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Anthropological contributions are essential to understanding the evolution of writing and its potential variation. Although Stanislas Dehaene calls for a ‘neuro-anthropological perspective’, he neglects anthropological evidence, including the only indisputable case of independent invention of writing: the pre-Columbian systems of the Americas. Here I argue that anthropological and historical accounts of the cultural evolution of language suggest that ecological, technological, social and political factors have all influenced the ongoing development of writing systems, even in directions contrary to that predicted by a model of increased neural efficiency. In addition, Pre-Columbian writing systems, not subject to a diffusionist confound because of their independent invention, caution that our research on diversity in writing may represent a small, systematically biased sample. To truly understand neuro-cognitive variation, we have to avoid both overly ambitious universalisms and radical cultural relativism.
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  All Forms of Writing GREG DOWNEY Abstract:  Anthropological contributions are essential to understanding the evo-lution of writing and its potential variation. Although Stanislas Dehaene calls for a‘neuro-anthropological perspective’, he neglects anthropological evidence, includingthe only indisputable case of independent invention of writing: the pre-Columbiansystems of the Americas. Here I argue that anthropological and historical accounts of the cultural evolution of language suggest that ecological, technological, social andpolitical factors have all in󿬂uenced the ongoing development of writing systems, even indirections contrary to that predicted by a model of increased neural efficiency. In addition,Pre-Columbian writing systems, not subject to a diffusionist confound because of their independent invention, caution that our research on diversity in writing may representa small, systematically biased sample. To truly understand neuro-cognitive variation, wehave to avoid both overly ambitious universalisms and radical cultural relativism. Introduction The estrangement of anthropology from cognitive science has made it moredifficult to take account of human diversity and cultural evolution in cognition.In isolation, many brain scientists mistakenly regard social sciences as uniformlycharacterized by the most radical cultural constructionism and treat acknowl-edgement of cultural variation as tantamount to renouncing biology or evenscienti󿬁c explanation. The problem for cognitive research is that anthropologistsprovide the most detailed analyses of the archaeological record and extant culturaldiversity.This cross-disciplinary stalemate has grown especially frustrating in recent decadeswith a greater emphasis on human variation, including embodied approaches tocognition, increased interest in comparative research, and a growing desire toground cognitive models in evolutionary theory. The rise of cultural neuroscienceand increased empirical evidence of inter-group psychological variation have ledmany scholars to call for a renewed conversation between these two areas: sciencesof cognition and of culture (Beller, Bender and Medin, 2012; Bender, Hutchinsand Medin, 2010; Lende and Downey, 2012). The good news is that a renaissanceof biocultural research in anthropology, approaches that combine cultural andbiological perspectives, makes cooperation more likely. IthankRichardMenaryandMaxColtheartfortheopportunitytoparticipateinthisdiscussion,andStanislas Dehaene for abundant inspiration. Thanks also to Max and to Anne Castles for suggestionsfor the revision of this article. Address for correspondence:  Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University, SydneyNSW Australia 2109.  Email:  greg.downey@mq.edu.au Mind & Language , Vol. 29, No. 3 June 2014, pp. 304–319. © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd    All Forms of Writing  305 Stanislaus Dehaene’s  Reading in the Brain  offers a timely example of how thehardened divide between cultural and cognitive theory can undermine an other-wise admirable work. Dehaene’s book is a remarkable achievement; the work isto be applauded both stylistically and in terms of its depth.  Reading in the Brain is an exemplary popular account of cognitive research, showing that an engagingwork can include sophisticated, even innovative theoretical material. However, theover-arching rhetorical framing of Dehaene’s book, particularly spurious attacks onsocial science and adamant assertions of universalism in the face of his own evidenceof variation, unnecessarily casts the work into an obsolete debate (see also Bolger  et al. , 2005; Coltheart, this issue).Dehaene identi󿬁es social sciences, a notoriously divided and theoretically hetero-geneous collection of 󿬁elds, with a single extreme, ideologically-motivated form of cultural determinism:Only our species is capable of cultural inventions as sophisticated as reading—aunique feat, unmatched by any other primate.  In total opposition to the standard social science model, where culture gets a free ride on a blank-slate brain, reading demon-strates how culture and brain organization are inextricably linked   (2009, p. 9, emphasisadded).Although the sweeping mischaracterization would be an irritant by itself, thegreater problem is that the outdated polemic discourages Dehaene from seri-ously considering evidence of profound cultural diversity in writing systemsand from employing co-evolutionary accounts of culture-biology relationsfrom anthropology, accounts that 󿬁t his data much better than those offeredby the evolutionary psychology that he cites (e.g. pp. 306–8). In spite of the many strengths of Dehaene’s book, these gaps demonstrate two keyareas—cultural diversity and evolutionary theory—where anthropological insightis missing.This article is divided into two parts: the 󿬁rst brie󿬂y reviews examples of how ecological, technological and social-political factors have in󿬂uenced thedevelopment of writing systems, suggesting that a strictly neurological accountof cultural evolution is inconsistent with the best available evidence from exist-ing writing systems. No doubt, neural constraints play a key role in culturalevolution, but writing systems also have been affected historically by ecological,technological, social and political forces; an account of cultural evolution mustbe multidimensional as it is a complex emerging system. Multidimensional mod-els, like gene-culture co-evolutionary theory, provide a way of capturing theseinteractions.The second part of this essay brie󿬂y discusses pre-Columbian writing systems.Dehaene’s account of neurological constraint runs up against the problem of a ‘diffusionist confound’: all contemporary writing systems are linked throughdiffusion (cultural spread) and mutual in󿬂uence. The only certain,  truly  indepen-dent invention of writing—pre-Columbian American orthographies—strain our  © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd   306  G. Downey de󿬁nition of ‘writing’ and challenge virtually any claim of universals among writingsystems. 1 Neither of these issues are fatal to Dehaene’s central thesis, the proposal of ‘neuralrecycling’, I would emphasize. On the contrary, I think Dehaene’s research, includ-ing the evidence of neurological limits upon cultural variation, is precisely the sort of case study that can force new 󿬁elds like cultural neuroscience and neuroanthropol-ogy to move beyond an obsolete assumption that cultural and biological explanationof cognition must necessarily be at odds. Cultural Evolution of Writing One place where Dehaene’s adherence to an anti-social sciences rhetorical frame-work is especially awkward is his neurologically-driven account of the cultural evo-lution of writing systems (esp. Chapter Four, pp. 171–93). Dehaene suggests that‘cultural relativism’ necessitates that scholars treat ‘cultural variations’ as ‘essentiallyunlimited’ (p. 174), 2 but the greater problem is his causal account of cultural change,which suggests that neurological efficiency is the predominant force. Here, a strongargument that ‘writing evolved to 󿬁t the cortex’ (p. 171) runs headlong into themuch more varied historical trajectories of various writing systems that the bookdiscusses.Dehaene lays out the strong form of his neurological determinism:If our brain organization places a drastic limit on cultural variations, some strik-ing cross-cultural regularities should be apparent in all past and present writingsystems. These regularities should ultimately be traced back to cerebral con-straints (p. 173).The question is not whether our ‘genetic makeup’ places  any  limit on possible writ-ing systems; the question is  how   severe this limit is, and whether neural constraints 1 The Native American Sequoyah, himself illiterate, invented a system to write Cherokee, andKing Sejong, together with the scholarly ‘Hall of Worthies’ (  Jiphyeonjeon ), devised the inge-nious system Hangul, but both were inspired by contact with extant writing systems. Sequoyah’sorthography, for example, contains Roman characters adopted from English. In both cases, how-ever,thenewsystemwasmarkedlydifferentfromitsinspiration;Sequoyah’ssystemwasasyllabaryrather than an alphabet, and Hangul was phonetic, in marked contrast to the classical Chinesescript used by scholars in Korea in the 15th century. 2 I have to pause to clarify that Dehaene is, I suspect, confounding  cultural relativism  as an analyti-cal or interpretive strategy—what anthropologists do professionally—with  moral relativism , or anihilistic stance toward absolute truth or empirical evidence. His characterization makes it soundsas if the goal of ‘cultural relativism’ in a 󿬁eld like anthropology is to  imagine   󿬁ctional culturaluniverses rather than understand those extant cultures which we 󿬁nd, including to point outwhen claims of universalism are disproven by empirical evidence of variation. Moral relativismis a kind of nihilism, not a professional commitment of cultural anthropologists to try to eschewethnocentrism when they seek to understand other cultures. © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd    All Forms of Writing  307 are determining the evolution of writing systems, evident in drift toward a uniform,neutrally most-efficient character. Dehaene is elsewhere adamant:Overall, the analysis of writing systems underlines the fact that letter shape isnot an arbitrary cultural choice. The brain constrains the design of an efficientwriting system so severely that there is little room for cultural relativism. Our primate brain only accepts a limited set of written shapes (p. 179).If the strong form of Dehaene’s argument is to hold up, he must demonstrate, not just cross-cultural regularities (themselves problematic), but also that any regularitiesderive from ‘cerebral’ constraints. His own work and that of the research he cites,however, suggests the crucial in󿬂uence of ecological, technological, sociological,and even political factors in determining the evolution of writing systems.  Ecological Contributions Dehaene (2009, pp. 176–8) cites the work of Marc Changizi and colleagues (2006)on the visual elements of writing systems: all share basic visual forms, especiallythat characters are composed of around three or less strokes, that is, curves or linesthat can be traced without lifting a stylus or pen. 3 Dehaene argues that, ‘In allwriting systems, the world over, characters appear to have evolved to an almostoptimal combination that can easily be grasped by a single neuron, through theconvergence of inputs from two, three, or four types of curve-detecting neurons ata level immediately preceding it in the [cortical] pyramid’ (2009, p. 177). Dehaeneinterprets Changizi’s research as supporting his neural constraint account of languageevolution.Changizi and colleagues, in fact, propose that the con󿬁guration of charactersclosely correlates with the appearance of shapes in naturally occurring visual scenes.They argue that the con󿬁guration of diverse writing systems is co-determined byboth ecological patterns and neurological constraints (Changizi and Shimojo, 2005;Changizi  et al. , 2006). Writing is shaped by neurology because the human nervoussystem has already been tuned by an evolutionary relationship with salient stim-uli in the natural environment. According to Changizi, their argument could moreaccurately be described as ‘nature-harnessing’ rather than neural-determined; writ-ten characters mimic the most common visual qualities of natural objects (personalcommunication). 3 Changizi and Shimojo (2005) speci󿬁cally exclude East Asian writing systems from their discus-sion.Iwouldarguealsothat,althoughtheirresultsarestriking,especiallythesuccessfulpredictionof shape prevalence from analysis of natural visual environments, the method they use to abstractbasic shapes from letters may militate against noting outliers and bias their results toward thereduction of complex characters. © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 
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