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The Social Trackways Theory of the Evolution of Human Cognition

Abstract

Only our lineage has ever used trackways reading to find unseen and unheard targets. All other terrestrial animals, including our great ape cousins, use scent trails and airborne odors. Because trackways as natural signs have very different properties, they possess an information-rich narrative structure. There is good evidence we began to exploit conspecific trackways in our deep past, at first purely associatively, for safety and orienteering when foraging in vast featureless wetlands. Since our own old trackways were recognizable they were self-mirroring, triggering memories of what we had been up to in the past. Using them to find our way back to the band when temporarily lost or to re-find a resource-rich area discovered the day before enabled optimal foraging. Selection for daily reiteration of one’s own old trackways therefore triggered the evolution of what is distinctive about human cognition: the autobiographical or narrative (episodic) faculty for imaginative self-projection. This faculty enabled us to glean useful social information from the stories “told” by other band members’ old trackways, and created spin-off capacities for fast-track social learning. Resultant increases in socioecological complexity then created positive selective feedback loops for further entrenchment. Incrementally we became the ultra-social narrative-minded ape, capable of creating cumulative culture.

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Notes

  1. I will often override “(episodic)” with “narrative” this way throughout the article because narratives are made up of a series of episodes, and chimpanzees (and other animals like scrub jays for instance) are often said to possess some degree of “episodic-like” memory in the comparative psychology literature. Probably, but they certainly do not possess overwhelmingly narrative, “what-if” minds.

  2. Exact imitation of an older expert’s actions even when goal-relatedness of some of those actions is highly opaque.

  3. Too many theorists assume that these prints were made by contemporary Australopithecus afarensis found nearby. Others (who actually studied them in situ) are very adamant that they are too human-like to have been made by members of this australopithecine lineage. I agree with them for many reasons, too numerous to present here.

  4. This is where the relative freshness of her(?) footprints could perhaps be ascertained (see bottom dual prints Fig. 1).

  5. In the face of doubt as to whether these marks were made by stone tools, one of the cut marks has a tiny chip of stone firmly lodged in it.

  6. As a young hunter I had a grouse-hunting (and duck-retrieving) dog for a companion. He had one "weakness": snowshoe hares. If he came upon a fresh scent of one of these while following an older grouse scent trail he could not resist following it. He never caught them, but it was fun for him (and frustrating for me).

  7. Here we can see how trackways as natural signs could have been the cognitive template for creating gestural and then spoken languages in order to tell the stories we already had in mind. From this point of view, the words and sentences I am writing now could be seen as “thought prints.”

  8. Polar bears and grizzlies will do this for ease of passage through deep soft snow; but they are doing this by feel, not by visual tracking for the sake of safety and orienteering.

  9. Or that man could make an indicatory vocalization and leave behind a marker of some kind—another important idea with regard to the evolution of modes of conventional communication.

  10. They often leave markers (broken branches, blaze marks in tree bark) to make their backtracking easier and therefore quicker. This is very helpful when returning at nightfall.

  11. Studying one’s own old and fresh trackways is the best way to learn how to read all other trackways.

  12. I owe this idea to Kim Sterelny (personal communication, March 2013): it is another embodied cognitive effect of obligate bipedalism.

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Acknowledgments

This article was written with the financial support of a PhD Research Scholarship from the Australian National University. Many thanks to my supervisors (Kim Sterelny, Ben Jeffares, Brett Calcott, Peter Hiscock, Russell Gray) and my fellow students for their advice, patience, and encouragement. Without the support of my partner Pat Robins it probably would not exist.

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Correspondence to Kim Shaw-Williams.

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Shaw-Williams, K. The Social Trackways Theory of the Evolution of Human Cognition. Biol Theory 9, 16–26 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-013-0144-9

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Keywords

  • Episodic faculty
  • Mental time travel
  • Narrative self-projection
  • Simulation theory
  • Social complexity
  • Social learning
  • Theory of mind
  • Trackways reading