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The Recursive Mind

The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization

Michael C. Corballis
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Recursive Mind
    Book Description:

    The Recursive Mindchallenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. "I think, therefore I am," is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental "time travel"--the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.

    Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, animal behavior, anthropology, and archaeology, Corballis demonstrates how these recursive structures led to the emergence of language and speech, which ultimately enabled us to share our thoughts, plan with others, and reshape our environment to better reflect our creative imaginations. He shows how the recursive mind was critical to survival in the harsh conditions of the Pleistocene epoch, and how it evolved to foster social cohesion. He traces how language itself adapted to recursive thinking, first through manual gestures, then later, with the emergence ofHomo sapiens, vocally. Toolmaking and manufacture arose, and the application of recursive principles to these activities in turn led to the complexities of human civilization, the extinction of fellow large-brained hominins like the Neandertals, and our species' supremacy over the physical world.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3833-2
    Subjects: Psychology, Health Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. 1 What Is Recursion?
    (pp. 1-16)

    In 1637, the French philosopher Réné Descartes wrote the immortal line “Je pense, donc je suis.” Curiously, this is usually rendered in Latin, asCogito,ergo sum, and is translated in English as “I think, therefore I am.” In making this statement, Descartes was not merely thinking, he was thinking about thinking, which led him to the conclusion that he existed. The recursive nature of Descartes’s insight is perhaps better rendered in the version offered by Ambrose Bierce inThe Devil’s Dictionary:Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum—“I think I think, therefore I think I am.” Descartes himself, though, was...

  5. PART 1 Language

    • 2 Language and Recursion
      (pp. 19-35)

      In 1871, Charles Darwin publishedThe Descent of Man in Relation to Sex, in which he found the courage to declare that humans were descended from African apes. Just two years later, Friedrich Max Müller, who held the chair of philology at the University of Oxford, took exception:

      There is one difficulty which Mr. Darwin has not sufficiently appreciated. . . . There is between the whole animal kingdom on the one side, and man, even in his lowest state, on the other, a barrier which no animal has ever crossed, and that barrier is—Language. . . . If...

    • 3 Do Animals Have Language?
      (pp. 36-54)

      Having grown up on a farm, I suspect that the above quotation is an unwarranted slur on the gentle butterfly, but vocalization is ubiquitous among animals, including insects—and of course ourselves. It has therefore seemed natural to suppose that human language must have evolved from animal calls. Only in fiction, though, do animals actually speak and hold meaningful conversations. Most examples, fromWinnie the Poohto the Beatrix Potter books, are written for children, but my favorite example comes from a short story entitledTobermory, by Saki, who made a brief appearance in the previous chapter. Tobermory is a...

    • 4 How Language Evolved from Hand to Mouth
      (pp. 55-80)

      The 1866 ban by the Linguistic Society of Paris on all discussions of the evolution of language seems to have had a prolonged effect. The main difficulty, it seems, was (and to some extent still is) the widespread belief that language is uniquely human, so that there is no evidence to be gained from the study of nonhuman animals. This meant that language must have evolved some time since the split of the hominins from the great apes. In the nineteenth century, at least, there was little to be gleaned from fossil evidence, and any theory on how language evolved...

  6. PART 2 Mental Time Travel

    • 5 Reliving the Past
      (pp. 83-99)

      InHidden Lives, a memoir of her family, the British novelist Margaret Forster describes herself in the first five years of her life in the third person. From the age of five, however, she switches to the first person. She explains the switch as follows:

      It was at this time, in 1943, when I was five, that my own real memory begins, real in the sense that I can not only recall actual events but can propel myself back into them, be there again in my Aunt Jean’s room-and-kitchen, standing by the window at the back of the buildings, staring...

    • 6 About Time
      (pp. 100-111)

      One important aspect of episodic memory is that it locates events in time. Although we are often not clear precisely when remembered events happened, we usually have at least a rough idea, and this is sufficient to give rise to the general understanding of time itself. Episodic memory allows us to travel back in time, and consciously relive previous experiences. Thomas Suddendorf called thismental time travel, and made the important suggestion that mental time travel allows us to imagine future events as well as remember past ones.¹ It also adds to the recursive possibilities; I might remember, for example,...

    • 7 The Grammar of Time
      (pp. 112-128)

      Jane Goodall, who knows chimpanzees better than anyone else does, was recently asked how close chimpanzees are to humans. She replied:

      What’s the one obvious thing we humans do that they don’t do? Chimps can learn sign language, but in the wild, so far as we know, they are unable to communicate about things that aren’t present. They can’t teach what happened 100 years ago, except by showing fear in certain places. They certainly can’t plan for five years ahead. If they could, they could communicate with each other about what compels them to indulge in their dramatic displays. To...

  7. PART 3 Theory of Mind

    • 8 Mind Reading
      (pp. 131-150)

      Many people believe that thoughts can be transferred from one person to another by means other than the senses. This is known as telepathy. In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research was established in London to investigate telepathy and other so-called psychic phenomena, such as ghosts, trance states, levitations, mediums, and communication with the dead. Its first president was Henry Sidgwick, later professor of moral philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, and other distinguished members included the experimental physicist Lord Rayleigh, the philosopher Arthur Balfour, who became prime minister of England from 1902 to 1905, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author...

    • 9 Language and Mind
      (pp. 151-166)

      In his novelNineteen Eighty-four, Orwell painted a grim picture of a future in which the ultimate technology for thought control was the language Newspeak, which could render impossible all modes of thought other than those required by Ingsoc (English Socialism). We have struggled past 1984, but political life, at least, is still replete with euphemisms designed to make us think differently. Thuscollateral damageis a way of referring to the killing of innocent people during war,underprivilegedmeans poor,specialmeans handicapped,liquidatemeans murder. An extreme movement known as General Semantics was established in 1933 by Count...

  8. PART 4 Human Evolution

    • 10 The Recurring Question
      (pp. 169-180)

      So spoke Hamlet. Admiration of our own species is certainly one of our characteristics, although not all authors have been so fulsome. Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French mathematician, had a more jaundiced view:

      What a chimera, then, is man! what a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy! A judge of all things, feeble worm of the earth, depositary of the truth, cloaca of uncertainty and error, the glory and the shame of the universe!¹

      Glory or shame, we cannot but marvel at our human achievements, although they may ultimately strangle us...

    • 11 Becoming Human
      (pp. 181-207)

      We are, let’s face it, great apes, sharing most recent common ancestry with the chimpanzee and bonobo. The other great apes are the gorilla and orangutan. We set ourselves on the track to humanity some six or seven million years ago, when the so-called hominins¹ split from the line leading to modern chimpanzees and bonobos. It was a not altogether successful venture, since nearly 20 hominin species have been identified from fossil remains, but only one species of hominin remains on the planet—see figure 12. That species isHomo sapiens. Lucky you.

      In this book, I have argued that...

    • 12 Becoming Modern
      (pp. 208-220)

      Homo sapiensemerged in Africa about halfway through the period known as the Middle Stone Age, which began around 300,000 years ago and ended around 50,000 years ago. Earlysapiensmay have been anatomically modern, but in terms of culture and technology was probably not greatly distinguishable from other large-brained members of the genusHomo. These included the Neandertals, who died out in Europe some 30,000 years ago, apparently eclipsed by the arrival, some 20,000 years earlier, of our own predatory species.¹ We do not know of course what the Neandertals might have achieved had they survived, butHomo sapiens...

    • 13 Final Thoughts
      (pp. 221-226)

      So began Orwell’s famous novel. Thirteen is a beautiful harmonious number. You can fit 12 equal-sized spheres around a central sphere, making thirteen in all, and now is the time to return to that central sphere. But my recursive mind thinks it knows what you’re probably thinking: Chapter 13 of Darwin’s bookThe Descent of Manis for the birds,¹ and the thirteenth Tarot card is Death.

      Charles Darwin wrote:

      The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 227-252)
  10. References
    (pp. 253-280)
  11. Index
    (pp. 281-291)