Introducing: Syntactical Structures and the Evolution of Mind and Culture

Jan 23, 2023 | Projects, Transformations (Issue 8)

Syntactical Structures and the Evolution of Mind and Culture

The distinctiveness of human cognition, behaviour and culture has been debated at least since Darwin. Darwin’s view was that the difference between humans and non-human species was one of “degree, not of kind”, but a century and a half later, this is still vigorously debated, with many pointing the transformative role of culture. It is inescapable that complete understanding of the human mind and of the processes generating, sustaining and diversifying cultures, are intertwined.  Beyond this, there is little consensus about the interrelationships among evolution, mind and culture. We propose that this is largely because of a failure of traditional cognitive ontologies, and that major advances in understanding the human mind, how it evolved, and how it is manifested in technology, culture and communication, will depend on radical revision. Such revision requires broad consilience of the sort that can be created only by an interdisciplinary exploration, sufficiently ambitious to be capable of setting the parameters for multiple lines of future investigation, involving science, social science, philosophy and the arts. Our specific focus was  on the evolution and significance of syntactical combinatorial capacities, which underpin so much of human endeavour.  Our hypothesis is that the capacity for the complex serial ordering of behaviour, whether in tool construction, grammar, narrative, music or the management of social interactions, is a key attribute of the human species.  The hypothesis implies that syntactical structure is found not only in language but infuses all human activity. Thus, for example, the syntactical features of sentences may be echoed in the formal structure of literary narratives. Whatever it is that permits humans to comprehend and execute syntactically organised actions must have enhanced social learning and provided the cognitive preconditions for the essentially limitless efflorescence of human cultural forms. On the one hand there are theories of cultural evolution, which employ a very general and two-dimensional definition of culture as “socially learned information”, which is useful insofar as it can be applied to a wide range of species and hence provide a comparative framework, but which by itself does not adequately address the way that information is organised, integrated and recombined. On the other hand, there are approaches such as structuralism in anthropology and linguistics, concepts such as universal grammar, and formalist analysis in narratology, all of which do focus on structure and generative rules but fail to account for cultural transmission and the processes generating diversity. Our project would bridge this gap, creating new synergies between hitherto disparate approaches and between disciplines.  Ultimately, our broader aims are to develop new research directions in cognitive science, comparative psychology and cultural evolution, using the study of syntactical structure as an interdisciplinary model system. Our project will address a looming ontological crisis in cognitive science – which is also a huge opportunity for interdisciplinary work – caused by an overlapping set of issues (for example, questions over the heuristic value and inconsistent use of traditional categories of cognitive and emotional processes, and a lack of theoretical coherence in broader organising concepts such as ‘modularity’).  We are particularly interested in how evolutionary perspectives and notions of embodiment and ‘neural re-use’ can inform ontological considerations, and in building bridges between scientific and humanities approaches to deepen understanding of the role and nature of syntactical and narrative structures. Our IAS development project brought together a wide variety of disciplines around this theme to identify parallels in thinking and potentially productive areas of common endeavour. In November 2022 we organised a series of 4 half-day workshops aimed at developing an IAS major project application (subject to dynamic, in-project adjustment as themes emerge). We were delighted to welcome and receive the valuable input of colleagues from a wide range of disciplines, both from within Durham and externally. In particular, we were fortunate to be able to include Professor Louise Barrett (University of Lethbridge, Canada) in person, and several other external participants via zoom.

The four workshops covered respectively the notion of syntactical structures as an organising theme across science and the humanities; cognitive foundations; Syntactical structures at different levels of organization in literature, music and other cultural domains; and the role of syntax in cultural evolution. The interdisciplinary conversations were most stimulating, and enabled us to identify several potentially fruitful avenues for development of the project and to scope an application to run a major project in 2024-25, with a view to laying the foundations for programmatic funding applications in the future.

Professor Rob Barton (
Dr Zanna Clay (


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