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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

« What Evolved? (Part Two) | Main | Where Did Words Come From? »



You seem to be setting up joint attention as a social pressure that led to the evolution of speech.

But why not the other way around? Why not speech first and then that made joint attention possible?

I would argue that speech is required for joint attention of the kind you are referring to to take place. I think that's also the position of Daniel Dennett. Dennett argues that being able to put our thoughts into language allows those thoughts to be stored in memory. This allows us to think about our thoughts, to comtemplate and suffer, an ability he argues other species lack. Joint attention seems to fit in here since in order to carry out that act, one has to suppose what another's thoughts are and then think about those thoughts.

If indeed one of language's primary effects was to 'boostrap' our cognitive abilities by allow us to think about our thoughts, then it would seem language would have to precede joint attention (and note my use of 'language' here rather than speech, referring to the mental capability and not pronunciation).


"Why not speech first and then that made joint attention possible?"

Simply because joint attention is found in other species. It is demonstrably older than language, which was the point of Part 2.

The Dennett line of argument is too complex to argue here and deserves its own several postings, but I want to draw people's attention to the words "to contemplate and suffer." I will leave it to visitors decide for themselves whether other animals can suffer.


Just a note to say that unless those visitors are animal behavior researchers, there's no way they'd know whether animals can suffer. It's an empirical question that has to be (and has been) shown by controlled experiment.

I'd be interested to see your take on some of Dennet's stuff.


We're getting way off topic. Ethologists are in no better position than anyone else to say if animals suffer because suffering is a subjective experience not available to direct observation. Animals are regularly subject to a terrible number of experiences -- such as being eaten alive -- that in humans would bring immense suffering. I used to know a priest who insisted that animals did not feel pain the way we did because it carried no redemptive possibility and therefore was not something God would inflict on the animal world. Even in my religious period I thought that an extreme position and I still do.

Giorgio Marchetti

I can comment on this very interesting topic and on Bolles’ interesting observations only now because only recently have I had the chance to read them.

(fortunately, Bolles keeps open the possibility to comment on old posts!)

Primates had certainly to undergo some very important transformation, such as those indicated by Bolle (sympathy, a capacity to share attention in a wider group, to be able to pay attention to the thoughts of others).

In my opinion, however, all this (or at least, the capacity to pay attention to the thoughts and ideas of others) requires a more substantial and fundamental transformation.

Let’s first make some preliminary considerations.

The main aim of language/words/speech (as we know and use language today) is to allow us to share our ideas, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and so on, with the other human beings, with ourselves, and sometimes with other kinds of creatures and beings (plants, animals, God, the wall – to talk with the wall -, etc.). Generally speaking, we can say that language/words/speech give us the possibility to share our “experiences” with other beings (and, conversely, to share the other beings’ experience).

The experience language/words/speech give us the possibility to share can be of various kinds: sensory or perceptual (someone says to us: “Look at that man!”, and then we turn, look and really see that man), imaginal (“Try to imagine the following”, and we imagine what the speaker describes), of a memory kind (“Do you remember what we did when we used to go there? It was really a beautiful time!”, and we remember, see the past actions through the eyes of memory, etc.), of a very abstract kind (“If A then B”, “The theory of the evolution states that …” etc), mystical, etc.

How can language/words/speech give us the possibility to have and share all these kinds of experiences? In my opinion, thanks to the fact that language/words/speech pilot attention. Piloting somebody’s attention means and implies first of all – at least in my theory – making somebody’s consciously experience something: namely, what the words/speech mean.

A peculiarity of (human) language/words/speech is that we can experience the meaning of a word/speech even without necessarily experiencing all the sensory/perceptual experiences the word/speech can refer to: I mean: we can understand perfectly well the words “red” or “cheese” even without having (when listening to what the speaker says) any physical or sensory experience of red or cheese.

(Probably, we had these sensory/perceptual experiences the first time we heard these words. Moreover, if, when we hear these words, we have enough time to think about what they imply, we still have sensory experiences of red and cheese. But, strictly speaking, it is not necessary that, in order to understand a speech where these words are used, we have these sensory experiences. Consider also the fact that we can understand words that do not refer to any thing real, physical, or of perceptual/sensory kind, such as “all”, “and”, “same”, etc.).

Well, if this is the main function of language/words/speech (to make somebody consciously experience something: namely, what the words/speech mean), and if we can consciously experience meanings (of words and speech) without necessarily having also to physically (I mean, by or five senses) experience what words/speech could actually refer to (the colour red, the taste of cheese), then a fundamental transformation had to occur in evolution.

This transformation implied for primates to be able to detach themselves from (to abstract away from) the immediacy of the sensory and perceptual world.

This makes sense in evolutionary terms. It makes an organism free itself from the contingency, immediacy of the physical world. While very primitive organisms heavily depend on the environment, evolved organisms (such as humans) are (relatively) independent from the environment (and they tend to acquire higher and higher degrees of freedom).

But to detach oneself from the physical world, one has to be able to develop a form of “internal world” that can be shaped, formed, changed, and so at will. A world that has its own rules and that is independent of the external one. This world is our mind.

How could develop such internal world? In my opinion, the most important step was the possibility to focus one’s attention not so much on the object/being of the environment referred to by the sign (that is, what a sign immediately point and refer to in the environment), as on the essential attentional operations that always and invariably (that is, independently of the specific time, place, conditions of perceptions and observations, etc) characterize the conscious experience elicited by that object/being. These essential attentional operations are precisely those which, once you perform them again, give you the possibility to consciously experience, firstly, the meaning of the word/speech, and, secondly, the actual, physical object/being (either as a real perception, a mental image, a memory or something else) referred to by the word/speech.

Once primates developed such an ability (to detach themselves from the immediacy of the environment), they could build up an internal code (based on attentional operations) independent of external world/environment. By means of this internal code, they could subsequently develop an internal world (our mind) which made thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc. possible.

Giorgio Marchetti

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