The signposts of the species

The Handbook of Symbolic Evolution
October 17, 1997

The word "handbook" is purely symbolic for this volume, which is nearly 1,000 pages long and weighs over 5lb. As the editors describe, it is a handbook only in the sense of being a compendium and a guide to the field of symbolic evolution, bringing together contributions from palaeoanthropology, archaeology, social anthropology, psychology and linguistics. There is very thorough cross-referencing between chapters and a substantial index. As such, it is a truly remarkable achievement and provides an invaluable resource.

To review it is daunting, because, as the editors say in their preface, "no single investigator can reasonably hope to judge all the sources of evidence". Speaking as an archaeologist, I found the coverage of prehistory remarkably brief within such a large volume explicitly devoted to human symbolic evolution.

The handbook is divided into four parts: palaeoanthropology, social and sociocultural systems, ontogeny and symbolism and language systems. In the first of these, Bernard Campbell reviews the fossil evidence for human evolution, Peter Waddell and David Penny consider the reconstruction of evolutionary trees from DNA sequences, Ralph Holloway discusses the evolution of the brain and Mary Marzke does likewise for the hand and bipedality. All are detailed reviews of existing evidence and ideas. Waddell and Penny's contribution is a particularly useful synthesis of the DNA evidence for human evolution, covering both the ape-human divergence and the origins of modern humans. They provide an epilogue to their paper to bring it more up to date by referencing 1995 publications. Yet, as they acknowledge, new genetic data about human evolution are accumulating so rapidly that the shelf-life of any synthesis of this type will inevitably be short.

Comparative perspectives start the second part of the handbook, in which Alison Jolly examines primate communication, Tim Ingold the nature of human social relations and ecology, and Andrew Lock and Kim Symes the nature of communication within human groups.

Jolly's is a relatively short contribution focusing on the social intelligence of apes, the evidence for deception and how symbolic thought might arise out of social thought. Although this provides an excellent review, I would have liked to have seen far more substantial coverage of primate social behaviour within the volume, as it has become clear during the last decade that language and creative intelligence most likely emerge from the social domain, and comparative studies are crucial for reconstructing early hominid lifestyles.

Ingold provides one of his typically wide-ranging trawls through concepts of society, culture and persons, the core ideas of which, he tells us in a note, he does not believe any more.

Lock and Symes's chapter also has remarkable breadth, covering verbal and nonverbal communication within human groups and how these vary with social structure and the ecological determinants of that structure. They conclude with some challenges to those archaeologists who assume that the culture elaboration of the European Upper Palaeolithic necessarily implies modern, complex forms of spoken language.

This provides a link to the next section of the handbook, which addresses the archaeological evidence for symbolic evolution. Randall White considers the evolution of human sociocultural practices, Thomas Wynn discusses the evolution of tools and symbolic behaviour, while Margaret Conkey reviews the history of interpretations of European Palaeolithic art. This section was rather unsatisfactory, failing sufficiently to present and discuss the archaeological evidence for symbolic evolution.

In their introduction to part two, the editors note that there is some controversy about when human symbolic behaviour began, but they do not explain the nature of this controversy and adopt the position that the start of symbolic thought is marked by that of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe, which amounted to a "sociocultural revolution''. Now this may indeed be correct, but as the crux of a book devoted to symbolic evolution, one would expect a detailed discussion of the relevant evidence. There is, for instance, a collection of artefacts from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods that may be symbolic in nature, or at least imply some precursors to symbolic thought, which, together with issues such as the character of Neanderthal burial (which might also imply symbolic thought), are simply not covered.

Nowhere in the volume do we find a significant discussion about the behavioural ecology of hominids (whether australopithecines, Neanderthals or modern humans) about which such exciting work has been undertaken during the past two decades of direct relevance to the evolution of language and symbolic thought. This is surprising, as one of the editors notes in a contribution later in the volume how it is essential that we place an understanding of a species ecology at the forefront of attempts to understand the evolution of symbolic abilities. Conkey seems to fall foul of the long time it takes for works of this magnitude to be compiled, edited and published, for her contribution covers only material up to 1990. As a result, the major developments in Palaeolithic art of the past five years are not discussed, including the discovery of the painted caves of Cosquer and Chauvet.

Ontogeny is dealt with in part three of the handbook, beginning with an excellent editorial introduction that tackles the core issues of the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny. It is made clear that while the original notion of Haeckel that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny'' is of little value, there is nevertheless critical information from patterns of ontogenetic development for our evolutionary past. This is the essential theme for the six chapters in this section, each of which focuses on ontogenetic patterns and processes. The chapters are completed by discussions of the implications for phylogeny and Haeckel's proposition is repeatedly discussed, as are the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. Among the contributions, Kathleen Gibson considers the ontogeny of the brain, George Butterworth covers the relationship between language and thought in young children and J. Gavin Bremner looks at children's drawings and the evolution of art.

One of the most important ideas is how social practices and material artefacts can be seen as scaffolding for the cognitive development of children. These are described as "cognitive technologies'' and can lead to the development of different patterns of thought from the same underlying abilities. Further study of the scaffolding role of material culture in cognitive development is perhaps the most promising route to finding some means to connect the data and ideas from archaeology and child development, which still remain rather isolated from each other in this volume, despite the serious attempts to find a means of integration. The editors are surely correct to say that we need to view intelligence as not only having evolved, but also having been empowered during the course of prehistory.

Language systems are the subject of the fourth part of the handbook. Margaret Deuchar compares spoken and sign language, finding the differences are very minor, and Gordon Hewes provides a comprehensive review of the history of the study of language origins, which he partly uses as a vehicle for describing the gestural model for language origins. This causes him to tackle when and why gesture might have been replaced by speech as the dominant medium for language. After a lengthy chapter on the comparative analysis of animal cognitive abilities (which rather interrupts the flow of papers specifically about language), Carolyn Ristau provides an excellent review of animal language and cognition projects, highlighting the findings relevant to symbolic evolution and providing a perceptive summary of methodological problems.

This is followed by a review of the process of language acquisition by Carolyn Johnson and colleagues, which concludes that the separate language systems of phonology, the lexicon, syntax and pragmatics are effectively autonomous and may develop at different rates in different children. The evolutionary implications of this are not explored, but one can readily see links to the evolutionary ideas of linguists such as Derek Bickerton and philosophers such as Peter Carruthers, with regard to how syntax may have appeared much later in evolution than other aspects of language.

Mary LeCron Foster provides the most speculative paper in this section, and indeed the volume as a whole, by attempting to reconstruct the evolution of spoken language all the way back to the "primordial language''. This has some rather fanciful suggestions. In a similar vein, Leonard Rolf claims to be able to reconstruct eight stages in the evolution of grammar, but admits that these cannot be made to correspond to stages in human biological evolution (although in the epilogue Charles Peters does indeed map these on to hominid species). The final paper examines the social and cognitive factors in the development of writing, covering the time period from the cuneiform script of 3500bc to modern printing, which is followed by no fewer than seven editorial appendices addressing such things as cartography, dance and mathematics.

The handbook concludes with a short epilogue by Charles Peters that seeks to summarise major developments in symbolic evolution, partly through the use of charts. This chapter is little more than a description of the patterns in the fossil and archaeological records; but within it, Peters identifies two key issues that emerge as of particular importance.

The first is that of externalised cognition in the form of social and cultural practices and material artefacts. We must gain further understanding of how this scaffolds the cognitive development of children. By this we might begin to understand how the cultural elaboration of the Upper Palaeolithic was as much a cause as a product of cognitive evolution.

The second is that we need to understand the evolution of ontogeny itself. The nature of ontogeny in early hominid societies is the topic most blatantly missing from this volume. Peters recognises this as the "missing link'', stressing that we need to understand the "changes in the caregiver-child interaction and communication'' systems during human evolution. He briefly notes that prior to H. sapiens sapiens the anatomical evidence suggests that children would have been physically precocious - powerfully built in a society without grandparenting. The lack of a review of this anatomical evidence is an unfortunate omission; it could have provided a key link between the palaeonthropology and ontogeny sections of the volume that remain rather detached from one another. This issue certainly emerges as the most important for future research.

This handbook does indeed lay the foundations for increased collaborative research and will facilitate interdisciplinary teaching on cognitive evolution. One hesitates to recommend books priced at Pounds 195.00, but this one does provide a vast bibliographic resource, and, although certain papers may have a short shelf-life, it is sure to remain a standard work of reference for a long time. It provides a serious attempt to build bridges between disciplines and to tackle those desperately difficult issues surrounding the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny.

Steven Mithen is senior lecturer in archaeology, University of Reading.

The Handbook of Symbolic Evolution

Editor - Andrew Lock and Charles R. Peters
ISBN - 0 19 852153 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £195.00
Pages - 960

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