Home Ciencia Arqueología Cognitiva (Entrevista a Merlin Donald)

Arqueología Cognitiva (Entrevista a Merlin Donald)

escrito por Germanico 28 abril, 2011

El aspecto más esquivo para el conocimiento humano de la consciencia es su inherente perspectiva de primera persona.  El sujeto únicamente puede afirmar su propia consciencia (soy consciente luego existo),  y no parece haber forma de indagar directamente en la consciencia ajena. Las formas de llegar a ella son siempre indirectas.

Primero elaboramos una teoría de la mente que presupone pensamientos, sentimientos y todo tipo de experiencias sujetas a un sujeto, ancladas en una mente dotada de un ego agente y paciente. Quienes nos rodean no son zombies, tienen intenciones, su acción está encaminada a un fin. El primitivo animismo consideraba teleológico e intencional todo movimiento o fuerza en la naturaleza. Los ríos y los huracanes, las montañas y, por supuesto los animados animales, tenían para el animista una mente y una correspondiente consciencia. Partía, el animismo, de la vía indirecta de conocimiento de la mente ajena proporcionada por el lenguaje y la interacción social, para proyectarse en toda la naturaleza.

Con el desarrollo de la ciencia y la profundización en el conocimiento de la naturaleza y su historia, en particular en lo que se refiere a nuestros cuerpos dotados de mente, hemos comenzado a explorar otra vía indirecta de aproximación a la consciencia ajena, que pasa a través de la anatomía y fisiología subyacentes al fenómeno consciente. La consciencia nace en el cerebro, y en él hay que buscar su sustrato. Por otro lado indagamos en las huellas dejadas por la evolución en dicho órgano y en los comportamientos que genera. Y para conocer los pasos dados por nuestra especie en su historia natural desde formas de consciencia más elementales hasta nuestra actual mente consciente presidida por una persona, por un personaje en el teatro social humano y en el drama cósmico, tenemos que analizar detenidamente los restos dejados por nuestros ancestros. La paleoantropología analiza los restos óseos –ya que los cerebros no fosilizan- y la arqueología los útiles, herramientas, construcciones y creaciones asociados a dichos huesos en los yacimientos, o cuya forma sugiera manufactura humana.

Dentro de la arqueología ha surgido una nueva disciplina científica que estudia dichos artefactos desde una perspectiva psicológica. Se trata de averiguar qué clase de mente pudo elaborarlos. Dicha disciplina ha sido bautizada como Arqueología Cognitiva, y tuvo el germen de su concepción en la obra del psicólogo Merlin Donald, El Origen de la Mente Moderna. En esta obra Donald propone, a partir de los diversos artefactos de manufactura humana proporcionados por el registro arqueológico, una sucesión de estadios que van de una consciencia episódica, parecida a la que podrían poseer nuestros cercanos parientes primates, asociada indisolublemente a los momentos presentes, a una teórica, facilitada por el desarrollo de la cultura y sus soportes externos para el lenguaje y la información. Entre medias pasamos por un estadio mimético, en el que nuestra consciencia se expandió gracias a un protolenguaje gestual y teatral, y otro estadio mítico en el que la expansión vino de la mano del simbolismo lingüístico, su creciente sintaxis y las posibilidades abiertas por la arbitrariedad del signo, la metáfora y la elaboración de relatos.  Precisamente en ese estadio mítico cabe suponer que nos volviéramos animistas, atribuyendo a todo lo que nos rodeaba nuestras propias y recién adquiridas cualidades cognitivas. 

El Profesor Donald ha tenido la amabilidad de respondernos unas preguntas, puestas en un correcto inglés por José Miguel Guardia. Las respuestas han sido traducidas al castellano por Marzo

Pueden encontrar más sobre este asunto en:

Desarrollo de la mente moderna. Cameron McPherson Smith. Revista Mente y Cerebro nº 25.

Sinestesias, metáforas y el nacimiento de la mente moderna

 

 En inglés:   

1.-The neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran has suggested that the human ability for abstraction, metaphor and language could be the result of new interconnections between brain areas, not unlike those proposed to explain synesthesia, in confluence regions like the angular gyrus (take a look at his article).  Would this fit with your ideas about the origin of the mythical mind and (in the mechanism only) with Steven Mithen’s ones about cognitive fluidity?

This is a “spread of excitation” theory: if you excite or over-stimulate one region of the brain, the excitation can spread geographically to adjacent areas.  It has some value, but only as a rough “shotgun” explanation of simple phenomena.  The same kind of explanation is often made about a syndrome that I have always suffered from: sneezing in sunlight.  If I have been in a dark building (such as a church) and suddenly emerge into bright sunlight, I will often sneeze violently (usually exactly three times).  One explanation for this is that that the “sneezing center” of the brain stem is located very close to the area controlling pupillary constriction to bright light.  A sudden flood of bright light will create a mini-epileptic attack in the latter, and in some people, the over-excitation will spill over into the sneezing center, which is close by.  So you sneeze.

This is interesting, but nothing so simple can explain complex adaptations like mimesis and language.  The human brain has undoubtedly evolved massive interconnectivity, and this might conceivably explain something about our remarkable mental capabilities.  However, this kind of theory should not be pushed too far.  New interconnections, taken in isolation, could jumble our minds as easily as it could give us new powers.  Many other factors need to be taken into account.

2.-Steven Mithen has suggested, in his book The Singing Neanderthals, that our language could have had a musical forerunner.  You have spoken of a complex mimesis.  Hands and mouth seem to be subtly related in the brain.  Do you think, as Mithen does, that there was a kind of musicality, added to theatricality, in the origin of language?

Yes. I used the term “rudimentary song” to describe more or less the same idea in my first book in 1991. The idea was also supported in principle by Darwin over a century ago.

Human vocal skills are a very major break in the primate line, and must have evolved quite early in our evolution, in several stages. Musicality is a product of combining our special vocal skills with our equally special evolved capacity for producing and imitating rhythms. In fact, our unique ability to coordinate the rhythmic actions of hands, feet, mouth, and body with sound is a real giveaway of how far our voluntary movement control has evolved from that of our Miocene primate ancestors 5 million years ago.

3.-Written language is the basis of a reliable intergenerational transmission of culture.  How and why did we begin to write?

Writing was not an easy invention.  It seems to have been invented de novo only twice, first in Sumer, and later in Mesoamerica.  In both cases it was subjected to a long period of experimentation before sophisticated writing tools, as we know them, started to appear.  Initially writing was driven by the needs of trade and government.  However, as its potential was realized, it became a powerful means of refining the thought process, and opened new paths for artistic expression and rational thought.  Thus it has evolved into much more than a means of intergenerational transfer; it has become our creative core.  It is the best means we have for subjecting the process of thinking itself to refinement and improvement.  It is also the basis of novel specialized areas of thought, like mathematics and music.

4.  Are culture, language, and particularly written language, part of what the philosopher Andy Clark calls extended mind?  Is the modern mind something more than merely what our brain processes?

Absolutely.  The brain is still the core, of course, but our collective cognitive system – as in think tanks and corporations, for example – have become dominant, and they depend heavily on the state of our symbolic technologies.  Written language is a powerful means of externalizing memory: that is, recording memories outside the brain.  It also re-structures the cognitive field.  This is a major breakthrough for human collective cognitive powers, and it has led us to the Third Transition, the latest stage of human cognitive evolution, during which the human brain has become more and more embedded in a global cognitive network wired into elaborate non-biological memory systems, such as the WWWeb.  I use the word “exogram” to describe a memory record outside the brain, as contrasted with “engrams” which refer to memories that are stored in the brain itself.  These have radically different properties.  The development of more and more powerful exographic systems has given the human race hitherto unheard-of opportunities for intellectual growth, and also for self-destruction.

5.-What do you think about memetics?

I have avoided the use of that term, because it seems to reify “memes” as if they had an independent existence, which they do not.  I prefer the notion of the “distributed” cognitive system, a system that is made up of a multitude of brains.  Humans first evolved distributed cognition millions of years ago, for collective coordinated skills like toolmaking and fire-tending; it is our main cognitive innovation as a species.  As a consequence, our cultures can be called “mindsharing” cultures, which share mental resources.  Such cultures can learn and adapt much faster than individuals, but they also make individuals highly dependent on joining a cultural network.  In the past two millennia we have become much more interconnected with a variety of external symbolic devices, which have made us able to remember, perceive, think, and make decisions in a collective manner with much greater effectiveness than ever before.  “Memes,” or cultural memories, flow through this collective system in complex ways, but have no independence of the system.  There are many classes of cultural memory, and in the end, I am not sure the term “memes” adds very much to the words we already have to describe culture and its many cognitive artifacts.

6.-Evolution has been said to be clumsy, as it works on what has previously been done, thus resulting in strata.  This can be seen in the brain, with its successive layers; but, as you think, also in conscience and the mind, as we keep our episodic, mimetic, mythical and theoretical consciences in one package.  What kind of cognitive errors, of contradictions, of conflicts, would you say their inhabiting our mind together creates?

Good question, and no short answers are possible here! My books address this issue at length.  Brain-cultural co-evolution has been conservative, which means that it tends to retain previous gains, so that the human cultural-cognitive “organism” has become multi-layered and complex.  Such a system requires governance.  I have become very interested in traditional religion as the first major formal system of cognitive governance invented by human beings.  As such, it was a crucial development in setting the parameters of human social-cognitive regulation.  Traditional religions were “mythic-mimetic” in their style of governance.  This has been superceded by a much more complex system, that I have called “theoretic” culture.  It subordinates traditional religion, to a degree, but religion survives because, in certain domains, it is far more effective than Theoretic Culture.

7.-Was the origin of the modern mind a gradual phenomenon, fully explainable by the biological mechanisms of natural selection?  Could there have been, at some time, a hopeful monster?

Yes and No.  Yes, it was a product of gradualistic evolution punctuated occasionally by accelerated periods of change.  But no, there were no hopeful monsters.  No need; mindsharing cultures were such a radical innovation that they changed the dynamic of human evolution, gradually shifting the momentum from brain to culture.

8.-What are you working on now?  What is your highest intellectual challenge?  What is the mystery you would dream to unveil?

 To find out where we are going, and what we are becoming.  I will try, but, of course, this is a tough one; and I am not fooling myself!

 

En castellano:

1.-El neurólogo Vilayanur Ramachandran ha sugerido que la capacidad humana de abstracción, metáfora y lenguaje podría ser resultado de nuevas interconexiones entre áreas cerebrales, similares a las propuestas para explicar la sinestesia, en regiones de confluencia como la circunvolución angular (eche un vistazo a su artículo).  ¿Encajaría esto con sus propias ideas sobre el origen de la mente mítica y (sólo en el mecanismo) con las de Steven Mithen sobre la fluidez cognitiva?

Esta es una teoría de “propagación de la excitación”: si se excita o sobreestimula una región del cerebro, la excitación puede propagarse geográficamente a áreas adyacentes.  Tiene cierto valor, pero sólo como una explicación grosera, aproximada, de fenómenos simples.  Se da a menudo una explicación de la misma clase de un síndrome que he padecido siempre: estornudar a la luz del sol.  Si he estado en un edificio oscuro (como una iglesia) y salgo repentinamente a la brillante luz del día, a menudo estornudo violentamente (en general exactamente tres veces).  Una explicación de esto es que el “centro del estornudo” del tronco cerebral está situado muy cerca del área que controla la contracción de la pupila a la luz brillante.  Un repentino influjo de luz brillante creará en éste un mini-ataque epiléptico, y en algunas personas la sobreexcitación se derramará al centro del estornudo, que está próximo.  Así que uno estornuda.

Esto es interesante, pero nada tan simple puede explicar adaptaciones complejas como la mímesis y el lenguaje.  El cerebro humano, sin duda, ha desarrollado una enorme interconectividad, y es concebible que esto pudiera explicar algo acerca de nuestras notables capacidades mentales.  Sin embargo, esta clase de teorías no debería llevarse demasiado lejos.  Nuevas interconexiones, por sí mismas, podrían embarullar nuestras mentes con tanta facilidad como proporcionarnos nuevas capacidades.  Hay que tener en cuenta muchos otros factores.

2.-Steven Mithen ha sugerido en su libro Los neandertales cantores que nuestro lenguaje podría haber tenido un predecesor musical.  Usted ha hablado de una mímesis compleja.  Manos y boca parecen estar sutilmente relacionadas en el cerebro.  ¿Piensa usted, como Mithen, que hubo una especie de musicalidad, además de teatralidad, en el origen del lenguaje?

Sí. Usé el término “canción rudimentaria” para describir más o menos la misma idea en mi primer libro en 1991. También Darwin sostuvo en principio la misma idea hace más de un siglo.

Las habilidades vocales humanas son una novedad de gran relieve en los linajes primates, y deben de haber surgido muy tempranamente en nuestra evolución, en varias fases. La musicalidad es producto de combinar nuestras especiales habilidades vocales con nuestra igualmente especial capacidad de producir e imitar ritmos. De hecho, nuestra característica habilidad para combinar acciones rítmicas de manos, pies, boca y cuerpo con el sonido es una demostración de cuánto se ha desarrollado nuestro control de los movimientos voluntarios desde el de nuestros antepasados primates del Mioceno hace cinco millones de años.

3.-El lenguaje escrito es la base de una transmisión fiable de la cultura entre las generaciones.  ¿Cómo y por qué empezamos a escribir?

La escritura no fue una invención fácil.  Parece haberse inventado independientemente sólo dos veces, primero en Sumer, después en Mesoamérica.  En ambos casos sufrió un largo período de experimentación antes de que empezasen a aparecer medios de escritura elaborados.  Al principio la escritura fue impulsada por las necesidades del comercio y del gobierno.  Sin embargo, al desarrollarse sus posibilidades se convirtió en un potente medio para refinar el proceso del pensar, y abrió nuevas vías para la expresión artística y el pensamiento racional.  Así que ha llegado a ser mucho maś que un medio de transferencia intergeneracional; se ha convertido en nuestro núcleo creativo.  Es el mejor medio que tenemos para someter a refinamiento y mejora el proceso mismo del pensar.  Es también la base de nuevas áreas especializadas de pensamiento, como la matemática y la música.

4.- ¿Son la cultura y el lenguaje, especialmente el lenguaje escrito, parte de lo que el filósofo Andy Clark llama la mente extendida?  ¿Es la mente moderna algo más que simplemente nuestros procesos cerebrales?

Ciertamente.  El cerebro sigue siendo el núcleo, por supuesto, pero nuestro sistema cognitivo colectivo (por ejemplo los think tanks y corporaciones) ha llegado a ser dominante, y depende mucho del estado de nuestras tecnologías simbólicas.  El lenguaje escrito es un potente medio para externalizar la memoria; esto es, para registrar memorias fuera del cerebro.  Además reestructura el campo cognitivo.  Esto es un avance de gran importancia para los poderes cognitivos colectivos humanos, y nos ha llevado a la Tercera Transición, la fase maś reciente de la evolución cognitiva humana, durante la cual el cerebro humano ha quedado cada vez más englobado en una red cognitiva total conectada a elaborados sistemas de memoria no biológica, como la World Wide Web.  Uso la palabra “exograma” para describir un registro de memoria exterior al cerebro, e contraste con los “engramas” que se refieren a recuerdos almacenados en el cerebro mismo.  Tienen propiedades radicalmente diferentes.  El desarrollo de sistemas exográficos cada vez mas potentes ha proporcionado a la raza humana oportunidades antes inauditas de crecimiento intelectual, y también de autodestrucción.

5.-¿Qué piensa de la memética?

He evitado usar ese término porque parece reificar los “memes” como si tuviesen existencia independiente, cosa que no tienen.  Prefiero la idea de sistema cognitivo “distribuido”, un sistema que está compuesto de una multitud de cerebros.  Los humanos desarrollaron por primera vez la cognición distribuida hace millones de años, para habilidades colectivas coordinadas como la elaboración de instrumentos y el cuidado del fuego; es la principal innovación cognitiva de nuestra especie.  Como consecuencia, puede decirse que nuestras culturas son “de mente compartida”, que comparten recursos mentales.  Tales culturas pueden aprender y adaptarse mucho más rápidamente que los individuos, pero también hacen que los individuos dependan mucho de unirse a una red cultural.  En los últimos dos milenios nos hemos interconectado mucho más con una variedad de dispositivos simbólicos externos, que nos han hecho capaces de recordar, percibir, pensar y tomar decisiones de manera colectiva con mucha más efectividad que nunca antes.  Los “memes”, o recuerdos culturales, fluyen en este sistema colectivo de maneras complejas, pero no son independientes del sistema.  Hay muchas clases de memoria cultural y, al cabo, no estoy seguro de que el término “memes” añada gran cosa a las palabras que ya tenemos para describir la cultura y sus muchos artefactos cognitivos.

6.-Se ha dicho que la evolución es chapucera, pues trabaja sobre lo que se ha hecho antes, lo que resulta en estratos.  Esto puede verse en el cerebro, con sus capas sucesivas; pero, según piensa usted, también en la consciencia y en la mente, ya que conservamos nuestras consciencias episódica, mimética, mítica y teorética en un solo envoltorio.  ¿Qué clase de errores cognitivos, de contradiciones, de conflictos, diría usted que crea el que cohabiten en nuestras mentes?

¡Buena pregunta, y no puedo responder aquí con brevedad! Mis libros tratan la cuestión con más detalle.  La coevolución de cerebro y cultura ha sido conservadora, lo que significa que tiende a retener progresos anteriores, así que el “organismo” cognitivo-cultural humano ha dado en ser complejo y de múltiples estratos.  Un sistema tal requiere regulación.  He dado en interesarme mucho en la religión tradicional como el primer sistema formal importante de regulación cognitiva inventado por los seres humanos.  Como tal, fue un desarrollo crucial en el establecimiento de los parámetros de la regulación socio-cognitiva humana.  Las religiones tradicionales eran “mítico-miméticas” en su estilo de regulación.  Esto ha sido sustituido por un sistema mucho más complejo, que he llamado cultura “teorética”.  Subordina a la religión tradicional, hasta cierto punto, pero la religión sobrevive porque, en ciertos dominios, es mucho más efectiva que la Cultura Teorética.

7.-¿Fue el origen de la mente moderna un fenómeno gradual, del todo explicable por los mecanismos biológicos de la selección natural?  ¿Pudo haber habido en algún momento un “monstruo prometedor”?

Sí y No.  Sí, fue producto de una evolución gradual puntuada ocasionalmente por períodos de cambio acelerado.  Pero no, no hubo monstruos prometedores.  No hizo falta; las culturas de mente compartida fueron una innovación tan radical que cambiaron la dinámica de la evolución humana, desplazando gradualmente el impulso del cerebro a la cultura.

8.-¿En qué trabaja ahora?  ¿Cuál es su máximo reto intelectual?  ¿Cuál el misterio que soñaría con desvelar?

Averiguar adónde vamos, y en qué nos estamo convirtiendo.  Lo intentaré pero, por supuesto, es difícil; ¡y en esto no me engaño!

 

  • Ya estoy al ralentí, así que no descarto sorpresas … porque a estas alturas, je, será sorprendente que las publique 😉
    Que sí.
    Gracias!

  • Germanico

    The Widening Gyre: Religion, Culture, and Evolution

    Can religion, with its deep roots in our genetic makeup, provide any answers to the modern world’s cultural free-fall? Will the falcon hear the falconer? Donald offers an evolutionary view.

    by Merlin Donald

    Can religion, with its deep roots in our genetic makeup, provide any answers to the modern worldís cultural free-fall?

    Merlin Donald offers an evolutionary view.

    “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

    The virtual absence of organized religion from Western public intellectual life is a drastic break with our past. This is evident in the deep alienation of the Western intelligentsia from its own roots. Intellectuals should be, and traditionally have been, the natural conservators of culture, as well as leaders of mass culture. So long as our societies had a common universe of discourse, the work of the intelligentsia affected the lives of most people, from rich to poor, because it had an impact on their imaginational universes, whether by re-interpreting myths, or changing imagery, or introducing new ideas. But in our modern pluralistic society, the public role of the secular intellectual is fast disappearing, and there seems to be very little connection between the work that they do, much of which is esoteric, and religion. With a few notable exceptions, the materialistic, corporate mass culture that surrounds us ignores both of these influences.

    This alienation is most obvious in academia, where professional thinkers in various fields seem to feel that it is their duty to destroy the high cultures of the past, with no obligation to replace what has been destroyed. Ironically, they cannot accept mass culture either, because they retain their predecessorsí elitism. The result is that the secular intelligentsia have become more and more alienated with every generation, unable to accept the new order, and uncomfortable with their own deeply religious past. Yeats was right. The center did not hold, there is no still point, and there is no dance. We are in a cultural free-fall, with no ground in sight. The question is, what are the consequences of this? Evolutionary patterns may provide some answers.

    Acts of Observance

    Religion is a very complex aspect of culture, but it must have started somewhere, perhaps in an unexpected manner, in the evolution of the human mind. In order to conceive of the possibility of something as sophisticated as religion, I think we need to postulate at least two very major changes along the road to becoming human.

    The first involves mimesis ñ learning by observing a behavior and mimicking it, acting it out, in our own lives.

    Religions always have a collective side, displayed in various public manifestations. I believe this collective dimension is its most ancient feature, far older than its individualized, or personal, aspects. This suggests that the external aspects of religion arose before they were internalized as the personal morality of believers. This provides us with a powerful theoretical tool, the outside-inside principle. Lev Vygotsky observed that children learn to think from the outside in; that is, they mimic the external actions of speaking and signing first, and only later learn to think silently, in private. This “outside-inside” principle applies to a number of other intellectual skills, including reading. The rule seems to be that public custom comes first and internalization follows, suggesting that some of our most personal thoughts begin as public acts.

    That same principle applies to the course of human evolution. Humanity must have evolved the externals of culture before we could internalize them, that is, before we could have converted these habits of mind into a silent, private mental world. This is true of religious thought as well, and to understand its emergence in prehistory, we need to consider its deeper roots.

    Religion is inconceivable outside of the wider culture that surrounds it, and it is always embedded within larger, unspoken customs, which often appear to be highly irrational in their origins. This applies to every religion, even those that have acquired a rational veneer in the form of explicit theologies or philosophies. Religions tend (not without enormous controversy) to fix ritual and custom into standard forms that are widely shared, reaching into every corner of life. Where did this tendency originate? Why would we construct societies, including religions, in this way, enforcing compliance with formal ritual and custom, when there are obviously other ways of achieving social organization? I have speculated, drawing on evidence from various fields, that our communal tendency to establish public customs and conventions is the most ancient component of human culture, stretching back at least two million years.

    This suggests that certain aspects of human religious culture are much older than language. Before our human ancestors could evolve a capacity as complex as language, they must have evolved prior capacities that allowed them to create simpler conventions, such as ritualized, socially coordinated public behaviors. In this case, acquiring the skill of mimesis would have been a feasible advance from the mentality of our distant predecessors, the Miocene apes.

    Two of the most distinctive mimetic abilities are re-enacting what we observe, and engaging in role-playing games. Mimesis is a whole-body skill, unique to human beings, whereby we can use our entire bodies as expressive devices. It is the basis of most nonverbal communication, as well as art, craft, dance, and athletics. But more importantly, it is the primordial source of our communal cultural traditions. Early human groups invented customs and shared rituals that enabled them to become, as a group, more effective at toolmaking, food preparation, big-game hunting, migrations, and fire-tending, among other things.

    These ritualized patterns were preserved and transmitted by mimetic skill, resulting in very complex patterns of daily life that were determined by convention. Our deepest cultural roots thus lie in collective action, and mimetic thought, from the play-acting of children to the most elaborate rituals of formal religion, is still very much in evidence in the public arena.

    Speak, Memory

    An even greater evolutionary event came later in our prehistory, with the emergence of our capacity for speech. This second transition greatly increased the distance between ourselves and our primate cousins. Although the chronology of language evolution is highly debatable, there is some evidence to suggest that it probably emerged in its prototypical form in archaic Homo sapiens, and reached its finished form with the arrival of our own species, about 160,000 years ago.

    Oral traditions were the inevitable outgrowth of this capacity for language. These traditions may be viewed as gigantic representational conventions that summarize the accumulated wisdom of a people. Such narratives were a great leap from the older framework of simpler ritualized behaviors that had been put in place by mimesis, and served as a kind of collective governor of values, beliefs, and behavior for every member of the society.

     

    However, oral traditions did not displace or conflict with mimesis. They incorporated mimetic ritual under a more powerful system of narrative thinking, which produced “mythic” cultures. Myth, in the sense of an authorized set of allegories and narratives, became the ruling construct in such societies.

     

    Modern society still preserves much of this structure, and still depends upon mimesis as a sort of elemental social glue. The universal form of traditional religion consists of precisely this: a narrative, a sacred story overlying a deeper core of mimetic traditions ñ rituals and beliefs whose origins lie in the depths of time. These form a “governing hierarchy” that regulates both individual consciousness and public behavior on much of the planet.

     

    The Scattering

    However, modern technological society is now challenging all of this. We are living through a revolution that started with mass literacy, a time of enormous cognitive change. It isnít just that the locus of control has become more diffuse than it once was, or that the public media are fragmenting the memory systems of individuals, shortening our attention spans, and preventing us from gaining any long-term purchase on what is important. These things are certainly a valid cause for concern. However, a deeper event is taking place, a cognitive metamorphosis that has a far-reaching effect on the external distribution of thought and memory.

     

    Humanity has broken out of something that we had always lived by: our biological memory system. Oral traditions, including traditional religion, depended heavily on recitation, repetition, and visual imagination, all of which demanded a very personal involvement in the inculcation of tradition. Cultures were preserved entirely in the minds of individuals, that is, within the limits of our inherited biological memory systems.

    Modern high-tech culture is something altogether different. It is externalized to a far greater degree, controlled by a blizzard of symbols, computers and electronic media. Our highly plastic nervous systems are able to make fine adjustments to each new cognitive reality as it arises; but now the actual operational tools by which we think are changing, and new demands are being made on our brains, which will reshape their basic functional organization (just as we see the “architecture” of a childís mind indelibly shaped in early development). All of this has, and will have, tremendous consequences.

     

    Religion ñ both as an institution and as a process of mind ñ has the same evolutionary history as any of our other cultural domains. It weaves a multilayered web of practice, gesture, word, and symbol, by which it influences the way we experience meaning, and how we evaluate the significance of our lives. Just as the public expression of religion reflects our membership in a collective process, we have no choice but to internalize that process in our individual minds. Our spirituality still rests firmly on a mimetic core, and this remains emotionally the most satisfying aspect of religion. The stabilizing virtues of religion still tend to come from the traditional sources of communal practice and belief.

     

    But the place of religion in our new society is not easy to define. Our traditional sources of cultural governance are exploding into a million disparate globalized fragments. We seem to be in danger of a parallel fragmentation of personal consciousness, and if so, this could have consequences that may ultimately bear on our integrity as individuals. Perhaps individualism as we have known it in the West will prove to be an ephemeral historical accident, and we will slip back into a comfortable group-think, which would be consistent with much of our history as a species. Perhaps we will move in the opposite direction, towards extreme individualism, to the point of moral anarchy, or even a denial of the external world.

     

    Or we may yet find a solution to this bewildering new cultural universe, as we have so many times in the past, and achieve some degree of balance between individualism and collectivity. Perhaps a new religious genius will discover a fantastically clever way to protect the sacred core that has sustained human beings through our turbulent history as a species. We can only hope that this will happen.

     

    Merlin Donald is a professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the Canadian Psychological Association. His most recent book is Origins of the Modern Mind.

  • Germanico

    ¡Buena pregunta, y no puedo responder aquí con brevedad! Mis libros tratan la cuestión con más detalle. 

    ¡¡¡Ánimo, lector!!!

    PD: Por cierto, no te olvides de hacer públicas en primicia internacional en este blog las magníficas entrevistas telefónicas que hiciste a Koch, Baars, Coyne, Becker…..

  • Muy interesante. ¿En qué sentido interpreta el autor la religión tradicional como el primer sistema formal importante de regulación cognitiva inventado por los seres humanos?
    Gracias!
    Antonio