Natural Aesthetics

Part 4 Art as scaffolding, working with the environment

How to become human (through art)

Part 4 Art as scaffolding, working with the environment

During evolution Cognition must have been put to pragmatic, not abstract thought.[i] Andy Clark reminds us, ‘Our brains evolved as controllers of bodies, moving and acting in a real (and often hostile) world.’[ii]

BM  lion-man-ulm
Lion-man from Ulm


Stewart and Cohen note that information requires resources for storage, transmission, replication and evaluation, which can be processes in either the material, or non-physical realm. It is an advantage to externalise some of the workload to others or to the environment. They refer to this evolutionary advantage as ‘extelligence’ and suggest that larger brains had the functional purpose of facilitating the external storage and manipulation of information and examine how the information mass has grown with technological culture.[iii]


The importance of external memory is that:

  • it relieves the work of internal memory (providing opportunities for other intellectual processes – expanding cognitive opportunities); and
  • external symbols can be exchanged, reflected upon and manipulated in new ways – also expanding cognitive opportunities.


Subsequent to his 1996 hypothesis, highly influenced by Donald, Steven Mithen has now included an element of, what I term, ‘constitutive’. Mithen writes, ‘I now see that the material culture itself was not just a product of a massive cognitive change, but also a cause of it.’[iv] He posits two main types of imagination – the primary envisions alternative courses of action – ‘A second type of imagination is quite different, and initially appears quite incompatible with an evolutionary perspective on the human mind. This is imagination about worlds that we can only inhabit in our minds … responsible for a vast amount of literature and art.’[v] He argues that these latter types of ideas are difficult for minds to remember and manipulate,[vi] In his essay ‘Nature’, Emerson compared civilised man who ‘is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects’ with ‘savages’ who have only what is necessary, converse in figures.’[vii]


Mithen thinks the basis of our cultural intelligence is our ability to create another home for such ideas – in the physical world (carving, ritual, performance, or inscription), an externalisation process of tool use worked with art and agriculture some 50,000 years ago. These remarkable developments: ‘should not be seen simply as the manifestation of a new level of consciousness. They are as much a cause as a product. They allowed people to explore, expand, manipulate and simply play with their own knowledge in ways that other humans, even those with private and public language, were unable to do.’[viii]


An evolved mind is unlikely to have a natural home for this being, as such entities do not exist in the natural world. As I have previously argued, a cognitively fluid mind can come up with such entities as I show here, but where then to store that entity? The only option is to extend the mind into the material world.

Stephen Mithen[ix]


Mithen offers an argument for the origins of art, discussing a human/lion ivory carving from Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany. Artefacts with human intention have great power, once art began it has never ceased. [x]


Scaffolding takes extelligence further; tools and representations embody meaning and serve as repositories of knowledge. This effect has been described as ‘distributed cognition’, a collaboration between individual and artefact. The structure and operation of many tools incorporate solutions to previous problem; thus the skills needed to use a tool are simpler (either cognitive or motor skills) than the original operational context of the tool. Such scaffolds are memory devices, both on an individual and collective scale, working on stability, capacity and public accessibility. They are crucial for culture, at various levels, including the unconscious.[xi] Vygotsky introduced the concept of scaffolding to express the way experience with external structures (including language) alters and informs cognitive processing and understanding.[xii] Organisms are constantly responsive to events, and human actions are self-transformative through the use of tools, and the tool is modified through its use, which becomes clearer from the work of Andy Clark and Vygotsky. [xiii]  Tool use is inseparable from social behaviours such as sharing, imitation and teaching and language, but Charles Bernstein undervalues the range of cognition, when he makes the Whorfian claim that: ‘It is through language we experience the world, indeed through language that meaning comes into the world and into being . . . Our learning language is learning the terms by which a world gets seen.’[xiv] Our cognitive fluidity is embodied and in a dialectic with skilled practice and techne.


Andy Clark takes this externalisation deeper into cognition.

Every thought is had by a brain. But the flow of thoughts and the adaptive success of reason are now seen to depend on repeated and crucial interactions with external resources … human reasoners are truly, distributed cognitive engines: we call on external resources to perform specific computational tasks.

Andy Clark [xv]


Clark notes that chimpanzees distinguish identical pairs of objects from different ones, but only when trained with physical tokens (to associate the concepts of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’) can they solve the higher-order task of sorting pairs of objects into ‘same’ and ‘different’.[xvi] Symbols transform a difficult higher-order task into a simple first-order task of judging the sameness or difference of symbols. Language allows us to manipulate thoughts without physical tokens, though graphism extends language (as a series of ‘bootstrapping’).


Material objects survive their creator and are versatile at carrying meanings far away in time and place; they develop as mnemonics their own relations meanings and histories, and their materiality allows for aesthetic and technical innovations. Images, icons and objects work with linguistic representations. Donald believes language requires representation and utilised a ‘mimetic culture’ already in place.[xvii] We don’t know what came first, unlike the chicken and the egg. Suddendorf argues that Donald’s imitative mimesis requires metamind, meta-representational abilities of representations of representations, freeing representation from immediate perception and enabling representations themselves, as an object of thought.[xviii]


Andy Clark broadens the notion of scaffolding to encompass all kinds of external support: ‘Biologists have tended to focus solely on the individual organism as the locus of adaptive structure. They have treated the organism as if it could be understood independent of its physical world.’[xix] The tasks humans perform best and most fluently are ‘motor control, face recognition, reading handwritten zip codes and the like;’ we use scaffolding to cope with sequential reasoning or long term planning.[xx]

Andy Clark’s ecological approach is clear when he questions where the mind stops and the world begins and argues for ‘the presence of continuous mutually modulatory influences linking brain, body and world.’[xxi] External environments become a key ‘extension to our mind.’[xxii]



[i] ‘Cognition for most human beings has not been a matter of learning to solve abstract questions; instead, it has been about the experiences and proprieties of suites of activities involved in concrete tasks such as collecting and organising kindling; finding clay, locating and harvesting berries, roots, insects, and other small foods; and even carrying water. Cognition… is a concrete and collective process in which individuals participate to varying degrees.’ Edward Reed, Encountering the World: Toward an Ecological Psychology, OUP 1996, p141.

[ii] Andy Clark, Being There, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1997, p68.

[iii] Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Figments of Reality: The Evolution of the Curious Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997, p27. ‘The transition from brains to minds can be traced back to the time when animals came up with non-genetic routes to protect their offspring.’ p27. I’d argue the transition from evolution to history came later with poetry. Boisot refers to a similar concept as the ‘principle of least action’. M. Boisot, Information Space, London: Routledge, 1995.  Tim Ingold attacks such decontextualised use of the term ‘information’, as if independent, and as if culture is information ‘poured into a child.’ Tim Ingold, Transmission of Representations’ in The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology Versus Ethnography, Harvey Whitehouse, Ed., Berg, 2001, p148.

[iv] ‘[T]he material culture itself was not just a product of a massive cognitive change, but also a cause of it. An evolved psychology cannot be so easily escaped as I had imagined and the clever trick that humans learnt was to disembody their minds into the material world around them: a linguistic utterance might be considered as a disembodied thought. But such utterances last just for a few seconds.’ Steven Mithen, ‘Handaxes and Ice Age Carvings: Hard Evidence for the Evolution of Consciousness’, Cog Net, [DL 2.7.2000] The archaeologist S. Mithen, having examined stone tools as old as 1.4 million years ago finds evidence for conscious motor activity. S. Mithen, ‘Handaxes: some hard evidence regarding the evolution of the mind and consciousness’ in Section 6: ‘Evolution and the Function of Consciousness’, Towards a Science of Consciousness, The Third Tucson Discussions and Debates, Eds.,  S. Hameroff, A. Kaszniak, and D. Chalmers, MIT Press, 2000. Elsewhere he writes, ‘The material objects, social structures, ritualistic performances, acts of story-telling, and complex tools of modern humans are not, therefore, simply products or representations of our inner thoughts. They play an essential role in formulating, manipulating and sharing those thoughts. In this regard, the brain of modern humans may not, in itself, have any greater powers of imagination than that of the Neanderthals. It simply exploits the world outside of the skull to augment its powers of creative thought.’ Steven Mithen, ‘The Evolution of Imagination: An Archaeological Perspective’, SubStance Vol 30:1&2, 2001, p50.

[v] ‘This [primary] type of imagination appears as a pre-requisite for any complex living being–one that must rapidly adapt its behaviour to a changing world…  Evaluating the costs and benefits of the different courses of actions requires imagination–sometimes conscious, frequently unconscious… .’ Steven Mithen, 2001, p29. Andy Clark writes, ‘I am John’s brain… John is congenitally blind to the bulk of my daily activities.  . . What filatures into his conscious awareness is somewhat akin to what gets onto the screen display of a personal computer. In both cases, what is displayed is just as specially tailored summary of the results of certain episodes of internal activity.’ Epilogue: A Brain speaks’, 1997, p223.

[vi] Mithen says especially compared to gossip, ‘because it engages with a part of our evolved psychology– the ideas in gossip are exactly the types of ideas our minds have evolved to deal with.’ Mithem 2001, p49.

[vii] ‘[N]either can man be understood without these objects, not these objects without man… Because of this radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts, savages, who have only what is necessary, converse in figures.’ quoted Colin Falck, Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-Modernism, Cambridge UP, 2nd edition, 1994.p120, and Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, p92. Though we know there is no difference, Levi Strauss in The Savage Mind (1966) dismantles Levy-Bruhl’s pre-logic/logic mentality dichotomy.

[viii] Steven Mithen, ‘Handaxes and Ice Age Carvings’ ibid.

[ix] Dispense with a reliance on brain stuff and get into rocks and painting, ivory and carving. So artefacts such as this figure, and indeed the cave paintings of the last ice age, functioned as anchors for ideas that have no natural home within the mind; for ideas that take us beyond those that natural selection could enable us to possess. Randall White in his introduction to Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture and Speech complains that this art from southern Germany is ignored in the argument. Randall White, ‘Leroi Gourhan’s position that the earliest graphism took abstract or rhythmic forms. He paid no attention to the remarkable animal sculptures in ivory from south German sites that are as old as, or even older than, the Cha telperronian objects from Arcysur-Cure.” André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech (Le geste et la parole, 1965) intro Randall White, trans. Anna Bostock Berger, MIT Press, 1993, pxxi. Since then (early 2002), engraved ochre found in the Blombos Cave, South Africa has been dated as 77,000 years old and recently decorated ostrich eggshell from 65,000c years ago has been found in the Cape area; Of these finds, Christopher Henshilwood suggests, ‘Abstract or depictional images… provide evidence for cognitive abilities considered integral to modern human behaviour.’ Christopher Henshilwood et al., Field School, South Africa, Science, February 2002.

[x] ‘Another way of describing an artefact, or a thing, is to say that it is a practical abstraction, and thus, in general, repeatable. That is to say, repeatability follows from the act of taking matter out of its natural setting and placing it within a context of human intentions: insofar as the matter is ordered to a human end, a similarly formed matter can function almost, if not equally, well.’ Joseph Catalano, Thinking Matter: Consciousness from Aristotle to Putnam and Sartre, Routledge, 2000, p54. Ellen Dissanayake has tried to find out why, ‘The strange thing is In every human society of which we know – prehistoric, ancient, or modern – whether hunter-gatherer, pastoral, agricultural, or industrial, at least some form of art is displayed, and not only displayed but highly regarded and willingly engaged in.’ Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus; Where Art Comes From and Why, Seattle, U of Washington P, 1995, p34. She offers a functional account for art. For an ethologist to consider that a species’ trait has evolved, it needs to satisfy a number of criteria: (a) it has survival value. It feels good so the animal will want to do it. (b) is a biological need. A significant amount of time and energy is spent doing it. (c) can be considered ‘a behaviour’. That is, it is universally prevalent.’ p33. She argues Art fits these criteria. From her stance that making art is a biologically innate need as fundamental as the need for food or shelter, she has since added emotional and cognitive strands to her argument.

[xi] Christopher Bollas, ‘Certain objects, like psychic ‘keys,’ open doors to unconsciously intense—and rich—experience in which we articulate the self that we are through the elaborating character of our response.’ Christopher Bollas, On Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience, 1992, p17 > Another approach is what Gregory McCulloch calls ‘Phenomenological Externalism’ – our experience of the world, not internal, experience is not introspective, we not only have access to external world but depend on it for normal development and everyday living. McCulloch wants to remove the gap between mind and world and deflate the Cartesian ‘ontological Real Distinction.’ Gregory McCulloch, Life of the Mind: An Essay on Phenomenological Externalism, Routledge, 2003, p2.

[xii] He used the notion of zone of proximal development (ZPD) to show how external help at crucial developmental moments gave children experiences of successful action, which a child alone could not produce – eg. a child’s first steps. ‘When a child is ‘talked through’ a tricky challenge by a more experienced agent, the child can often succeed at a task that would otherwise prove impossible. (Think of tying your shoelaces.) Later, when the adult is absent, the child can conduct a similar dialogue, but this time with herself.’ Clark, 1997, p195

[xiii] Clark follows Vygotsy and Luria’s position here, ‘Consider a familiar tool or artifact, say a pair of scissors. Such an artefact typically exhibits a kind of double adaptation – a two-way fit, both top the user and to the task. On the one hand, the shape of the scissors is remarkably well fitted to the form and manipulative capacities of the human hand. On the other hand (so to speak), the artifact, when it is in use, confers on the agent some characteristic powers or capacities which humans do not naturally possess . . . ‘ Clark, 1997, p193.

[xiv] Charles Bernstein, ‘Thought’s Measure’ from Content’s Dream: Essays 19751984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986; rpt Sun & Moon Classics, 1994, p61-2.

[xv] Andy Clark, 1997, p68-9. Andy Clark gives an example of scaffolding: ‘Asked to multiply 7222X9422, most of us resort to pen and paper (or a calculator)… We use the external medium paper to store the results of these simple problems, and by an interrelated series of simple pattern completions coupled with external storage we finally arrive at a solution.’ Andy Clark, 1997, p61.

[xvi] Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cybogs: Why Minds and Technologies Are Made to Merge,
OUP, 2003.

[xvii] ‘Speech provided humans with a rapid, efficient means of constructing and transmitting verbal symbols; but what good would such an ability have done if there was not even the most rudimentary form of representation already in place? There had to be some sort of semantic foundation for speech to have proven useful, and mimetic culture would have provided it.’ Donald, 2001, p199.

[xviii] Suddendorf ‘The rise of the metamind’, chap 12 of The descent of mind: Psychological perspectives on hominid evolution, Ed. Michael C. Corballis & Stephen E.G. Lea, OUP, 1999. See also Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. ‘Consider the source: The evolution of adaptations for decoupling and metarepresentation’ In D. Sperber, Ed., Metarepresentations: A multidisciplinary perspective. Vancouver studies in cognitive science , OUP, 2000. Evidence also from autism suggesting that meta-representational abilities are required for the appreciation of metaphor. F. Happe, ‘Communicative competence and theory of mind in autism: A test of relevance theory’, Cognition, 48, 101-119,1993; ‘Understanding minds and metaphors: Insights from the study of figurative language in autism’, Metaphor & Symbol, 10, 275-295, 1995. There are alternative views. Simon Baron-Cohen proposes metamind does arrive late with hominids and thus my be the key to the cultural explosion that coincides with the emergence of Homo sapiens.(and not language). Simon Baron-Cohen proposes (chapter 13, The evolution of theory of mind) in The descent of mind: Psychological perspectives on hominid evolution, Ed. Michael C. Corballis & Stephen E.G. Lea, OUP, 1999. Considered generally as a specific human ability, Mithen (1996) claims great apes have this capability and thus this skill evolved at least six millions years ago

[xix] Andy Clark, 1997, p46.

[xx] Andy Clark, 1997, p60.

[xxi] Andy Clark, 1997, p163.

[xxii] Rumelhart, D. E., Smolensky, P., McClelland, J. L., & Hinton, G. E. ‘Schemata and sequential thought processes in PDP models’, in D. E. Rumelhart, J. L. McClelland, and the PDP Research Group, Eds., Parallel distributed processing: Explorations in the microstructure of cognition, Volume 2. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1986, p46. Quoted by Andy Clark, 1997, p61.

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