Chomsky, universal grammar, and the cognisphere

In this Google Talk, Chomsky addresses a range of issues as he responds to questions. My interest here is in his discussion of the first question regarding his changing perspective on the concept of universal grammar. Chomsky explains that the current theory is that language developed 50K-100K years ago and that as such, whatever genetic mutation took place must have been fairly small. Specifically, he theorizes that something external to evolution, a principal of nature or "computational efficiency" allowed this small evolutionary change to have this dramatic effect. That small change, he says, was probably the capacity to carry out recursive enumeration, which basically means the ability to take two already constructed items, make a third item out of them, and continual that process iteratively.

In other words, the capacity to compose.

Now this is something I talk about at the beginning of The Two Virtuals as I think it is integral to understanding the role contemporary media networks play in cognition and subjectivity. Looking at anthropology and evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that the key is the recognition of the role of external conditions in the formation of language/symbolic behavior (and hence consciousness/subjectivity as we experience them). There’s a cognitive-informational crisis that results from an increasingly complicated set of social and technological contexts in which humans are operating. As I discuss in my book, this can be seen in the archaeological record.

What emerges from this crisis is termed a "creative explosion." However we might also think about it as the entry of humans into the cognisphere.   

Katherine Hayles writes

Expanded to include not only the Internet but also networked and programmable systems that feed into it, including wired and wireless data flows across the electro-magnetic spectrum, the cognisphere gives a name and shape to the globally interconnected cognitive systems in which humans are increasingly embedded. As the name implies, humans are not the only actors within this system; machine cognizers are crucial players as well. If our machines are ‘lively’ (as Haraway provocatively characterized them in the ‘Manifesto’), they are also more intensely cognitive than ever before in human history. (PDF)

What ought to be clear here is that computers networks have exponentially intensified our experience of the cognisphere. As Deleuze and Guattari show us in many ways and anyone can clearly see by watching water boil, sometimes intensification can lead to a symmetry-breaking condition. That said, on some level we might say that the cognisphere has always already existed. The symmetry-breaking intensifications that led to Chomsky’s minor evolutionary mutation and the creative explosion of symbolic behavior resulted in a network of distributed cognition. Thinking was literally distributed across the caves of Lascaux, for example. Was it distributed without translation or mutation? Of course not, but it was distributed nonetheless. And in many other places. By analogy, Lascaux is a kind of information processing device with storage, a processor, a display, and an interface. By analogy, so is the book.

It is hard to say whether we are undergoing a similar creative explosion now. (Actually, it’s not hard "to say," because people say it all the time.) Maybe we are undergoing a symmetry-breaking experience where we will mutate.

On the other hand, perhaps we are undergoing the same mutation as our paleolithic ancestors. As Chomsky notes, 50,000 years is an eye-blink in evolutionary time. Why not say that we are enmeshed in the same evolutionary moment? If homo sapiens are 200K years old and the homo genus is 2.5M years old, why not imagine that the measly 5,000 years of human written history is just a blip in the unfolding of our evolutionary entry into the cognisphere?

Thinking on this scale, might not our brief foray into speech and gesture (to reference Leroi-Gourhan) by an incidental, evolutionary side-effect on our journey toward a more fully-realized, networked, techno-cognition (where the prefix "techno" becomes redundant because there is no other cognition except for the technological kind)?

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