure of the human mind has continued to mutate with each new revolution in the ‘extended mind’. Chat with a modern 13-year-old to confirm that these changes continue unabated. But the speed of change far exceeds that of biological adaptation. We are still born with essentially the same physiology we were born with 50,000 years ago, and new structures are introduced into our cognitive architecture through the process of ontogenesis within a process of cultural and historical development.

The series of adaptations which allowed homo sapiens sapiens to create and interpret artefacts as symbols entailed subtle modifications of the brain, but as has been demonstrated, this is a physiological capacity which is not available to other primates. Four million years of evolution, in an environment characterised by the use of artefacts and the symbolic use of gesture and vocalisation created the conditions for this adaptation. The discontinuity between apes and modern human beings is obscured by the fact that the various species which intervened in the evolution from ape to human have become extinct.

Each of the major adaptations from Australopithiceus to homo habilis to homo erectus to homo sapiens to homo sapiens sapiens, was accompanied by the eradication of earlier species from the archaeological record almost immediately upon the appearance of the new cultural adaptation. (I have not discussed at all those species which do not lie on the direct line to modern humans). This period of 4 million is an epoch of the co-evolution of hominid culture and hominid physiology. This means that what is unique about modern human beings is not so much that they are very intelligent, etc., etc., but that we have relatively minor neural and other anatomical features (vocal apparatus, erect gait, prehensile thumbs) which dispose us to use and produce artefacts. As it happens this is a representational and survival strategy which brings with it abilities which far exceed the capacities of the individual on his or her own, because the material culture is a carrier of knowledge, technique and understanding which the individual mobilises whenever he or she accesses a material culture. Without that material culture, human beings are defenceless and utterly unviable organisms, like fish out of water.

Donald versus Engels

There can be no comparison between a nineteenth century speculation and a present day work of science. But Engels’ essay has been very influential, being the only alternative origins narrative to positivist, brain-centred theories which largely ignore the essential behavioural discontinuity between ape and human. So it is worth re-evaluating Engels’ views in the light of Donald’s findings.

Donald himself makes no mention of Engels’ work, but it seems that, leaving aside the wealth of new material added by Donald, the main disagreement is that whereas Engels gives the key behavioural role to the labour process and the production and use of tools, Donald emphasises maintenance, elaboration and mobilisation of social relations. Such relations are of course inclusive of relations of production, but Donald by no means privileges the production of the means of subsistence over and above the diverse tasks of maintaining a complex social structure.

Also, although Donald acknowledges that the production of stone tools was practised amongst the earliest precursors to human beings, homo habilis, and the production of these tools does indeed mark the beginning of the hominid line, he does not see material artefacts as having the determinant role in the culture until 4 million years later. Early artefacts were extremely stereotyped and development took place at an extremely slow pace. Artefacts only become the key component of material culture, for Donald, at the last stage, in the theoretic culture of archaic human beings, when he sees the key role of artefacts as symbols, rather than as tools. Donald does not privilege the labour process over and above the general tasks of maintaining and developing social structures and gaining an understanding and control of the environment.

It is hard to avoid noting that this shift of emphasis, in a book written in 1991, coincides with the eclipse of orthodox Marxism and a shift in radical circles towards the same relativisation of the role of labour in culture and history generally. This in no way calls Donald’s work into question of course, it is simply that the insights he is able to draw from the palaeontological and archaeological evidence are also informed by insights of today. Just as exclusive focus on forces of production has shown itself to be inadequate in understanding political and cultural issues of today, the same is true in the study of human origins. Engels makes the point that it was a labour process utilising tools which promoted our ancestors coming together in larger and larger groups and cooperating with one another in the labour process, so there is a fair basis for the seeing the labour process as underlying the growing complexity of archaic society. It does seem to me that a forces-of-production narrative which was more nuanced than an orthodox Marxist line, could sit with the evidence just as well, and I do not see that this as entirely a closed question.

The Structure of consciousness

One of the most engaging and original insights that are provided by Donald’s narrative of succeeding types of ‘culture’ – episodic, mimetic, mythic and theoretic – is the implication is has for understanding the structure of human consciousness.

“In essence my hypothesis is that the modern human mind has evolved from the primate mind through a series of adaptations each of which led to the emergence of a new representational system. Each successive new representational system has remained intact within our current mental architecture, so that the modern mind is a mosaic structure of cognitive vestiges from earlier stages of human emergence. Cognitive vestiges invoke the evolutionary principle of conservation of previous gains ... The modern representational structure of the human mind ... encompasses the gains of all our hominid ancestors, as well as those of certain apes. Far from being a diffuse tabula rasa, modern human cognitive architecture is highly differentiated and specialised.” (Donald 1991: 3)

As Donald notes, each new adaptation pushed the earlier representational strategy into the background, and took over the role of leading development, but it by no means eliminated it. Evolution invariably preserves those adaptations which cause no harm in the newly adapted species.

By implication then we must expect to see vestiges of the three earlier forms of representation in present day consciousness. Of course, we see body language, the repertoire of gestures and the persistence of origins narratives in our culture, which remind us of our ancient reliance on these forms of representation, but there is grounds for believing that there is much more to it than relatively insignificant mimetic and mythic add-ons to the dominant theoretic culture encoded in modern language and concepts.

I return to the question raised in the previous chapter on whether it is valid to assume that human consciousness is a unitary entity or brain-state shared with all other animals; perhaps human consciousness not only contains vestiges of episodic, mimetic and mythic culture, but is actually constructed of distinct cognitive structures? Perhaps consciousness can be understood as a structure in which episodic, mimetic, oral-mythic and theoretic structures are laid one over the other?

Episodic representation is obviously more than vestigial, as the capacity to perceive and remember events and scenarios is fundamental to all thought and reflection. If we know that primates and other mammals can perceive and remember episodes, as concrete, context-bound atoms of consciousness, then shouldn’t we take this capacity to be a starting point for consciousness? Isn’t this more fruitful than the contrary view which sees episodes as aggregates of objects, movements, spatial arrangements, and so on, to be built up out of separately perceived parts?

Neuroscience already knows that the numerous components of a scenario are processed by distinct neuronal structures which transform various kinds of material interactions and experiences into neuronal form, and has posed for itself the various ‘binding problems’ of how these diverse components of a scenario are ‘put back together’ in a single perception. And yet perception of the whole ‘gestalt’ is evolutionarily prior to the perception of the individual ‘components’ (such as colour, movement, shape, spatial distribution, etc.). In fact, perception of ‘gestalts’ precedes self-consciousness in evolution; animals perceive episodes without those perceptions being ‘brought together’ and presented to any kind of self-consciousness. So even though the posing of the problem as one of binding is intuitively compelling to us self-conscious individuals, it would appear that it is more a problem of differentiation, of how the brain is able to differentiate the various aspects of a scenario from the whole. And of course the explanation for the various processes of differentiation is well-known: the brain has a known variety of specialised structures which make these differentiations possible.

Donald’s thesis also suggests that the capacity to represent episodes back to ourselves as the elementary form of reflection and cognition may underlie the activity of rendering events into words and engaging in inner dialogue. And it suggests that inwardly acting out episodes, without actually executing mimetic activity, may constitute a deeper level of consciousness. This implies that instead of setting out from already reified concepts of independently existing objects and their attributes, the proper starting point for understanding objects and their properties is the human activity, or praxis, by means of which we become aware of them. If mimesis underlies conception at a more fundamental level, then it follows that the ability to abstract ‘scripts’, universal schemas for scenarios, from interactions, may be an independent, pre-linguistic mode of thought. From this point of view concepts would be formed, not by means of linguistic consciousness so much as on a foundation of ‘scripts’. Donald cites evidence that people who are for one reason or another denied access to language are still able to manage the majority of the complex intellectual tasks of living in society, though denial of access to communication with other people necessarily stunts intellectual development.

Further, perhaps narrative thinking may be more persistent and pervasive than even seems to be the case at first sight. As we said at the outset of this chapter, the individual is a process of development and has to be understood as such. Thus the narrative of human origins is more than an exercise in palaeontological speculation, but rather, the primary means of cognising what we human beings are. Despite the lack of explicit concern for human origins within the dominant discourses of psychology and human biology, there is nevertheless an unstated and unexamined origins story within them. Every so often these implied narratives are spelt out by the various waves of neo-Darwinism. The usual theme is something of the kind that human beings are basically animals with larger brains, who, as a result of having a larger brain, have cleverly surrounded themselves with cultural products which give them the illusion that they have differentiated themselves from the animal kingdom, but deep down, we are just animals. But there cannot be a theory of how things are, without a theory of how things got this way, either explicit or implicit, refined and well supported, or in the process of formulation.

The fact is that all human beings are capable of understanding a story; narrative is the foundation of all theory and all practical philosophy. All human beings have an origins story of how they got to be where they are. Personal biography is at the heart of identity and self-consciousness.

For certain, if Donald is right, these archaic forms of representation will be built into our neural physiology. These are challenges, really, for the various sciences which seek to theorise consciousness within the various specialised forms of practice, and go outside the scope of this study. Nevertheless, Donald’s work suggests a very rich approach to understanding individual consciousness which has no need of a ‘magic ingredient’ in the brain, a je ne sais quoi which allows us to understand symbols, form concepts, have feelings, execute actions, dream up new ideas and so on. Each of the forms of representation – event perception, mimesis, narrative, and theory – constitute a relatively well-defined domain and are subject to rigorous description, theorisation and critique.

Individual human consciousness, on the other hand, poses all sorts of intractable problems which require solution by empirical science, but which nonetheless seem to elude science. Donald is able to demonstrate how each of the developmental stages of hominid culture arises by a slight adaptation on the basis of the earlier culture. This suggests that an appropriate approach to understanding subjectivity within the various branches of science, is to theoretically reconstruct the individual on the assumption that the individual is constructed by the phylogeny Donald describes.

So what is suggested is a layered structure of the mind, as follows:

It is not possible to be precise on this matter; Donald offers a suggestion. Psychology and neuroscience is challenged to answer. If Donald’s narrative is tested out in the investigation of the psyche of modern human beings it may in turn need to be modified. It is based on a relatively restricted mass of palaeontological and archaeological evidence, and further investigation of modern human beings may cause the theory to be modified.

What is clear however, is that any approach to neuroscience or psychology which ignores the discontinuity between human beings and other animals and fails to take account of any defensible theory of human cognitive origins, whether that of Engels, Donald or someone else, is bound to fall into absurdity.

Extended Mind

The key concept which comes out of at the end of Donald’s enquiry is the concept of ‘extended mind’ – the combination of material artefacts and mnemonic and computational devices with the internal cognitive apparatus of human beings who have been raised in the practice of using them. Human physiology, behaviour and consciousness cannot be reproduced by individual human beings alone; we are reliant for our every action on the world of artefacts, with its own intricate inherent system of relations. Theory is the ideal form of the structure of material culture. Every thought, memory, problem solution or communication, is effected by the mobilisation of the internal mind of individuals, and the external mind contained within human culture. Taken together, the internal and external mind is called ‘extended mind’. This is what Hegel called Geist, an entity in which the division between subjectivity and objectivity is relative and not absolute.

Humans are animals which have learnt to build and mobilise an extended mind. This has proved to be a powerful adaption. Individuals in this species stand in quite a different relation to the world around them than the individuals of any other extant species. Understanding of the psyche of the modern individual depends on understanding the process of development of a human being growing up in such a culture, and this will be the topic of the next chapter.