Review: Wengrow, The origins of monsters

Wengrow, David. 2014. The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 160 pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

It is tantalizing to ponder: does Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saturate popular imaginings because of some inherent human cognitive bias? What is the appeal of griffins, sphinxes and centaurs? Do these fantastical creatures somehow “stick” in the human imagination? In his recent book The Origins of Monsters, David Wengrow examines the archaeological record for an answer to this serious question regarding modern human cognition. Can an empirical investigation of the visual record for the cultural transmission of fantastical creatures develop a “unified understanding of culture as the product of both history and cognition?”

“Monsters” are composite figures, while “composites” are an amalgam of physical traits and appendages that form a creature that does not exist organically:

The total bodily form of that species is absent from the resulting depiction, but its presence is signified, nonetheless, by the special disposition of elements around the body that belongs to an animal of a different kind. The outcome is a new kind of figure that is sui generis, imaginary, but nevertheless retains a certain basic coherence on the anatomical plane (p27).

Cognitive psychologists have suggested that the ability to conceive of composite beings “may have evolved in tandem with our capacity for complex social interaction” (p4). Wengrow rightly urges skepticism of these evolutionary claims, pointing out methodological issues, including the fact that infants are often used as the model for prehistoric human cognition. Wengrow prefers a materialist methodology that allows empirical comparison over geography and different time scales.

Drawing on work by Dan Sperber and Pascal Boyer, Wengrow applies an epidemiological approach, which seeks to describe cognitive capacities and constraints through analysis of the cultural transmission of representations. The methodology for this approach calls for the study of the cultural transmission of representations at the level of populations, which may then be accounted for at the individual level. Key to the inquiry at hand is the argument of evolutionary psychologists that humans are hard-wired for classification of living kinds of animals and plants (p5). The result according to this argument is an intuitive, folk-biology. According to Sperber, “supernatural beings ‘blatantly violate the kind of basic expectations that are delivered by domain-specific cognitive mechanisms” (p23). It is the combination of these violations with an otherwise expected form that attracts attention. According to Boyer, the representations of supernatural beings “are more likely…to be easily acquired, memorized, and transmitted” (p23).

Visual representations of composite figures are, Wengrow argues, a productive site for an epidemiological approach because they are: (1) grounded in material culture and not bounded by the domain of language (2) culturally and historically distinctive (3) representations of supernatural beings. First, Wengrow notes that the epidemiological approach often relies on analysis of language-based representations. For composite figures, transmission may occur without language. More importantly, representations of composite figures appear on artifacts whose movement and stylistic influences can be empirically traced. Material culture can demonstrate technological innovations and also “transformations in modes of thought” (p3). This breadth of information allows Wengrow to incorporate the situ of institutions and cultural practices in his analysis.

Wengrow reconsiders the “monumental” works of art historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff, in comparing composites from China to Scandinavia from the early Upper Paleolithic through the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Wengrow finds the popular view that composite figures have been a common creation of anatomically modern humans to be unsubstantiated by the archaeological record. Composite figures “fail spectacularly to catch on across the many millennia of innovation in visual culture that precede the onset of urban life” (p51). In contrast, composite figures regularly appear alongside the development of urban settlements and the growth of a class of social elites. Here, the inclusion of maps and charts would have bolstered the author’s argument. Readers unfamiliar with Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements may find Wengrow’s argument difficult to follow and evaluate.

Composites cross chronological and cultural boundaries, he claims, through three modes of transmission: transformative, integrative and protective. Transformative transmission occurs at a time of rapid structural change in a society and a composite form is adopted from an outside source. The exotic form reinforces rank and status for those able to secure access to prestige goods. Integrative transmission entails the blending of elements from multiple sources such that the results cannot be attributed to any particular source. The goods embody a “desire for mutual recognition and integration across tense cultural boundaries” (p95). There may have been competitive goods exchanges among leaders. Protective transmission would take place when composites were borrowed or imagined for purposes of ritual use as protection against threats to household and person. The standardized production of goods for ritual purposes suggest the existence of the complex cultural framework of an imperial state.

The risk and uncertainty of encounters with the “other,” according to Wengrow, make composite figures more salient for societies with trade routes and urban settlements. Wengrow explains:

Each [mode of transmission] is associated to some degree with environments of heightened risk and uncertainty, where failure to properly negotiate boundaries can lead to catastrophic consequences (p106).

Wengrow finds political economy to be the key influence as to whether a society creates and/or adopts composite figures. Once societies reach a level of complexity that instantiates a new whole-parts modularity, the composite figure encapsulates “the bureaucratic imperative to confront the world … as an imaginary realm made up of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable, commensurable, and combinable parts” (p73). This line of argument could be criticized as functionalist.

The Origins of Monsters raises a strong critique of Sperber’s 1996 article “Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought?” If supernatural beings are “sticky” as Boyer and Sperber argue, why did they not take hold in the archaeological record earlier? I find the argument persuasive that social complexity co-locates with the adoption of composite figures. I don’t see the evidence presented as causal, but Wengrow makes a strong case for the applicability of comparative, historical data to cognitive studies.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8:143-169.

Review: Wynn and Coolidge, How to think like a Neandertal

Wynn, Thomas, and Frederick Coolidge. 2012. How to think like a Neandertal. New York: Oxford University Press.  224 pp.

Reviewed by Summar Saad (Wayne State University)

With so many false representations and stereotypes floating around about the Neandertals, it’s difficult to know what is fact and what is myth. Armed with minimal archaeological evidence and their knowledge of primates and modern hunter-gatherers, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge attempt to reconstruct Neandertal cognitive abilities, sometimes very indirectly, based on their diet, hunting strategies, and technology. While the book is an exercise in speculation, Wynn and Coolidge treat the Neandertal story in an engaging, witty way that rethinks the notion that modern humans are light-years apart when it comes to their cognitive abilities.

Wynn and Coolidge begin by examining the skeletal remains of recovered Neandertal fossils to recreate the Neandertal image – big-brained, stocky, muscular, barrel chested – and illustrate the rough lives they lived based on their injuries and likely causes of death. By doing this they are able to deduce three personality traits that Neandertals possibly exhibited: 1) tenacity or dogged perception, 2) wariness, and 3) love (p.20). Throughout the rest of the book, Wynn and Coolidge continue to build on these personality traits, growing the list to nine, to include unimaginative, dogmatic, and even xenophobic. Central to their discussion is their evidence of the “Caveman Diet” and stone tool technology. In showing what kinds of game Neandertals hunted and how, they are able to ask how they thought and planned. What follows is a thought experiment, in which Wynn and Coolidge tease apart the cognitive functions necessary in negotiating landscapes and setting up ambushes, which they argue require long-term memory, communication of tactical information, and a working memory.

In chapter 3, “The Zen and Art of Spear Making,” Wynn and Coolidge discuss the Neandertal spears which employed two important techniques: stone knapping, to make the famous “Levallois point”, and the hafting or gluing of the spear point to the shaft. The knapping technique they employed, in which they prepared a core in a way that would allow them to knock off a triangular flake, they argue, requires embodied cognition or thinking through the stone. “For an experienced artisan, tools are extensions of perception, and hence extensions of the mind” (p.57). Following an in-depth discussion of technical thinking and mastery from blacksmithing to music to sports, Wynn and Coolidge assert that modern technical thinking is very similar to how Neanderthals thought through their stone tools. Neandertals, however, apart from using glue to assemble their spears, did not innovate like modern humans, perhaps partly because of their lower working memory but more likely because of social networks, which Wynn and Coolidge argue, were not effective for the social transfer of knowledge and expertise.

From chapter 4 onward, the discussion takes an even more speculative turn. Making inferences about cognitive abilities based on known hunting and technology strategies are one thing, but making them about family life, humor, dreaming, and personality is a whole different matter. Their analysis of Neandertal symbolic life and language is somewhat less presumptuous. While there is evidence for minimal corpse burial, the use of fire, and the presence of ochre and manganese dioxide possibly used for coloring something, Wynn and Coolidge conclude that Neandertal life was not immersed in symbols (p.121). They also conclude that Neandertals did in fact have speech, as evidenced by their expanded Broca’s area in the brain as well as the presence of the human FOXP2 gene found in DNA sequencing. However, their language was much different than modern language in that it was situated in task-relevant contexts with limited productivity. Wynn and Coolidge end by inviting the reader to imagine what life might be like for a Neandertal living in a period dominated by modern humans and a modern human living with Neandertals. The outcome, we can only speculate, does not look very promising for modern humans.

It’s fascinating to think that Wynn and Coolidge’s conclusions of Neandertal life came simply from knowing where Neandertals lived and traveled, the tools that they made, what game they hunted and how, and how they buried their dead. Sometimes Wynn and Coolidge voyage so deep into a single story you almost forget that it’s mostly conjecture, and that Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. Despite this, How to think like a Neandertal is an entertaining read that does offer some interesting perspectives on what the cognitive abilities of our shared ancestor homo heidlebergensis might have looked like. It also provides a useful methodological approach through which to examine cognitive archaeological questions for which we do not have all the evidence to answer. Aside from this, there seems to be no evidence to back Wynn and Coolidge’s often-frustrating claims about the behavior and culture of our prehistoric cousins who lived between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Review: Malafouris, How things shape the mind

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How things shape the mind: a theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 321 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Thomas (Wayne State University)

In How Things Shape the Mind, the archaeologist Lambros Malafouris outlines his Material Engagement Theory, which developed along the lines of inquiry initiated by Colin Renfrew in his work on measurement and weights. Renfrew, thus, provides a useful introduction to Malafouris’ book. In essence, material engagement is a synthetic approach of a few important developments in the archaeological study of materiality, neurology, and cognition toward understanding how humans engage with material artifacts in a way that constructs the human mind.

Malafouris asks that we take material culture seriously, and he’s in good company. Seldom does one encounter an archaeologist or anthropologist who doesn’t claim to be taking this important step away from underappreciating materiality. The familiar claim is that since Rene Descartes, Western science has not sufficiently apprehended the inextricable interactive connectedness between what was formerly erroneously dichotomized as body and mind. In truth, there is no such distinction and many attempts have been made to articulate just what sort of phenomena exists as “mind” that is continuous with the material world. Malafouris’ attempt here is to integrate some of those prior attempts into a coherent whole that explains how the mind is an emergent property of particular interactions. He does this with three moves.

The first necessary step is to advance the theory of extended mind. This theory, developed from the philosopher Andy Clark, is expanded by Malafouris to include insights from the closely related cognitive approaches of distributed, embodied, and situated cognition. The principal contribution of Malafouris here is in providing empirical and historical evidence for the ways in which material artifacts are not merely aids to an internal cognitive process, but are in fact integral to the process itself. In short, the extended mind posits that the mind is not an internal processing device that is ontologically extricable from the elements of content, but rather, “mind” describes the process wherein external materials are constitutive of the process such that there is no process of which to speak absent the external materials. The example Malafouris uses are the Mycenaean Linear B tablets that encoded memory. They function not as reminders, or tools, but rather as external mechanisms of a memory process that requires perception and percept.

The second required argument is that of enactive signification. Enactive signification refers to the mode of signification wherein the meaning of some sign or act is located in the interactive process itself, and is not symbolically encoded in the sign as a representation. Readers familiar with Peirce and Heidegger will find this argument convincing, and this is due in no small part to Malafouris’ presentation. Malafouris accomplishes this by appealing largely to empirical archaeological evidence wherein he demonstrates that numeracy was not merely encoded onto clay material as though it were a recording of a mental process, but rather, the clay itself acts as a means of providing signification for its enabling a qualitatively different cognitive process than what might be neurologically inherent prior to such material engagement. The manipulation of clay permits familiar perceptual processes to manage greater degrees of complex computation. The ability of the clay to do this resides in the process of manipulation such that it is no mere recording device, but a computational device.

Finally, Malafouris asserts the agency of materials. This agency is essential for supporting the thesis that not only do humans rely upon a tangible, manipulable world for cognition, but that the materials themselves play an active role in structuring cognition, and thus humans. Not merely do these materials structure a situated cognitive process, but they structure diachronically the neurological and physical substrate of the human insofar as they co-develop the means by which the world is intelligible.

In all, Malafouris’ book will be sympathetically received by any reader familiar with, and convinced by, the phenomenological approach to understanding ontology. Further, Malafouris does quite a bit here to ground the phenomenological theory in much-needed evidence in order to make it comprehensible to the empirically minded. That said, Malafouris admits that his isn’t a positivist perspective, and so making predictive explanations is theoretically outside the purview of his project. This may prove frustrating to those readers who feel inclined to test some of these theories; of course this is the case with much of socio-cultural theory. At last, Malafouris’ crusade against Descartes and those models of cognition reliant upon abstract symbolic processing may appear to be a bit theatrical and slightly made of straw for the reason that few readers following the scholarship of cognition and materiality still find enthusiastic advocates the disembodied mind; the problem is less of theory than of application.

Review: Saxe, Cultural development of mathematical ideas

Saxe, Geoffrey B. 2012. Cultural development of mathematical ideas.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 393 pp.

Reviewed by Summar Saad (Wayne State University)

In Cultural Development of Mathematical Ideas, Geoffrey B. Saxe takes an ambitious approach in exploring the cultural and cognitive origins of mathematical thought. Using an extensive number of experiments oriented towards the particular practices of the Oksapmin of Papua New Guinea, Saxe demonstrates that individual action in relation to collective activities such as economic exchange and schooling is the “locus of both the reproduction and the alteration of cultural phenomena, whether collective practices of daily life or cultural forms of representation” (p.191). His conceptual framework, which follows Sperber and Hirschfeld’s critique of the conceptualization of culture as fixed and bounded entities rather than a “property that representations, practices, and artifacts possess to the extent that they are caused by population-wide distribution processes (p.17),” seeks to illustrate the heterogeneity and permeability of cultural and cognitive processes through activity using synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

In Part I, Saxe begins by framing the scope of his study using relevant scholarly work on the area of cognition and mathematical thought, and details his time in the field in 1978, 1980, and 2001. His approach interrogates three genetic processes: 1) microgenesis, the transformation of the body-part form into a vehicle to represent values numerically, 2) sociogenesis, which involves the microgenetic activities of multiple individuals at multiple sites that, collectively, constitute a process in which representational forms and functions are reproduced and altered in a community over time, and 3) ontogenesis, which involves the shifts in form-function relations in activity over the course of an individual’s development (p.29). Using a number of helpful figures, Saxe also unravels the specifics of the Oksapmin body-counting system where one begins counting with the thumb on one hand of the body and continues across to the opposite side ending at the little finger. Familiarity with this system is important for his investigation into how this system changes through time. By this point, the readers are ready to enter the field, where Saxe attempts to tease out the historical and social processes at play in the way the Oksapmin respond to mathematical challenges in collective activities under shifting conditions.

In Part II, Saxe traces the history of Papua New Guinea from a pre-contact period where people traded commodities including a shell currency (bonang) and through the sustained contact of the Oksapmin communities with Western societies, which led to the proliferation of trade stores that supported cash as the universal medium for exchange. Focusing on the activity of economic exchange, Saxe asserts that “with increasing participation in the money economy associated with Oksapmin cohorts, we find a shift from external correspondences that serve numerical functions to internal correspondences that serve arithmetical functions” (p.95). Saxe then shifts his focus from knowledge of Oksapmin body-part counting and Tok Pisin representational forms to look at the semiotic forms people use to represent the objects of economic exchange. What he discovers is that over time, as people began using the body system to quantify currency, reciprocally the currency system became incorporated into the structure of the body-counting system. Ultimately Saxe demonstrates that cognitive processes exhibit uniformity and variation in a single period as well as unity and discontinuity over historical time.

In Part III, Saxe reviews the transformation of schooling in Oksapmin beginning in the early 1960s and following the introduction of “Western schooling,” Bible school, and community schooling. Rather than conceptualizing schooling as a direct cause of cognitive development, Saxe focuses on the dynamics of the reproduction and alteration of the forms of numerical representation and the functions they serve as students and teachers participate in collective practices of classroom life (p. 194). He establishes the ways in which Oksapmin children reproduce the body form as they solve arithmetical problems in the same way that they produce variants in the body form, “inadvertently altering the use of the system to serve new functions (p.236).” With recent educational reforms, he notes a shift in the teaching of mathematics using only English to using Tok Pisin and Oksapmin as well. Saxe observes that with this shift came others including the use of stones in classroom computations as well as a developing facility with Hindu-Arabic-based algorithms.

In Part IV, Saxe brings the discussion full circle and returns to the implications of his findings with regards to his conceptual framework. In his analysis, he points to three key properties that emerge in form-function relations: conventionality, hybridity, and instrumentality. Using parallels from evolutionary biology, he also takes up the question of how form-function relations develop and why. Though not an anthropologist, Saxe deserves great credit for his ethnographic treatment of this serious cognitive question. Saxe successfully presents an alternative methodological approach to our understandings of culture and cognition that does not treat them as independent but rather as an interplay of the two. His work offers great insight into cognition and culture as processes rooted in a multiplicity of contexts and activities. Although this book covers a lot of ground, and is sometimes very abstract, the organization and flow of the content is seamless and easy to follow. Saxe also takes great care to account for any threats to validity, and while each of the eighteen individual studies he conducts are not without their flaws; the overall picture shines clearly at the end: culture and cognition are processes interwoven and linked through activity.

Review: Ingold, Lines: a brief history

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. 186pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

Get out your walking stick and your comfortable shoes as you accompany Tim Ingold on this intellectual wayfarers’ journey exploring the “comparative anthropology of the line” (p1). In his path-breaking book, Lines: A Brief History, Ingold guides readers through a unique theoretical model that explores the interconnected and enmeshed lines of people and things. Ingold argues things and people are the sum of interconnected lines; to study “things and people is to study the lines they are made of” (p5). Lines and their relationships to surfaces offer a provocative frame from which to consider questions central to anthropology.

Anthropologists will find themselves familiar with “lines”: lines of descent, lines of story, lines of travel, lines of movement, lines of music, and so on. Lines: A Brief History challenges established conventions, such as kinship charts that use line to connect the dots, to advocate a theoretical approach that accounts for movement, growth and interrelationship. This challenge is animated by a key theme used throughout the book – the distinction between wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring describes a way of being in that the “traveler and his line are one and the same” (p 76). The path of the wayfarer is where life is lived. Drawing on Gibson, Ingold states that the wayfarer’s path is where knowledge is forged along the way. Transport lines are destination-oriented. They are connectors. The traveler becomes a passenger fighting against time to reach a destination. Transport lines are teleological. Ingold enjoins the reader to become wayfarer, engaging in the journey through chapters building up knowledge as one “goes along” forsaking the impulse for a “built up” conclusion.

In Lines, Ingold commences with the question how did speech become separated from song? He explores the historical relationship between speech, song, writing and musical notation. Before the printing press, both written text and song were performative as were the processes of inscription. Written notation functioned as mnemonic artifact rather than a script or score that ensured a faithful record or copy. Using comparative examples from medieval history, present day Shipibo-Conibo people in Peru, and Japanese noh theater, Ingold argues that the words “speak” to readers not as a representation of sound but in the manner of synesthesia actual sound. Writing could not be accurately conceptualized as a “visual representation of verbal sound” (p27).

Both musical notation and writing involve lines and surfaces. “To read a manuscript… is to follow the trails laid down by a hand that joins the voice in pronouncing the words of a text” (p28). The advent of printing disconnected manual gesture from the graphic output and thereby disconnected the voice (embodiment) from the page of print. Printed works became static documents. What heralded this transformation was a “fundamental change” in the conception of line and its relationship to the surface. The inscribed printed lines (words) changed the manuscript surface from a landscape to be explored into a surface that is fixed and bounded.

Ingold proposes a taxonomy of lines. The two primary types are threads and traces. Threads have a surface and can be made by human hands, or not (i.e. roots, spider webs, yarn, fishing-net, violin strings). Traces are any enduring mark left in a solid surface. Traces can be additive or reductive, or neither (i.e. worn path, chalk on blackboard, stick in sand, snail trail). Ghostly lines have no physical manifestation (i.e. constellations, survey lines, time-zones, borders). Ingold notes that the distinction between ghostly lies and real lines is “decidedly problematic” (p50). The differentiation may privilege a Western perspective. The meridian lines of Chinese medicine may be real according to a Chinese practitioner but considered ghostly (imagined) to a Western observer. Ingold does not offer any guidance on how to resolve this conundrum. He concedes that the entire line taxonomy is imperfect and potentially confusing.

Surfaces are not simply a “taken-for-granted backdrop” (p39). Whether regarded as a landscape, a space to be colonized, the skin of the body or a mirror of the mind, the conception of the surface deeply affects its relationship to line. Threads transforming into traces create surfaces (p61). For instance, knitting constitutes a surface as the knotted threads form a single surface leaving traces of the composition still visible. Traces transforming into threads dissolve surfaces. To explicate, Ingold engages with Alfred Gell’s argument that apotropaic patterns are perceived to lure demonic forces to a particular surface by their fascination with an intricate pattern. Gell’s aerial-view perspective was mistaken. Ingold convincingly argues, the trap is not one of fascination, but rather, the lines drawn cease to be a surface and become threads that trap the demon. This example demonstrates the potential explanatory power of “a comparative anthropology of the line.”

Can lines help us understand the ruptures of modernity? In the final chapter, Ingold explores the implications of “straight” lines. Straight lines are associated with moral uprightness, quantitative explanations, reason and dignity. Somewhat parallel to the metaphor of wayfinding/transport, the “workmanship of risk” has been displaced in modern society by the “workmanship of certainty.” An implement of certainty, modern CAD design embodies no movement or gesture. The straight line, the line of certainty, has become an icon of modernity (p167). This is where ruptures occur. We are reminded that fragmentation can create passages.

Sections of this book are somewhat opaque and/or vague. Given the authors concluding statements we must accept that at some of these “loose ends” are intentional (p170). I’ve already mentioned that the taxonomy of line and surface have much room for elaboration. I’ll mention just one other example here. In the Introduction (p3), Ingold argues that if we envision evolution as a tangle of enmeshed intra-human and inter-species relationships “then our entire understanding of evolution would be irrevocably altered.” It is not clear if Ingold is referring to our proclivity to fix the human lives into “temporal moments.” Alternatively this passage could refer to the enmeshment of multiple species “continually [forging] their own and each other’s lives.” How either alternative would change our conception of evolution is not clear.

Lines: A Brief History invites the reader on a wayfarer’s journey. It’s not entirely clear where one is going or where one has been, but it is clear that one has grown along the way.

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