Field of Science

Symbolic Representation is the Key to Major Evolutionary Transitions?

I'm briefly coming up from the sea of thesis preparation (two weeks until defense!) to share this truly remarkable quote I just read:

Consider the following: in the evolutionary course there
have been a few great junctures, times of major evolutionary
advance. Their hallmark is the emergence of vast, qualitatively
new fields of evolutionary potential, and symbolic representation
tends to underlie such evolutionary eruptions. These "New
Worlds" can arise when some existing biological entity (system)
gains the capacity to represent itself (what it is and/or does) in
some symbolic form. The resulting world of symbols then
becomes a vast and qualitatively new phase space for evolution
to explore and expand. The invention of human language is one
such juncture. It has set Homo sapiens entirely apart from its
(otherwise very close) primate relatives and is bringing forth a
new level of biological organization. The most important of these
junctures, however, was the development of translation, whereby
nucleic acid sequences became symbolically representable in an
amino acid "language," and an ancient "RNA-world" gave way
to one dominated by protein.

-from Carl R. Woese, "On the Evolution of Cells", PNAS, 2002.

1 comment:

  1. So a note on the language thing -- it's not entirely clear that we have abstract concepts because we have language, or whether the abstract concepts we have allow for the existence of language. That's one of the big debates in language evolution (to be sure, there's lots of evidence that we share many of our abstract concepts with other animals -- or, at the very least with prelinguistic infancts; see Spelke, various).

    This doesn't detract from the point made in the quote at all, but since one sees language dragged out as an example in many evolutionary debates, it's worth mentioning.


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