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Crossing the Symbolic Threshold: Communication, grammar and how we got so smart

Vyv Evans - Bangor University

In his landmark work, The Symbolic Species (1997), biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon argues that human intelligence was achieved by our forebears crossing what he terms the “symbolic threshold”.  Language, he argues, goes beyond the communicative systems of other species by moving from indexical reference –relations between vocalisations and objects/events in the world—to symbolic reference—the ability to develop relationships between words—paving the way for syntax. 

But something is still missing from this picture.  In this talk, I argue that symbolic reference (in Deacon’s terms), was made possible by parametric knowledge: lexical units have a type of meaning, quite schematic in nature, that is independent of the objects/entities in the world that words refer to.  I sketch this notion of parametric knowledge, with detailed examples.  I also consider the interactional intelligence that must have arisen in ancestral humans, paving the way for parametric knowledge to arise.  And, I also consider changes to the primate brain-plan that must have co-evolved with this new type of knowledge, enabling modern Homo sapiens to become so smart.

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