October 21, 2019

On Human (Symbolic) Nature: How the Word Became Flesh.

Terry Deacon, University of California, Berkeley

Abstract: The concept of human nature has been challenged by social scientists because of its inability to clearly delineate the distinction between the biologically inherited and experientially acquired attributes of being human. Yet the very fact of being susceptible to acquired cultural influences irrelevant to other species makes clear that this is an evolutionarily constrained susceptibility. Symbolic processes are the source of the most important and distinctively human acquired influences, and include both linguistically mediated and habitually reproduced social conventions. Susceptibility to these influences arose due to the evolution of neurological adaptations that support symbolic communication and cognition. Although human brains do not include any structures that lack ape homologues, the slight reorganization that made symbolic abilities ubiquitous has also created the possibility for socially transmitted information to radically reorganize mental functions. In this talk I re-analyze the concept of symbolic reference in order to overcome equivocal and ambiguous uses of the concept that obscure the special nature of these adaptations and thus blind research to the complex bio-cultural interactions that produce some of the most ubiquitous and unprecedented features of being human. These include modifications of memory functions, emotional experiences, the nature of identity, and the range of mental plasticity.

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