The evolution of the symbolic sciences

In Nathalie Gontier, Andy Lock & Chris Sinha (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution. OUP. pp. 27-70 (2024)
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Abstract

Aspects of human symbolic evolution are studied by scholars active in a variety of fields and disciplines in the life and the behavioral sciences as well as the scientific-philosophical, sociological, anthropological, and linguistic sciences. These fields and disciplines all take on an evolutionary approach to the study of human symbolism, but scholars disagree in their theoretical and methodological attitudes. Theoretically, symbolism is defined differentially as knowledge, behavior, cognition, culture, language, or social group living. Methodologically, the diverse symbolic evolution sciences establish their teachings upon diverging evolutionary biological schools and paradigms. This chapter reviews past and current research fields in human symbolic evolution for how they differentially implement tenets of the major evolution schools that were discussed in the previous chapter. Traditional evolutionary epistemology and biosemiotics bring in a mesoevolutionary outlook by drawing on early Darwinism and evolutionary developmental biology movements that emphasize the role of the organism in evolution. Communication studies instead originally take on a microevolutionary perspective by investigating how units of information are transmitted across generations through time. Only later do they integrate studies on meaning-making at the organismal level. Sociobiology complements a microevolutionary with a macroevolutionary outlook by implementing population genetic approaches, typical of the Modern Synthesis, into studies on individual and group behavior. The new symbolic evolutionary sciences build upon these traditions and include disciplines such as evolutionary psychology, evolutionary linguistics, evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary archaeology, evolutionary sociology, and evolutionary economics. Originally centered on implementing Darwinian selection theory, these fields are now including ecological and evolutionary developmental biology as well as reticulate evolutionary paradigms. As diverse in outlook and scope as they are, no discipline holds a privileged position over the other and all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of human symbolic evolution.

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