Tag Archives: evolution

Against the evidence

I would have thought that the argument was over (but of course this sort of argument never is). I keep thinking that Chomsky and his adherents will have accepted the evidence and moved on but I keep being surprised that they have not changed their theories.


Chomsky has not yet accepted that language has been around for a very long time – since before Homo split into Neanderthal and us. The adaptations to speech in the ear, throat, and brain can be traced ‘way back’, not the short 50 to 140 thousand years ago that he proposed. There is enough time for language to evolve slowly without any miraculous single mutation events, just normal evolution of a function under the pressure of improving an advantageous behavior. In the fossil record, we can almost see the pressure working on the ear, throat, and brain. There is no sensible reason why the body would change in preparation for speech that was not yet in existence. Evolution is not something that foretells an advantage. That makes absolutely no sense. The fossil record makes sense if Homo started to communicate in a way that became a big advantage and so that ability to communicate was under evolutionary pressure to improve hence the changes in ear, throat and brain.


Chomsky would have us believe that we used language as an internal thinking tool before we used it for communication. This implies that our thinking requires this internal language, and so is qualitatively different from that of other animals. But the trend in the last couple of decades is for the thinking of mammals and birds to be found more similar to our own, not less. Further, there appears to be no evidence from studies of the brain to imply that language is necessary for thought. Concepts seem necessary – concepts for object, actions, attributes – but it does not seem that these need be verbal concepts, although they often seem to be. The sequence of situation – agent – action – outcome - new situation seems so deeply structured in the brain (and in animal brains) that its resemblance to a sentence appears to be a case of language fitting into the brain’s structure. rather than the brain fitting into the structure of language. It seems that we communicate with ourselves using the facility that evolved to communicate with others.


Chomsky appears to be still saying that there is not enough language presented to a child for them to learn the language without some built-in language scaffold. Many researchers who study infant learning disagree and point out that the child actively engages in the learning and is not a passive receiver of language examples. It does appear that children seek out language and avidly learn it, but that does not mean that they necessarily have a universal grammar template. The learning process appears far more complex than Chomsky’s model or the behaviorist model he unseated.


The idea of ‘merge’ as the test for true ‘language’ seems fairly thin. It is true that we can replace words with phrases over and over again, to any number of merge levels, and still have a sentence. Great - but who cares. I suspect that a large percentage of people (people who successfully live their lives without any communication problems) have never uttered a sentence with more than one level of merge. And if you spoke to them and used more than three levels, they would shake their heads and walk away saying that you should learn how to say what you mean. Is there ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ language? Is there some measurement that separates ‘tall’ from ‘short’ people so that in some single night’s sleep a teenager goes to bed short and wakes up tall? Why do we need a firm line between the earliest steps to language and our present day language, a line to divide off ‘true’ language. This concern with ‘true’ language seems a way to move the goal posts for the sole purpose of insisting that language is found only in humans, that it is about logic and not about communication, and it is not something that psychologists, geneticists, paleontologists, neuroscientists etc. or even some schools of linguistics should have a say about.


This rant was brought on by my reading another great posting to Babel’s Dawn, Biology without Darwin. I recommend it.


A theory of the evolution of consciousness

In a recent article (citation below) Vandekerckhove, Bulnes and Panksepp put forward a theory of how consciousness has changed with the evolution of the brain. They envisage three types or stages of awareness: anoetic (without knowledge), noetic (with knowledge), and autonoetic (with meta-knowledge). The theory has each type building on the previous, both during evolution and during childhood development. They even postulate that the process may go backwards during the deepening of dementia.

Looking at each stage:

Anoetic: awake with a flow of awareness of here and now (not past and future), of the self (core self) in the world with phenomenal quality (qualia) of multimodal sensory-perceptional and body experiences, and affective feeling (emotional and homeostatic). It depends on subcortical neural networks, thalamic sensory relay nuclei, basal ganglia, and especially, midline mesencephalic and diencephalic attentional and affective systems .

Noetic: added to the anoetic flow is semantic memory (but not necessarily using language) and learning. This gives knowledge (implicit and explicit) of specific facts about the self and the world, including facts about the past (but not the feeling of being in the past). It depends on basal ganglia (amygdala, nucleus accumbers etc.), the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, temporal lobes.

Autonoetic: added to noetic awareness is episodic memory and the ability to deal with thoughts, images, fantasies, expectations, memories in ‘the mind’s eye’ and to be aware of one’s awareness. The memory is explicit and in context. The self is biographical. Introspection is possible. It depends on most of the cortex.

I like the idea of the progressive change in consciousness with the evolution of the brain but I have great difficulty with the divisions. It seems to me that there are no postulated mechanisms here. For example, how do we form a semantic memory? I have always pictured this as a by-product of the episodic memory. As episodes pile up illustrating a particular ‘fact’ of the world, this can become a prediction that is separately ‘indexed’ from the episodes that gave rise to it. But without episodes and without semantic-type symbols, how is a factual memory formed? It is in essence an inductive process of forming predictive rules on the basis of experience – so you need the experiences and those are events, the sort that are stored in episodic memory. So, I do not find the problem has been ‘cut at the joints’, but it is such a nice start at studying the evolution of consciousness.

The abstract:

Based on an interdisciplinary perspective, we discuss how primary-process, anoetic forms of consciousness emerge into higher forms of awareness such as knowledge-based episodic knowing and self-aware forms of higher-order consciousness like autonoetic awareness. Anoetic consciousness is defined as the rudimentary state of affective, homeostatic, and sensory-perceptual mental experiences. It can be considered as the autonomic flow of primary-process phenomenal experiences that reflects a fundamental form of first-person “self-experience,” a vastly underestimated primary form of phenomenal consciousness. We argue that this anoetic form of evolutionarily refined consciousness

constitutes a critical antecedent that is foundational for all forms of knowledge acquisition via learning and memory, giving rise to a knowledge-based, or noetic, consciousness as well as higher forms of “awareness” or “knowing consciousness” that permits “time- travel” in the brain-mind. We summarize the conceptual advantages of such a multi-tiered neuroevolutionary approach to psychological issues, namely from genetically controlled primary (affective) and secondary (learning and memory), to higher tertiary (developmentally emergent) brain-mind processes, along with suggestions about how affective experiences become more cognitive and object-oriented, allowing the developmental creation of more subtle higher mental processes such as episodic memory which allows the possibility of autonoetic consciousness, namely looking forward and backward at one’s life and its possibilities within the “mind’s eye.”


M. Vandekerckhove, L.C. Bulnes, & J. Panksepp (2014). The emergence of primary anoetic consciousness in episodic memory Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7 : 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00210