Thursday, March 11, 2010

Quite a Mutation: Humans and Symbolic Thought

In An Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer proclaims that "instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself." This remark is in relation to human beings' identifying characteristics among other animals, namely the ability to reflect, the capacity to think before responding to external stimuli, rather than being limited to instantaneous, instinctive reactions, such as other animals are. Cassirer stresses the role of the human-symbol systems inherent in religion, art, myth, and so forth, also pointing out that humans have no choice in their condition as reflective, symbol-using beings; this, he remarks, could even prove to be a great disadvantage for the species.

The sense in which Cassirer talks of the distinction between humans and other animals regarding symbolic systems seems clear enough: animals, in a different sense, may be seen to have symbol systems, but they do not invest reflective thought into these systems, which makes me more inclined to call the animals' systems sign systems. Upon facing an external stimulus, an animal will react instinctively; there is no linguistic system whereby the animal will mentally consider it's options of, say, "escape", "fight", or "camouflage". These decisions will be made more or less straight away, as far as observance tells us. Humans, on the other hand, have such complex reflective processes that when faced with an external stimulus, they can be overwhelmed with options, indecision or apprehension. What is this creature attacking me? Why is it attacking me? In what way can I appease it/escape from it?

And so humans are in a "new dimension" of existence to animals. But why is this so? In the evolutionary paradigm, this seems an intereresting and challenging query. What function does our ability to invest complicated symbolic thought into our actions, our thoughts - indeed, our existence - have in a surivival sense? Questions relating to the importance of language and its relationship to human experience and reality arise in abundance from this enquiry. The development of consciousness and all that it entails seems to be a great flaw in the evolution of the species, when we think of humanity's destructive traits as compared to those of other animals. Countering this idea, the potential which symbolic thought has to create communal benefits has proven a great benefit to humans through religion, art, myth, and so on. But does this outweigh the concomitant destruction which humanity's ability to create symbols has brought with it? Without the ability to imaginatively create, to invest meaning into things via words, symbols, etc., human's would be unable to create the destructive forces we see around the world today. The question is an intriguing one, but overwhelming evidence suggests that the human animal is by far the most destructive, leaving a rather contentious hole in evolutionary theory.

And of course, the absurd nature of human existence is yet another byproduct of the development of a reflective mind. The "lower" creatures of the world, whom we say have no intelligence comparable to ours, do not have to face their inevitable end (death, as an existential notion) throughout the span of their lives; this is an endurance reserved for the human animal alone. In themselves, the decision-making processes of animals induce no obvious frustration, anxiety, or fear - this, again, is peculiar only to the human species (even when an animal is hunted, or in fear of being hurt, it presumably does not fear death itself, but rather the imminent danger of pain).

At what point in evolution was it beneficial to know one is going to die, or more importantly, to not know what death is or even, arguably, what life is? Symbolic institutions, in particular religion, function not only to bind the follower to a set of beliefs, but to explain his or her entire existence - and this applies generally to primitive and modern religion alike, as well as the more spiritual traditions. So here we see symbols functioning as explanations for thoughts humans may never have had without symbols; an interesting full circle: development of symbolic form leads to recognition of the absurdity of the human enigma of life, which in turn leads to institutionalised symbolism to explain the absurd (incomprehendable) nature of life. Surely, says the man of faith, only God could orchestrate such an impressive path to enlightenment. Without drawing any outlandish conclusions, nor inclining strictly to either side of a complex dichotomy (integration of thought is my general approach, rather than warring factions, but that is for another article...), I simply ask: what is the evolutionist's rebuttal?

To be sure, the topic is more complicated than my limited knowledge has made it appear; nonetheless, I hope that - despite its being a meagre abstract - the piece has aroused some thought.


Cassirer, E, A Clue to the Nature of Man: the Symbol in An Essay on Man, 1972


  1. Interesting but misguided. I think that below is the crux of what you seem to be arguing for:
    1) Through consciousness, human beings have the ability for symbolic thought which other animals do not
    2) This ability makes the human species capable of destruction
    3) If an ability results in destruction it can have no evolutionary benefits
    C) Consciousness cannot have evolutionary benefits
    I think that this is a sound argument; the conclusion would follow if the premises were true. Are the premises true? No.
    The first premise is questionable. Higher primates definitely show some level of conceptual though (or symbolic though). Even other animals are able to discriminate things in their environment and not just react instinctively. But this premise is perhaps the strongest of them all so I will not criticize it any longer and move on to easier targets.
    Premise 2 is very troublesome. In your rebuttal to it, you state the following:
    “the potential which symbolic thought has to create communal benefits has proven a great benefit to humans through the media of religion, art, myth, and so on”
    But I think this is the source of the mistake. I think that your confusion stems from the ambiguous use of the word “destructive”. Speaking in term of evolution, a destructive trait is one that will not allow the individual to pass on his genes to the next generation . An advantageous trait will be one that increases the individuals chances of passing on her genes. Tied in with this is, it would also be highly advantageous for an individual to be able to harness the natural world around her and use it for her goal (ultimately the passing on of her genes). It cannot be doubted, that our ability for symbolic thought has enabled the human race to reproduce at a pace unmatched in evolutionary history; we have occupied just about every part of the planet. This has largely been thanks to agriculture, something unthinkable without symbolic thought. No other creature in history has been so successful (this might not be exactly right, bacteria do pretty well. But you get the point). Now, just because we might someday be able to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons is not an argument against evolution. If it does come to that, then we will be able to say that the Homo sapiens went extinct due to their inability to survive in their environment. However, it does not follow from this that this symbolic though was useful for the propagation of the human race before that dooms day! This point also goes against premise 3, as traits that can cause destruction at some later time can be advantageous (extremely so, as we have seen) at an earlier time. Remember, evolution has no foresight; it is the “blind watchmaker”.

  2. "Even other animals are able to discriminate things in their environment and not just react instinctively. But this premise is perhaps the strongest of them all so I will not criticize it any longer and move on to easier targets."

    Discriminating things in a given environment is so incomparable to the creative, reflective, society-making thought human beings exercise that I think that your rebuttal is subterfuge. Obviously, the consequences of human consciousness have been far more far-reaching than those of any other species' that to argue that they even touch on human thought seems fruitless. But the other arguments seem fair, so I'll address those more thoroughly.

    By "destruction", you may have been right about the ambiguity, but I think you are probably viewing the term in a more strictly evolutionary sense than I am, seeing as you have probably studied it more. Is destruction, in the sense that human destruction seems to be exponential, still beneficial to a species as a whole, surivival-wise?

    Again, you mentioned that our incredible success as a species to reproduce like rabbits (combined with out symbolic/reflective/what-have-you thought capabilities) has "enabled us to reproduce at a pace unmatched in evolutionary history." Is overpopulation ever considered in evolutionary theory? Or other certain things that come about from human nature, such as greed, the species' lack of resource-managment abilities, and what-not? How are the negative traits of humans assessed in that field? It's just interesting because so many downfalls are due to human nature - a question I hoped to raise in the blog was whether one outweighed the other.

    Essentially, doesn't the development of consciousness have to be assessed as an evolutionary step? If this is so, then its consequences can be measured against each other to judge the original trait as either more beneficial or more corrosive for the species. It seems you agree with the former?

  3. Hey Chris,

    I remembered this piece a few days ago and had an urge to read it. I have come to change my mind on the issue somewhat. I won't go into details here, but I recommend that you read John McDowell's Mind and World. There McDowell discusses 'Second Nature' (i.e. language abilities) which restructured out perceptual system and differentiated the human specie from the rest of the animals. He discusses the difference between 'mere behaviour' of other animals and human actions which belong to our second nature . Check it out.