General Symbol Machines: The first stage in the evolution of symbolic communication


Dickins, Thomas E. 2003. General Symbol Machines: The first stage in the evolution of symbolic communication. Evolutionary Psychology.
AuthorsDickins, Thomas E.

Humans uniquely form stimulus equivalence (SE) classes of abstract and unrelated stimuli, i.e. if taught to match A with B and B with C, they will spontaneously match B with A, and C with B, (the relation of symmetry), and A with C (transitivity). Other species do not do this. The SE ability is possibly the consequence of a specific selection event in the Homo lineage. SE is of interest because it appears to demonstrate a facility that is core to symbolic behavior. Linguistic symbols, for example, are arbitrarily and symmetrically related to their referent such that the term banana has no resemblance to bananas but when processed can be used to discriminate bananas. Equally when bananas are perceived the term banana is readily produced. This relation is arguably the defining mark of symbolic representation. In this paper I shall detail the SE phenomenon and argue that it is evidence for a cognitive device that I term a General Symbol Machine (GSM). The GSM not only sets the background condition for subsequent linguistic evolution but also for other symbolic behaviors such as mathematical reasoning. In so doing the GSM is not particularly domain-specific. The apparent domain-specificity of, for example, natural language is a consequence of other computational developments. This introduces complexity to evolutionary arguments about cognitive architecture.

KeywordsSymbols; stimulus equivalence; learning; modularity; domain-specific; canalization
JournalEvolutionary Psychology
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Deposited12 Feb 2010
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Dickins, T.E. (2003) ‘General Symbol Machines: The first stage in the evolution of symbolic communication.’ Evolutionary Psychology 1 192-209.

Page range192-209
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