What is it about?

In the paleoanthropological record, there is a chronological gap between the appearance of modern gross neural anatomy (especially parietal lobe expansion) and the appearance of modern behavior, however defined. Convincing evidence for modern working memory capacity, abstract concepts, symbolic culture, and so on, is very late (after 40,000 years ago for groups who demonstrate all of these traits), long after the evolution of modern-shaped brains. There are a number of ways to account for this gap—a late neural mutation, the ratchet effect of culture change, and taphonomic bias have all been proposed. The present paper supports the idea that modern minds are extended minds that work through material objects to achieve powerful results. The gap between modern brain anatomy and the modern mind arose because aspects of the extended modern mind had to bootstrap onto particular technologies. The hypothesis is supported with the example of ordinality. When modern children learn numbers, they bootstrap the concept of ordinality by using a linguistic scaffold in the guise of a list of numeral labels. However, the concept of ordinality could not have developed initially from a numeral list because none existed. Instead, ordinality must have developed from an embodied scaffold such as fingers or physical artifacts of some kind. The Middle Stone Age of Southern Africa has evidence of one such material scaffold, the string of beads. The present paper proposes that stringing beads for thousands of years provided the most likely scaffold for the development of ordinality, initially a cultural construct that led to genetic changes in subsequent generations through neuronal recycling and gene-culture co-evolution.

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I am interested in how societies become numerate by using and recruiting material forms into the cognitive system for numbers over generations of collaborative effort. The manuovisually engaged domain of material forms is a primary mechanism for realizing and elaborating numerical concepts. I also look at the effect this elaborational mechanism has on conceptual content, and what this might augur about the future of human cognition.

Dr. Karenleigh A. Overmann
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

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This page is a summary of: Bootstrapping Ordinal Thinking, December 2016, Oxford University Press (OUP), DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190204112.003.0009.
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