Proposal for a shared evolutionary nature of language and consciousness (Saint Petersburg 2010)


It is pretty obvious that language and human consciousness entertain tight relations. We could not really be conscious of ourselves without the possibility to say “I” or “me”. And language is a key contributor in our capability to identify ourselves as conscious entities existing in the environment. But the relations linking language and consciousness are complex and difficult to analyze. Evolutionary origins of language are unknown as no fossil traces have been left by our ancestors. Sciences of consciousness however begin to make available some possible evolutionary scenarios about the nature of human consciousness. We want here to propose a link between language and consciousness by using such an evolutionary scenario and also introduce the usage of a systemic approach to meaning generation. In the first part of the presentation we will use an existing scenario about the evolutionary nature of self-consciousness where the development of language has a role (1). We will highlight this role in order to identify language and self-consciousness as inter-dependant in their nature through a possible common evolutionary origin. Self-consciousness and language could then be considered as tightly inter-dependant through a common build up of human nature during evolution. The scenario presents an evolutionary nature of self-consciousness as resulting of the capability for pre-human primates to identify with their conspecifics (1, 2). The conspecifics are represented as existing in the environment, and such identification brought our pre-human ancestors to consider themselves as also existing in the environment. The scenario takes this event as being a first step for a conscious self-representation within pre-human primates, which progressively evolved toward our today human consciousness (3). But such identification with conspecifics was not for free at times of survival of the fittest. Identifying with conspecifics meant for our pre-human ancestor to also identify with their sufferings or encountered dangers. These came in addition to the dangers or sufferings naturally encountered and created a significant anxiety increase (1). The resulting level of anxiety had to be limited. One possibility for that was to develop psychological or physical tools that could have reduced the risks of occurrences and developments of such dangers and sufferings. Among these tools is the performance of language which can induce significant evolutionary advantages. We will propose a first scheme about how these evolutionary advantages could have reduced the dangers and sufferings encountered by our pre-human ancestors. We will also show how the development of language produced by itself a positive feedback on the development of inter-subjectivity in the evolutionary scenario, and so participated directly to the development of human consciousness. Other evolutionary advantages have existed like the development of imitation and synergy through experience (4). Language played a role there also, and has to be taken into account. The second part of the presentation will propose the usage of an existing systemic approach to meaning generation in terms of constraints satisfaction (5, 6). Constraints for pre-human primates, ranging from a basic “stay alive” to highly elaborated “limit anxiety”, were source of multiple meaning generations in which language has played (and still plays) a key role. Several continuations will be proposed linked to the here above thread on a co-evolutions of language and human consciousness, as based on the evolutionary scenario.



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The evolution of consciousness.Peter Carruthers - 2000 - In Peter Carruthers & A. Chamberlain (eds.), Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language and Meta-Cognition. Cambridge University Press. pp. 254.


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