Having read George Steiner’s monograph I can confirm that I find it a most impressive achievement. This volume is on the very cutting edge of research in the field it addresses. Its author is certainly one of the most innovative writers on the subject of cognitive human evolution. Here he proposes a volume dedicated to the role of neoteny in hominin evolution, particularly its cultural dimensions. What is from my perspective the most impressive aspect of the work is the exploration of the role exograms played in this. Exograms, ‘memory traces’ stored outside the brain, are the most significant factor in cognitive evolution, and yet they are arguably the most neglected. So far, only two authors have ever considered them in any detail since the late 1980s, despite their fundamental importance in the question of what makes us human, and how we managed to experience the world in a conscious format. Steiner corrects this imbalance, and for that reason alone his book holds great promise. His encyclopedic knowledge of the generic subject and his most innovative patterns of reasoning have produced a truly worthwhile addition to the rather limited literature on the topic. An aspect I find particularly important is that Steiner did not approach this discipline from the evolutionary perspective initially, but from the direction of a desire to understand the products of human cognition, through his work with paleoart, specifically rock art. Therefore he is not stuck in a particular epistemological groove, but has cultivated the ability to see the issues in an inter-disciplinary perspective.
— Prof. Robert G. Bednarik
Convener and Editor-in-Chief,
International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO)
In biological evolution, there is a tension between specialization and autonomy; that is, between becoming either very highly adapted to one particular biological niche or remaining less specifically adapted but more flexible. Species that take the "specialization" route tend to be more aggressive and hierarchical; they are also more susceptible to extinction when sudden shifts in the environment occur. In contrast, species that evolve towards autonomy tend to preserve more of their childlike qualities into adulthood (a phenomenon called "neoteny"). An example can be seen in the contrast between the more aggressive, hierarchical chimpanzees compared to the very closely related but more social, playful, and egalitarian bonobos. Humans are arguably the least specialized, most neotenous of all species and have evolved the furthest along the evolutionary line of autonomy. What we gave up in specialized adaptation to a particular biological niche, we made up for with the invention of culture.
Culture allows us to survive in a huge variety of environments while still preserving our biological adaptability and autonomy. But within the world of human culture, the same tension between specialization and autonomy exists. Specialization in this case means becoming overly dependent on and subservient to specific cultural forms and technologies, as we see in the civilized world. As in the biological realm, those who have avoided the pathway of over-specialization in the cultural realm have done so through another kind of neoteny - in this case, the intentional preservation of more "primitive" technologies and subsistence strategies. And again, the same highly social, egalitarian qualities are seen in these more neotenous cultures - and they attain a very high - perhaps even supreme - level of autonomy, the ultimate expression of this autonomy being the ability to consciously reflect Reality in its wholeness. The refusal of immediate-return hunters and gatherers to become tied to (and therefore enslaved to) highly complex social-technological systems allows them to preserve and fully explore the autonomy given to our species through our biological evolution. In other words, choosing to remain more primitive in certain areas - as the said egalitarian hunters and gatherers do - actually fosters a far more advanced stage of human cultural evolution; and any form of over-specialization (even if it involves super high-tech gizmos, a globalized economy, and an ideology of liberty and democracy) actually represents a lower stage of cultural evolution - because it decreases our actual autonomy. The over-specialization that our species "escaped" in the biological/evolutionary realm has now been recreated by civilization in the cultural realm.
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