Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Imagining Itself (part VII: The Evolution of Imagination)

Over the next three posts I will explore three radically different evolutionary theories of human imagination. The first, put forward by British archaeologist Steven Mithen, examines the archaeological record for evidence of technological change and creative development. This will then be followed by a theory proposed by Susan Blackmore based upon a Darwinian approach to cultural development known as Meme Theory. Lastly, before we move on to a broader discussion of the bounds of imagination, we will encounter Donald Brook’s theory of representation which provides important analytical tools for conceptualizing representation and for understanding the evolution of imagination and the emergence of language.

In a  paper entitled "The Evolution of Imagination" (2001) British archaeologist Steven Mithen outlines three different forms of imagination: the kind that allows us to distinguish between differing available options (decision-making imagination),  imagination of the thoughts or intentions of others (social imagination or Theory of Mind) and fantasy (where the rules of nature "are broken or simply do not exist"). 
Mithen begins by raising a series of questions about fantasy and imagination and by contrasting fantasy artworks such as those of Arthur C. Clarke or Salvador Dali with what he suggests are "more imaginative" works that do not break the rules of society or nature (Jane Austen for example). he writes: "This is, perhaps, the type of imagination that we find most fulfilling." 
Later in the paper Mithen discusses the archaeological evidence for the emergence of imagination and he notes that our ancestors were routinely manufacturing stone tools as long as 1.8 million years ago. He uses this evidence to speculate about the need to imagine the intended form of tools during their manufacture as well as the imagination (social) necessary to anticipate the actions of fellow hunters and to make rudimentary communications with them during collective hunting expeditions.

Mithen also points out that our ancestors’ methods of tool manufacture, or their types and forms of tools, underwent very little, if any, developmental change over an extraordinarily long period of time and he proposes that this was due to a functional isolation of different domains of imagination such that discoveries in one domain could not be imaginatively transposed to another: 

"As a consequence, ideas about, say, animal behavior, could not be engaged with those about, say, people, to come up with notions of talking animals or beings that are part human and part animal. [...] Consequently “rules” about fracture dynamics of stone may have been an integral part of their technological intelligence, and those about facial expressions part of their social intelligence... the type of imagination that leads to fantasy requires that such rules be broken, or at least ignored."
Mithen makes a strict distinction between imagination on one hand and rule breaking imagination, ie: fantasy on the other.
"How were modern humans able to engage in this new type of thinking? The answer I have provided in my previous work is that they were able to integrate bodies of knowledge and ways of thinking that had evolved in, and previously been restricted to, quite different cognitive domains. For instance, they could take knowledge about a lion, and about a man, and come up with a new imaginary type of animal—that represented by the 33,000-year-old lion/man carving from Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany. I have termed this ability “cognitive fluidity” and have argued that it underlies art, religion and science."
Mithen concludes by clarifying how the three forms of imagination (which could loosely be described as decision-making, social and fantasy) most likely evolved at different stages in human history and that fantasy is the most recent. He also suggests that the reason we tend to find fictions of the Jane Austen variety more fulfilling is because this form of imagination (the social form, in which rules of nature are not broken) is more thoroughly seated in our psyches due to its more
deeply embedded ancestral origins.

Despite Mithen’s belief that works of fantasy are less fulfilling than those formed through the exercise of social imagination, he makes a notable acknowledgement that without the unique
development of imagination that has given rise to fantasy we would be locked
into a significantly more restricted form of imagination in which culture is unlikely ever to have
arisen. According to Mithen this cognitive fluidity as he calls it, which is inextricably linked to fantasy, 
has allowed other forms of imagination to flourish and to far outshine the
products of fantasy alone.

Persuasive as Mithen’s hypothesis may be, it rests on the assumption that imagination is – or at least has been in our evolutionary past - clearly divisible between these three fundamental forms. As with the Autism research (mentioned in part II) that similarly posits a social form of imagination, there is little unequivocal evidence that such distinct forms of imagination can and do exist independent of imagination as a whole and there is even less evidence that they might ever have been functionally separated from each other in the way that Mithen suggests. Furthermore, despite their rigorous archaeological underpinnings, Mithen’s claims about these forms of imagination cannot easily be further tested because we have no more tangible record of the cognitive processes of our ancient ancestors than that provided by the artefacts with which Mithen is already expertly familiar. So, to assume that the explosion of culture that erupted approximately 50,000 years ago was due to a change in imaginative brain function is little more than speculative and as such it is no more plausible for instance than the hypothesis that our ancestors switched at this time from predominantly gestural communication to other forms of representational communication, of which verbal communication is the most likely contender. Until we discover more conclusive evidence in support of Mithen’s claims I think there is good reason to continue to explore alternative theories that might better illuminate the darkness of our ancestral past.


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