Terrence W. Deacon | Adapted to a Symbolic Niche?

Terrence William Deacon (born 1950) is an American Neuroanthropologist (Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, Harvard University 1984). He taught at Harvard for eight years, relocated to Boston University in 1992, and is currently Professor of Anthropology and member of the Cognitive Science faculty at the University of California, Berkeley.

Prof. Deacon’s theoretical interests include the study of evolution-like processes at multiple levels, including their role in embryonic development, neural signal processing, language change, social processes, and focusing especially on how these different processes interact and depend on each other. He has long stated an interest in developing a scientific semiotics (particularly biosemiotics) that would contribute to both linguistic theory and cognitive neuroscience.

Deacon’s research combines human evolutionary biology and neuroscience, with the aim of investigating the evolution of human cognition. His work extends from laboratory-based cellular-molecular neurobiology to the study of semiotic processes underlying animal and human communication, especially language and language origins. His neurobiological research is focused on determining the nature of the human divergence from typical primate brain anatomy, the cellular-molecular mechanisms producing this difference, and the correlations between these anatomical differences and special human cognitive abilities, again, particularly language.

His 1997 book, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain is widely considered a seminal work in the subject of evolutionary cognition. His approach to semiotics, thoroughly described in the book, is fueled by a career-long interest in the ideas of the late 19th-century American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. In it, he uses the metaphors of parasite and host to describe language and the brain, respectively, arguing that the structures of language have co-evolved to adapt to their brain hosts.

His 2011 book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, explores the properties of life, the emergence of consciousness, and the relationship between evolutionary and semiotic processes. The book speculates on how properties such as information, value, purpose, meaning, and end-directed behavior emerged from physics and chemistry. Critics of the book argue that Deacon has drawn heavily from the works of Alicia Juarrero and Evan Thompson without providing full citations or references, but a UC Berkeley investigation exonerated Deacon.

In contrast to the arguments presented by Juarrero in Dynamics of Action (1999, MIT Press) and by Thompson in Mind in Life (2007, Belknap Press and Harvard University Press), Deacon argues that life- or mind-like properties only emerge from a higher-order reciprocal relationship between self-organizing processes.

23 responses to “Terrence W. Deacon | Adapted to a Symbolic Niche?

  1. Fascinating how a wild bird acquires the ability to produce song characteristic of its species. Not hard-wired, not learned by listening to conspecifics sing, but by listening to itself. The juvenal bird produces a song, listens to the song it produced, does a pattern-matching comparison of its own song with a species-specific song template stored neurally, then gradually modifies its own song to match the template. The contrast with domesticated birds systematically bred for color was striking, where the genetic internal template-matching protocol tends to degrade over successive generations and is replaced by a social learning protocol. Deacon contends that homo sapiens is a species that domesticated itself, replacing the prototypical grunts and cackles and sobs universal to the species with learned flexible languages.

    Also an interesting observation about how language, a form of procedural memory acquired and compiled through repetition, is deployed by humans to facilitate episodic memory of one-off events. Distinct past episodes are embedded in a network of associated events, people, situations, and sequences. Language helps to reconstruct the embedding network, and thereby the episode itself, through the production of narrative.

    • not sure if he has read Deleuze and co. but the point of difference to some degree is that language (writ large) gives us powers of virtuality not available to other critters.
      if yer proposing a sort of structuralism i can’t buy into that kind of archive-fever dream of language (or our acts of re-membering for that matter) but maybe when you say “reconstruct” you mean deconstruct?

      • I’m not sure I understand your objection. Reconstructing is what Deacon proposes toward the end of his talk, though I can’t say without relistening whether he uses the term. It’s near the end of the recording. To reconstruct, where remembering is an act of assembling an entire context, is contrasted with retrieval, where episodic memories are stored as discrete objects indexed in the archives. Neural scans support the idea that an episodic memory is assembled from distributed neural firings rather than pulled from a local storage site.

      • that’s helpful (always tricky getting things clear in these little response boxes), yes to the assembling for current interests/contexts (so as you say not retrieval, there is no storage in brains) what I doubt ( and so my question mark in the title) is the “entire context” bit, I think he misses the extent to which we are extended-minding our ways thru the world, perhaps he’s too indebted to Peirce and semiotics?

      • The “entire context” — Deacon asks his audience to remember what they had for dinner last Saturday. This is a discrete episode, unless one always eats the same thing for dinner every Saturday. Pulling up the answer to the question might require pulling in contextual cues: was I at home or on the road? did we go out to eat or stay home? what was I doing on Saturday before dinner? who cooked? I.e., what I ate for dinner on Saturday was embedded in a larger context; reconstructing that context can help illumine the specific events unfolding within that context.

        “Extended mind” would be useful for remembering what I had for dinner on Saturday if I wrote it down or took a photo of it, rather than being forced to rely on my on-board neural apparatus. As a matter of fact, my wife did take a photo of what we had for dinner on Saturday (she’s been documenting all of our dinners photographically lately). Some other less explicit extended-mind reminder could also help bring back the required information. E.g., the taste of madeleines and tea could remind me of a long-past snack. Deacon is emphasizing such an environmental mnemonic aid isn’t just a stimulus-response trigger for remembrances of things past but comprises material for reassembling the context in which those lost times unfolded.

      • but does the larger context exist (do we have, exist in, symbolic niches?) or are we always already in the midst of composing/bricolaging/assembling/etc?

  2. I’m taking your parenthetical as your focus: do humans occupy or function within a symbolic context that exists independently of our actively constructing that context? Deacon addresses this question obliquely and speculatively at the very end of his talk. Spoken and written utterances are symbolic: how they sound or look isn’t what they mean; the verbal/written string points toward that which it symbolizes. So too with physical artifacts: a traffic light is an icon; it means not what it looks like but what it symbolizes. Do these symbolic meanings exist apart from the observer’s active joint participation in their construction? No, of course not. The symbolic niche is interactive, the meanings must be constructed even if those constructs are heavily determined by cultural consensus. But, Deacon proposes, humans are so habituated to functioning in environments heavily populated by artifacts whose meaning is something beyond itself that they tend to regard everything in their environment as symbolic, pointing toward some meaning other than itself. So, a coincidence must be a sign, a drought must be a judgment — as if the symbolic meanings are built into the world and need only be interpreted. It’s this tendency to infer objective meaning where there is none that must be recognized and reined in. I suspect we would both agree with Deacon here.

      • Can you elaborate on “grand ecology”, dmf? I’ll guess I’ll read Robbert’s “Ecology of Nature” paper to see if I can get what you’re after.

        Deacon’s projects tend to focus on tracing, at an incremental level and buttressed by empirical findings, plausible evolutionary trajectories that could have resulted in certain distinctively human abilities. That’s what I hear him doing in this talk, moving from the inflexible, stereotyped, innate calls of wild birds to the flexible, symbolic, socially learned calls of humans. It’s a pretty grand scheme in its own right, but I can see as a possibly grander — i.e., more general and abstract — theme the idea that a genetically hardwired trait that degrades in the absence of natural or artificial selection can open up space for adaptive flexibility. In Incomplete Nature, an ambitious treatment of the evolution of human cognitive ability, he proposes as a grander theme the idea that organisms can use constraints as a kind of perpetuum mobile, increasing complexity of organization and behavior without requiring additional energy inputs.

      • How about the Anthropocene — not just a niche but a global ecological epoch shaped by human manipulations.

        But now I’m lured into your line of inquiry, dmf, much as Luke is lured into the “fetch” game in the Cowley article you linked. Cowley’s method of detailed observational case study augments the usual experimental protocols. In the first sentence he stakes a claim for making a radical departure from the status quo: “Much is rotten in the ‘sciences’ of language and cognition.” Mostly he contends that aligning one’s own actions with another’s is a social and bodily activity more than it is a cognitive skill. He explicitly asserts that his approach contrasts with Tomasello’s. But pretty much everything that Cowley reports in his micro-investigation of the pre-linguistic Luke’s interactions with his mother accords nicely with Tomasello’s description of language acquisition, which unfolds largely in “joint attentional scenes” involving infant and adult triangulating on some external phenomenon or task — what Cowley calls “triadic activity” — and where gesture and gaze are the primary means of getting adult and kid “on the same page” relative to the focus of joint attention. By the end of the paper Cowley acknowledges the compatibility:

        “Through mutual gearing, using biomechanics, Luke becomes a player of intentional games. This, moreover, is entirely compatible with the developmentalist’s finding that qualitative change co-occurs with the emergence of triadic activity. What micro-investigations add is a method that, in this case, serves to generate hypotheses about proto-thinking and how babies use two brains to develop new forms of control.”

        I agree: observing the smallest incremental steps of development/learning/socialization in detail is an excellent method of generating hypotheses.

        I’ll give a look to your other link later.

      • hey JD, yeah I think these are very different ‘things’ that language/cognition/representation/etc isn’t a hyperobject ( to borrow a term) like say global-warming, just piecing this all together (don’t have a total theory) and trying to work thru the various angles/possibilities (as well as whatever else the day entails) thanks for the feedback, d.
        ps following two intuitions, one that concepts (like minds) don’t exist and 2nd that there is no such thing as Information (in the sense that we might have a science of).

      • The “Why Teleology Isn’t Dead” article focuses mostly on a book by Simon Conway Morris. His contention that, wherever life appears in the universe, evolution will inevitably follow the same path. The author notes that “Conway Morris has been criticized for subtitling his book ‘How the Universe Became Self Aware’.” Though Deacon is cited in the essay as offering scientific support for Morris’s ideas, I don’t see Deacon as pursuing that sort of universal teleological panpsychism at all. Morris’s project reminds me of a book I read about ten years ago upon recommendation of a blog commenter: Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life, by Paul Davies. As I recall Davies also takes the Hegelian turn toward cosmic self-awareness.

      • Regarding the nonexistence of ideas and information, I’m interested in this line of investigation as well. An idea about something is not the same as the thing it is about. The word “dog” is not a dog. A theory or hypothesis or narrative or algorithm or simulation: all of them share the same sort of nonreality. Then there are tangible material things like screwdrivers and paintings that, in their tool-ness and art-ness, seem infused by a similar sort of unreality. Humans seem to fuse the real and the imaginary in all sorts of ways.

      • I don’t think Deacon goes that far down the pan-telos tunnel (not that faithful a Peirce-ian) as well but there is a whole spectrum along those lines and he’s somewhere near the Whiteheadians when he strays too far from the lab. One sees varieties everywhere whether literal-minded talk of Ideologies, the Symbolic, etc.
        ah yeah misplaced concreteness is one of the rules of the day for most folks.
        on my to do list: http://www.axonsandaxioms.com/episode-25-inception-concepts/

      • I listened to the whole talk on Gibsonian information that you posted, but I’m not sure I followed it well enough (the speaker’s heavy accent degraded the info transmission) to comment directly on that thread. When Gibson says that the information is “out there,” it seems like he regards information as an objective feature of the environment. But he insists that information is an interactional aspect of a particular ecosystem, picked up not by passive sensory receptors but actively shaped by perceptual systems adapted to that ecosystem. Hence information for a human is not the same as information for a bat or a slug: they can all occupy the same environmental coordinates, but they don’t share the same ecosystem. That’s why Gibson talks mostly about “affordances” as the possibilities or opportunities or obstacles that the environment presents to particular organisms as they move around in the world. I suspect you know all this already, Dirk, but like that bird Deacon mentions it helps me to listen to myself in order to get it right.

        I’ve been writing something about the Gibsonian schema lately. About a month ago while running I tripped over the leading edge of a seismically uplifted slab of concrete, fell down, skinned and bruised myself:

        “The joints between slabs in the concrete sidewalk afford caution while I’m running, since the edges might indicate abrupt changes in the surface level that could trip me up. The sidewalk couldn’t care less if I fall; it’s not transmitting information to me about itself…”

      • on the run but quickly 2 things one i”ve been deepy endebted to jjG for decades (make great use of affordances/resistances/etc) but don’t buy this idea of information/exchange that he had, if you look (here and elsewhere) at andy clark and co. they are outlining a very sophisticated behavioralism that isn’t merely reactive (is highly proactive) but also doesn’t (or need not) get into anything like this sort of spooky mutualism/semiotics and all.
        2nd when i post stuff here it’s not an endorsement of rightness/correctness just patching together bits and pieces of themes of interest that have come up here and in our corner of the intertubes, cheers

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