Re: talking of tools...

Ralph L Holloway (rlh2@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Wed, 8 Feb 1995 17:42:03 -0500

I tried this back in 1969, in Current Anthropology, in an article called:
"Culture: A human Domain". It grew out of a research paper I wrote for
Desmond Clark when I was a grad student in the early '60's. What i wanted
to do was use Shannon/Weaver communication theory to quantitfy stone
tools (and thus making) in terms of information theory. I failed. But it
did lead me to examine all the models of language available at the time
and see if there were possibly homologous processes in tool-making. I
thought that starting with Hockett's old design features would be a good
start. In essense, I concluded that language and tool-maing (not using)
were possibly homologous cognitive processes, and I concluded that
tool-making did depend on language , at least to some degree. I'll never
forget working in an aircraft factory and having the problem of getting
sheet metal workers to describe how they got complex shapes so that it
could go in some SOP manual. The response was that it wasn't possible to
describe the procedures in words...
I still think that what humans do with stone tools, i.e., the making
of implements having a standardised form from a precursor in which
form is not apparent is a hallmark of cultural behavior, and that it is
NOT the same as a chimp stripping leaves off a twig to make a stick for
the termite nest. That is an iconic transformation, whereas the former is
an arbitrary one.
Ralph L. Holloway.
On Wed, 8 Feb 1995, Mr J.M. Ottevanger wrote:

> James Barnes, this note's for you, and the whole world if they're patient
> enough.
> You raised an interesting subject when you asked for discussion of intelligence
> and speach, and Ralph Holloway has been mentioning symbol systems too. I'd like
> to run an idea by y'all, and in particular any psychologists out there.
> Way back there was this chap in Stalinist Russia called Lev Vygotsky. His ideas
> are reaching an increasingly wide audience now, sixty years after he bought it.
> They relate to the role of language as the basis for much "higher" thought,
> and it occured to me that one might be able to use the archaeological expression
> s
> of these thought processes as evidence for the antiquity of language, in a
> similar way to Wynn's 1979 study of the cognitive development of early hominids
> based on their methods of tool manufacture. Vygotsky and his followers refer
> often to long term memory's (or aspects of it's) foundation in language. Sadly
> I have been unable to find a reference that discusses this idea fully, save for
> the inspiring but unreliable books by John McCrone "the ape that spoke" and "the
> myth of irrationality". The ability to abstract, and to form certain types of
> concepts are also said to language-based. I would hope to find indirect
> evidence of these capabilities in the archaeological record, perhaps as manuport
> s
> as patterns of flaking etc. My study has ground to a halt due to a rather vague
> psychological literature that rarely defines the purported language-based
> abilities, or the mechanisms through which they operate, but I believe that
> there is the potential to determine the minimum linguistic competence of tool-
> making hominids subject to various assumptions, the biggest of course being the
> acceptance of the Vygotskian viewpoint (on which I have to reserve judgement,not
> being a psychologist).
> Basically, there may be a relationship between more advanced (emphasised) tool-
> making and some sort of communication system.
> I hope these ramblings contribute in some way - I have in fact been brief - all
> comments welcome,
> adieu, Jeremy