Pavel N. Prudkov (1999) Origin of Culture: Evolution Applied Another Mechanism. Psycoloquy: 10(037) Origin Culture (10)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 10(037): Origin of Culture: Evolution Applied Another Mechanism

Commentary on Gabora on Origin-Culture

Pavel N. Prudkov
Ecomon LTD
Snezhnaya 14-2-18
129323 Moscow, Russia


To explain the origin of abstract thinking, Gabora (1998) uses an analogy between the origin of life and the origin of culture. I suggest that this analogy is wrong. The origin of culture was a consequence of changes in the motivational system of early humans. A possible scenario for this process is considered.


culture, motivation, thinking, evolution
1. Gabora's target article (Gabora 1998) offers an interesting and provocative view of the origin of culture. We share with Gabora the idea that culture would be impossible without a self-sustained "stream of thought." However, the approach proposed in the target article to explaining the origin of culture seems wrong.

2. Any hypothesis about the formation of a self-sustained stream of thought must take into account that early hominids, like other animals, had a self-sustained system of biological drives. In nonhuman animals (and probably also in early hominids) this system could not form thought streams, but it could form a coherent and self-sustained chain of behaviours. This raises the question of the relationship between two self-sustained activities. Several responses are possible.

3. One possibility is that the thought streams are independent of the system of motivations and that the activation of a basic drive is unnecessary to maintain them. This is Gabora's position. She proposes that drives, together with sensations and stored memories, are simply integrated into the "memetic mind". Her model for the formation of a self-triggered stream of thoughts, however, is at odds with the fact that the system of drives is self-sustained.

4. Any serious model must take into account that human thinking is a goal-directed process. When one solves a problem, the brain automatically selects amongst the infinite number of possible features and relations, those which are somehow connected with the given situation. Gabora overlooks this. She uses the word "goal" only twice, in both cases simply to illustrate other ideas (paragraphs 21 and 53). Her model of "memetic mind" imposes no constraints on the associative stream of thought. In this case, the stream of thoughts of "Groga" (the first memetic mind, according to Gabora) should be similar to that of manic-depressive patients at the manic pole of the disease: their thoughts leap aimlessly from one idea to another without concentrating on a particular topic (Zeigarnik 1976). Given that Groga's memetic system is independent of the motivational system, her behaviour would be completely chaotic (FOOTNOTE 1). As a result, Groga would have been eliminated by natural selection.

5. Another answer is that the activation of basic drives is necessary to run the memetic system. Then the motivational system guides the stream of abstract thoughts constructed on the basis of Gabora's principles. In this case, however, the role of the memetic system seems too limited - - insufficient for the origin of culture. Everyday experience also teaches us that although basic drives can strongly influence it, our thinking process displays a high degree of independence.

6. Any basic textbook on psychology will have chapters on memory at the beginning of the book and chapters on thinking and motivation at the end. This reflects the widespread opinion that memory is a simpler function than thinking and motivation. Gabora accordingly tries to derive the properties of thinking from the properties of memory using an analogy between the origin of life and the origin of culture. This analogy seems inapplicable in this case: life is indeed a more complex phenomenon than the prior processes in polymers, but at the onset of culture the mind of early hominids included more complex functions than memory: thinking and motivation (FOOTNOTE 2). It is entirely unclear why new properties of thinking originated from the properties of episodic memory rather than from the properties of thinking itself.

7. Our own viewpoint of the mental processes underlying culture is opposite to that of Gabora (Prudkov & Rodina 1998): Culture originated from changes in the motivational system. As a result,a new, distinctively human system of motivations could inherit self-sustained properties from the motivational system of nonhuman animals. The changes influenced the thinking system, giving rise to new, abstract forms of thinking. These in turn engendered novel semantic forms of memory: memes.

8. Detailed analysis of these processes is beyond the scope of this commentary, but a possible scenario is the following: All long-term motivations of nonhuman animals (hunger, thirst, sex) are innate (Hinde 1970). An animal can form learned motivations, but only when one of the basic drives is activated (Fabri 1976). The first step towards human forms of motivation occurred when after satisfying a basic drive, a learned motivation remained activated for a relatively long period.

9. We know that apes can use branches and sticks as tools, but they do so only in very rare situations (Fabri 1976): Perhaps from a genetic mutation, an early human began to use sticks as tools after an initial situation involving very high levels of activation conditioned by a basic drive. This early human could use sticks only for short periods, when his brain was able to "sustain" the necessary levels of activation. However, this ability was very useful and evolution preferred the descendants of this human. These were able to maintain this or other learned motivations for longer periods. After many generations, the brain of later humans evolved so as to to sustain a hierarchical system of learned motivations which could activate each other and the system of learned motivations became self-sustained.

10. It is difficult for apes to use sticks because they consider the stick as a set of visual features (long, thin, bright) and can use it only if some of the features fit the iconic representation of the problem (this is a function of their thinking, not their memory). After regular use in different situations, the present need to use a stick led to the simultaneous activation of numerous neural patterns connected with prior use of sticks. By overlapping those patterns, a new representation, invariant with respect to diverse visual features and situations, was constructed in the brain of an early man. This was the first concept, the concept of "stick." In other words, the first concept did not emerge at random, it arose from long-term and deliberate concentration on a particular problem. Other long-term learned motivations could result in new concepts. With new forms of motivation and thinking, culture was inevitable. Imitation and social contacts may have played an important role in this process.


[1] Gabora avoids this problem by "separating" Groga from her memetic mind. For example, Gabora writes: "Armed with the category container, Groga dips into memory again" (paragraph 20). It is unclear, however, how Groga can control processes at the level of neurons.

[2] Gabora ascribes to Groga and other members of her tribe a relatively high level of development of thinking and planning already at the "prememetic" stage. For example, Groga is able to make bows (paragraph 46) and to use them. I am not sure that such complex skills can be derived from the properties of episodic memory.


Fabri, K.E. (1976). Foundations of animal psychology. Moscow State University Press (in Russian).

Gabora, L. (1998). Autocatalytic Closure in a Cognitive System. PSYCOLOQUY 9(67). psyc.98.9.67.origin-culture.1.gabora

Hinde, R.A. (1970). Animal behaviour: a synthesis of ethology and comparative psychology. Mcgraw-Hill.

Prudkov, P.N., Rodina, O.N. (to appear). Synthesis of purposeful processes. (to appear in PSYCOLOQUY).

Zeigarnik, B.V. (1976). Abnormal psychology. Moscow State University Press (in Russian).

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