Looking forward to: Syntactical structures and the evolution of mind and culture

Jan 9, 2024 | Associate Fellows, IAS Major Project, Looking Forward to...., Transformations (Issue 11)

Syntactical structures and the evolution of mind and culture (Major Project, Michaelmas 2024)

Image courtesy of Natasha Connell on Unsplash

Professor Rob Barton (Department of Anthropology), Professor Zanna Clay (Department of Psychology), Professor Andy Byford (School of Modern Languages and Cultures)

Underpinning key defining traits of the human species – such as language and technology, mindreading and causal reasoning, cumulative culture and aesthetic creation – is a remarkable ability to produce and process syntactical structures. While the concept of syntax has been developed foremost in the study of language, we propose that language represents but one manifestation of a more general capacity for syntax, from organising our day, to explaining events and predicting consequences, from understanding a narrative, to composing or appreciating music, learning a dance and constructing cultural artefacts.

Our project’s ambition is to assemble a unifying theory of ‘syntax’ that would articulate its general significance for multiple disciplines. Key to achieving this is the development of interdisciplinary dialogue across the many domains in which syntactical structure plays a vital part. We will draw on a range of disciplines, including cognitive science, literary analysis, anthropology, musicology, computer science, philosophy and history of science. By bringing these distinct areas of inquiry together, we aim to develop a new, synthetic, vision of syntactical structures which we posit as a basis both for conceptualising the uniqueness of our species and for explaining its impressive cultural and ecological expansion, as well as its extraordinary imaginative abilities, behavioural flexibility and dazzling cultural diversity.

Our project will explore these ideas. We will examine how sequences are constructed and how they underpin human activities, artefacts, cultures and aesthetic forms. Even more broadly, our project is also a critical analysis of how different disciplinary perspectives on the syntactical basis of phenomena such as literary narratives, reasoning, music, and autobiographical memories, can enrich one another. Through an adventurous interdisciplinary exploration of the sequential nature of the human condition, this project will open up new avenues of enquiry about the role of syntactical structure spanning cognitive and cultural domains, including literature, music, and dance. By doing so, it will shed new light on the human mind, cultural evolution, and aesthetics.

In November 2023, we held a half-day pre-project workshop at Hatfield College, bringing together academics and performers with interests in how the human capacity for combining elements into complex sequences underpins and is manifested in movement. The workshop explored the concept of ‘embodied syntax’ – the bodily manifestations of a more general cognitive and sensory-motor capacity that is distinctively human. We see dance as a prime example of a universal human capacity that embodies complex sequences and that raises fascinating questions about psychology, learning, sensation, embodiment, movement, kinaesthesis, health, and the evolution of aesthetic cultural practices. We were fortunate to be able to include Professor Nicky Clayton FRS, a comparative psychologist, dance practitioner and scientist in Residence at Rambert Dance Company, together with her collaborator Mark Baldwin OBE, internationally eminent choreographer and former artistic director of Rambert, as well as members of Dance City in Newcastle. This stimulating day generated a number of ideas about to be followed up during our Major Project.

Our Major Project will be organized into four interlocking themes: (i) Mind, brain, cognition; (ii) Learning, culture, evolution; (iii) Narrativity, causality, meaning; (iv) Aesthetics, music, dance. We are delighted to be welcoming two Visiting Fellows to participate in the project. Professor Louise Barrett (University of Lethbridge, Canada) has been at the forefront of developing and applying ideas about embodied and extended cognition to understanding cognitive evolution and social interaction, and has strong interdisciplinary credentials (e.g. she has twice been invited to give the annual British Wittgenstein Society lecture). Professor Paul Armstrong (Brown University, USA) is a professor of English whose work focuses on the relations between neuroscience and literary theories of reading and narrative and has a recent book on ‘Stories and the Brain’.

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