Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How our mind, brain and culture evolved: A proposed theory

The Winding Path. Marc Lapierre. 4 July 2008. 25 November 2008. <http://thewindingpath.net/2008/07/04/how-our-mind-brain-and-culture-evolved/>

This is a blog entry by a self-proclaimed 'perennial student' in psychology. His blogs frequently concern topics of philosophical, sociological, psychological and scientific interest. This one is about evolutionary links between the brain and culture. The author, Lapierre, refers to a paper written by Queen's scholar Merlin Donald, who also wrote a book called Origins of the Modern Mind. Lapierre summarizes Donald's description of the co-evolution of brain and culture, which relied heavily on multidisciplinary sources. Donald proposes that our cognitive-cultural development went through three stages, each encompassing those that came before. Each stage deals with a new way of representing reality. These stages are important to understanding current culture, ontology, and cognition, cultural difference, and future evolutionary developments in these areas.

1) Episodic culture consists of the ability to mentally represent, but not express, complex events (including social ones) in a situation-specific way.
2) Mimetic cultures consists of the ability to model actions. In this stage, early humans were able to convey a nonverbal message through conscious action.
3) Mythic culture consists of the development of speech and language, which was accompanied by many 'cultural achievements', not the least of which were music and dance. The world could then be conceived of in integrated, narrative terms.
4) Theoretic culture consists of the externalization and concretization of our representations through technology. This is a non-biological, although still highly sensual/sensory, transition to which music is highly relevant. This development allows for theoretical scrutiny of and more accurate representation of reality.

Again, whenever culture is the topic, it seems like evolution comes up. Why is this? My instinct says that it's not the only way to understand why we are the way we are. Again, this idea leads to suggestions of progress, which inevitably implies higher value for the more advanced stages of development (Lapierre says 'cultural achievements). I think the link between the development of music and that of speech, narrative, and religion is interesting. It seems like an obvious connection, but at the same time impossible to specify or articulate. The multidisciplinarity of Donald's work reminds me that discussions of brain and music sit somewhat precariously between disciplines. Anthropology, comparative biology, neuropsychology, etc., all come into play. Some of these fields have drastically different language and approach. I think we need to take care not to forget this fact and to treat our own authority in foreign fields with healthy (if not severe) doses of skepticism. This site makes me want to blog for myself on ethnomusicological matters. It seems like a productive way to explore thoughts and perhaps get feedback.

No comments: