How did Humans become Behaviorally Modern? Revisiting the “Art First” Hypothesis

  • Rita NolanEmail author
Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER, volume 1)


Numerous impressive proposals addressing the title question have been made that appear to be rich, coherent, and stimulating but are either theoretically incomplete or empirically weak. It is proposed here that recent scientific results provide the elements for an empirically robust hypothesis that fills some theoretical gaps. Prompted by Henshilwood’s archeological discovery at Blombos SA and drawing from Tomasello’s results in comparative psychology on shared intentionality and from Rizzolotti and Arbib’s results in neuropsychology on mirror neurons, and adapting Sterelny’s notion of decoupling, an empirically robust hypothesis is proposed: deliberate symbolic artifacts of material culture preceded, triggered, and facilitated the origination of modern language and abstract thought. Of the three classic features of modern humans—art, language, and abstract thought—language has been an exclusive focus of many twentieth-century theorists, a focus attributed to advances in logic and computational modeling, with background assumptions from a simplistic epistemology. Hypotheses by Cassirer and Langer that art was prior to and facilitated the origination of language were dismissed by what we now know were false premises. It is proposed here that art enabled the critical features of displacement and communally shared semantic content required by human languages. The proposal also provides a causal answer to Harnad’s “symbol grounding problem.” A first-approximation sketch of the empirical model is given.


Decoupling Mirror neurons Shared imtentionality 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyStony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA

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