Lessons from a Mole Cricket – Language as a Cognitive Burrow

This is a great paper from Andy Clark, trying to explain the relationship that language has with human users. Clark is probably the biggest name in embodied cognition, the cognitive science/philosophical position that argues that the mind extends beyond the the limits of the physical body and out into our interactions with the world.

There are philosophers like Alva Nöe, who have gone further and argued that consciousness is constituted in the very action of interaction with the spatial world. Clark is more reserved than this, but takes note of the fact that the strongest examples of embodied cognition are examples of “densely coupled unfolding”, that is, a situation where the cognitive systems are coupled with something in the outside world in a close interrelationship where the world can serve as its own best model. A good example of this would be catching a ball, with it requiring a close constant calculation and interaction between the cognitive systems, the hand and the real-world ball. Clark argues that language and linguistic representations allow us to uncouple the real world and our cognitive faculties. Planning next year’s vacation requires a different relationship between mind and world than say, diving in a swimming pool. This is because the world is not present, merely mediated through linguistic representation.

This is where Clark brings in the neat little example of the Mole Cricket to demonstrate that this kind of niche tool construction is far from rare. Mole Crickets burrow into the ground to produce a cone shaped burrow that massively boosts the volume of their singing, thus constructing their environment to allow them to maximize their biological ability. This, Clark argues, is like the way humans use language. Language is the human “cognitive singing burrow”. Words, songs and writing all allow us to store, use and transfer information in ways that were not possible through our basic biology. The basic example he gives of this is what he calls the production of “surrogate situations”. This is when language is used to represent and reproduce things that are not physically to hand, like the example I gave earlier of planning a future vacation.

Overall this is a neat big idea paper that is invariably a little bit fuzzier on the evolutionary and linguistic detail. If Clark is right it links the evidence for linguistic and cognitive interdependence with Deacon’s idea that symbolic representation permits a far more sophisticated level of information about the world. Symbolic meaning allows detachment from our densely coupled relationships in the world. The paper is clearly anti-nativist, insofar as if reinforces the kind of idea we hear from people like Kirby and Deacon, that language has a presence and an existence outside the constraints of the biological systems that produce and use it. In many ways Kirby’s iterated learning model requires Clark’s embodied cognition to work. If language is an example of a cognitive burrow that is embodied outside the body in written and oral cognition, it would provide a motivation for language to transcend its biological limitations and be subject to its own evolutionary pressures.

 

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