On the Development of Human Representational Competence from an Evolutionary Point of View

From Episodic To Virtual Culture
Part of the Mathematics Education Library book series (MELI, volume 30)


Recent work by the evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald (1991) argues that human cognition has developed across evolutionary time through a series of four distinct stages, each growing out of its predecessor and yielding its own cultural form. They began with episodic (ape-like) memory and passed through mimetic (physical-action-based), mythic (spoken), and theoretical (written) transformations. In the chapter it is argued that we are entering, via computational media, a fifth stage of cognitive development leading to a virtual culture, which will replace the writing-based theoretic culture and which will support and be supported by a new hybrid mind, just as each of the predecessor stages subsumed its prior stage (Shaffer & Kaput, in press). Additional support for this claim is provided by the recent work of Terrence Deacon (1997), who argues that the development of human linguistic competence needs to be viewed in a new way, through the co-evolution of brain and language, and where the major defining features of real human language are its embodiment of a relatively small number of recombinable (syntactical) elements and symbolic reference, features not shared by communication devices used by other species. It is suggested that the evolutionary perspective needs to complement mathematics educators’ other ways of understanding the learning and use of mathematics, especially the semiotic side of the subject. It turns out that mathematics has played a critical role in the development of both writing and computational media, each the means by which a new stage of cognition was reached. Further, our understanding of language, especially its referential nature and its relationship to brain function, has implications for how we understand the symbolic aspects of mathematics and how they may be learned. in the first part of the chapter the Merlin Donald analyses is recounted. Afterwards the co-evolution of writing and the earliest mathematics is examined, and this is followed by a description of the new stage into which we are emerging.


Mathematics Education External Representation Computational Medium Alphabetic Writing Prior Stage 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of MathematicsUniversity of Massachusetts-DartmouthDarthmouthUSA
  2. 2.Department of Digital MedicineHarvard Medical SchoolCambridgeUSA

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