In the June 27th issue of Science is a book review by psycholinguist Steven Levinson entitled, “Language and Wallace’s problem”. In it, he reviews linguist Derik Bickerson’s More Than Nature Needs and evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Thinking.
Bickerson’s book begins by describing Alfred Russell Wallace’s problem in his own words:

Wallace's problem

“Natural selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape whereas he possesses one very little inferior to that of an average member of our learned societies.” By “savage,” the customary expression of the time, Wallace meant only someone who had had what many nowadays would consider the good fortune to be born into a preliterate, pre-industrial society…If evolution was a gradual process, and natural selection responded only to the demands placed on animals by their environment, then humans should have had a brain “little superior to that of an ape.”

Derik Bickerson
Bickerson’s Book

Bickerson goes on to point out that, although paleoanthropologists have proven the gradual physical evolution of humans, the gradual evolution of our minds by means of natural selection remains an open question (and one this blog addresses). Bickerman claims that the century-long effort to demonstrate that animals contain the rudiments of human intelligence has definitively failed. Wallace thought that there must have been a spiritual element to the evolution of the mind with which this blog agrees.

Darwin (Descent of Man – 1871) thought that,

If it be maintained that certain powers, such as abstraction, self-consciousness, etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other, highly-advanced intellectual facilities; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed language.

This blog also agrees that human intelligence is largely the results produced by 6 millions of years of evolution of a unique form of communication called language.

Michal Tomasello
Tomasello’s book

I also agree with Michael Tomasello that shared intentionality is the most unique aspect of human language. He comes directly to grips with the difficulty – I say impossibility – of conceiving how evolution of our shared social world (conventions, such as laws, reason, morality, mathematics, etc.) could have arisen, using the current paradigm of competing individuals evolving cognitions capable of producing such social constructs. He can’t quite let go of Schelling’s (Strategy of Conflict – 1960) answer that group intentionality arose from early human individuals “recursively” reading each others’ minds, e.g.: he knows that I know that he knows, etc.


Very interesting for me, is that the blog also agrees with linguist Levinson, the reviewer of these two books, that…

most researchers concentrate on the ‘cold’ abstract cognitive prerequisites rather than the ‘hot’ motivational and interactional instincts that lie behind the universal patterns of multimodal [speech, gesture, face, and gaze] communication.

The only way that the evolution of the human mind can be understood is by grasping that the key metamorphosis in human evolution occurred in the sphere of emotion, motivation and intention, initiated by a unique form of “strong” evolution at the level of the group. This transformation in the emotional sphere then opened up entirely new “fields” of cognition, mediated by language, which eventually led to our unique form of shared intelligence.

The Montreal Review


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