At the seventh GA Summer Conference in 2013, I gave a talk expressing my disappointment with Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, 2012) by NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel. In his effort to escape mindless Darwinian determinism, Nagel winds up by suggesting the possibility that “teleology” is a property of the universe itself. Rather than making an effort to understand what is specifically teleological about humans, which might lead, as ever, to the taboo subject of the emergence of language (which metaphysicians can only talk about as if it had always existed), Nagel seems ready to attribute teleology to quarks. Let us hope that Ockham resides in a high enough circle of heaven to be able to smile on this excrescence without taking out his razor.

Having long considered Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (Norton, 1997) to be the most intelligent scientific work on the origin of human language—one that makes crystal clear that human language is entirely different from animal “languages”—I looked forward to the new book Deacon had been promising for a number of years. But I must admit that a few years ago I gave up waiting, and hence somehow overlooked the publication of Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (Norton, 2012) until reminded of it at our recent GASC in High Point by René Harrison (whose name is in fact a rewriting of hérisson, meaning hedgehog).

Incomplete Nature is without a doubt an impressive work. Over nearly 600 pages, Deacon attempts a general systems theory of organized beings, with especial emphasis on living organisms. Wisely avoiding any attempt to specify the original chemical components of life, Deacon instead focuses on the kinds of dynamics that must have preceded life, noting in particular the existence of non-living morphodynamic processes. This is not a field with which I am particularly familiar, but my impression is that this approach is an original step in the right direction. Deacon’s model of a hypothetical first teleonomic (self-preserving, self-reproducing) organism, which he calls an autogen, is nothing like the living creatures we know, more a thought experiment than a hypothesis, yet to my mind a very convincing idea. If we consider two nonliving processes of morphogenesis, one a crystallization-like process that leads to the formation of a “shell,” the other, an autocatalyzing reaction that converts one compound into another, then the complementarity of the two can result in the enclosure of the catalyzed reaction within the shell, permitting a concentration of the end-product, which is thereby protected from a hostile environment and, in a favorable one, can under the right circumstances break through the shell and “reproduce” itself. Once such a configuration exists, it would be subject to natural selection, and hence could improve and vary its designs over billions of years to generate the panoply of life-forms in existence today. This strikes me as a very persuasive approach, clearly an improvement over theories that focus on putting together a “soup” of specific chemical components for life-forms that would have disappeared billions of years ago.

Deacon provides a similarly persuasive analysis of the recruitment of RNA/DNA as a “code” for proteins at a much later stage, seeing the double helix as offering a preferred environment for the self-construction of protein molecules that would likewise create a self-perpetuating loop subject to natural selection. His point throughout is that higher-level processes do not contradict the laws of nature that apply at lower levels, but rely on the energy supplied ultimately by physical/chemical “thermodynamic” processes to maintain complex systems far from the equilibrium that would obtain in their absence. Deacon’s emphasis throughout is on constraints and their “absential” force on their environment, a constraint being in the first place a denial of certain possibilities that channels otherwise diffuse energy in a specific direction and makes it do work.

Incomplete Nature encapsulates an enormous intellectual effort that well justifies the decade or so it took to complete. It leaves me nonetheless with a sense of disappointment. Deacon makes no connection, not even the least allusion, to the incisive analysis of human language in his earlier book. The final chapter on “consciousness” never touches on what distinguishes human consciousness from that of higher animals that share with us the capacity for sentience and pain. Nowhere is there any recognition of the need, of which Deacon more than anyone must have been aware, to define human language and representation as a specific new level of teleonomy. I cannot imagine this to be the result of naiveté or unawareness. On the contrary, my impression in reading the last few chapters on self, sentience, and consciousness is that the intensification of the systems-theory jargon is less a half-conscious attempt to cover up failure than the author’s repetition of already acquired ideas as mantras to psych himself up for the great explanation of consciousness that never comes. We all do this, at least in drafts, just as musicians improvise and artists doodle and poets scribble to generate the “inspiration” that will hopefully lead to an organizational breakthrough at a higher level. Indeed, this process illustrates the very point Deacon is striving to make about the generation of higher processes from lower. Yet the fact remains that the terminology never manages to articulate the new human level of complexity that would follow up on Deacon’s brilliant earlier speculations and truly justify the subtitle’s claim to explain the emergence of mind from matter.

Despite the book’s limitations, I strongly recommend it to the reader. I am perfectly ready to accept Deacon’s claim to have demystified the apparent conundrum posed by emergent self-organizing systems in a “deterministic” universe. And he certainly demolishes the absurd if tempting notion that the mind is just a “soft” computer. (Raymond Tallis, last year’s GASC speaker, for whom this “neuromania” is a particular bugbear, reviewed Incomplete Nature quite favorably in 2011 in the Wall Street Journal.) Perhaps Deacon is planning a third book for 2025 or so that will situate language in this new context; I hope I’m still around when it appears.

On reading Deacon’s The Symbolic Species, I emailed him expressing appreciation for the clarity with which he distinguished, in Peircean terms, human symbolic language from animal indexical signaling. Unlike most language researchers, Deacon provided a cultural rather than simply pragmatic scenario, if not quite a scene, for language origin: Deacon’s idea was that hunters would develop language/symbols as ritual guarantees of monogamous relationships with their “wives” before leaving on a hunting trip. Given the large biological investment required to produce and then nurture “neotenic” human children before they can become productive members of the group, wanting to guarantee one’s fatherhood is at least a plausible use for language, although hardly an explanation for its emergence.

But Deacon answered dismissively that these “cultural” speculations were the least important part of the book, despite the fact that they were developed at some length in what as I recall was its longest chapter. And now, a decade later, not only is there no speculation about a scenario for the origin of language, there is no language at all. The proverbial reader from outer space would remain wholly unaware of the significance of language and symbolic representation in defining human consciousness. How indeed did our species learn to write books?

And with a surely unintentional irony, the first example Deacon gives, right on page 1, to illustrate the “absential” nature of what he will later oppose as (negative) constraints to any material notion of structure is not a vegetable tropism or animal search for prey:

The meaning of a sentence is not the squiggles used to represent letters on a piece of paper or a screen. It is not the sounds these squiggles might prompt you to utter. It is not even the buzz of neuronal events that take place in your brain as you read them. What a sentence means, and what it refers to, lack the properties that something typically needs in order to make a difference in the world” (italics mine).

How then did we acquire the ability to form sentences?

I am certainly not qualified to extend Deacon’s systems analysis of living organisms into the domain of language-based consciousness that characterizes “mind” in the human sense, which would involve constructing at least a couple of highly differentiated layers on top of the suggestive lower-level models Deacon has provided. But it will be useful to let ourselves be inspired by Deacon to attempt to fit the originary hypothesis, albeit less rigorously, into his scheme of teleonomy. The first users of signs were not animated by a desire to create a supervening layer of autopoesis on top of the mental functions of the higher animals, but this is true of all the transitions that Deacon describes; as in the human case, passage to a higher level results in each case from the organism’s need to maintain its internal equilibrium at a lower level—in our case, the need to avoid the violence of “mimetic crisis.” Thus the originary hypothesis postulates that the founding event results from the breakdown of the previously obtaining animal hierarchy.

The discovery/invention of the (conscious, intentional, symbolic) sign is the second great moment of anti-entropic creation after the origin of life. Calling it “consciousness” or “mind” merely obscures the issue. Yet in reading through the copious literature concerning Deacon’s book, including words of high praise as well as allegations of plagiarism and obscurantism, it is striking that the subject of human language and its origin is, at least in the eight or nine reviews I read, entirely absent from the discussion. Thus not only does this scholar whose first book called us “the symbolic species” have nothing to say about the specific contribution of linguistic symbols to the human mind, none of his critics, some of whom are quite severe, are moved to raise this point either.

The key moment in GA’s originary scenario is the “abortion” of the “gesture of appropriation.” Such a gesture in its normal function would surely be “teleonomic”; it has the obvious goal of turning the central object into a source of nourishment. But it could still be described, as I believe all animal behavior can be described, as a “conditioned reflex”: partaking of food is pleasurable and necessary for the organism, and beyond its basic instincts, the animal learns mimetically from its fellows which objects provide nourishment. Here we are still in the “horizontal” world that lacks the dimension of “mind,” unless “mind” simply means a Pavlovian brain. The conversion of the appropriative gesture into a (human) sign involves (1) renouncing its original object, and (2) realizing as a result of the reactions of the others that the gesture, having abandoned its practical object, remains nonetheless critically useful for communicating, so to speak anti-mimetically. The performer of the sign rejects showing the others indexically how to attack the object, for the sake of, to borrow Deacon’s terminology, its absential symbolic representation. But in order to do this, the signer must focus his attention on the sign itself as a form, not a tool like a termiting stick, but a bodily emanation, a movement, and perhaps a sound, over which he has total control, and which is intended to draw the attention of others as not having a practical goal outside itself.

Assuming that the signing is successful in orienting the group away from the danger of appropriative mimesis and the likely resulting conflict, the feedback loop takes the participants out of the practical situation of appropriation-and-consumption-of-nourishment to a condition of scenic contemplation of an interdicted object mediated by the mutually exchanged performance of a sign. And as our scenario ends, the deferral of appropriation allows the group to avoid conflict and engage in the (relatively) peaceful “equal” division of the object, thereby providing “reinforcement” for this behavior that is nonetheless not Pavlovian because the “behavior” in question is itself mediated by a complex social interaction.

Language is a collective phenomenon, but a free one, “conscious” in a sense different from the awareness of animals, and it is its reciprocal mediation that makes it so. To go back once more to Chomsky-Skinner, we don’t emit linguistic signs simply because we receive neural reinforcement for doing so, let alone because our genes select for this emission. We control the emission of signs in constant feedback loops, not from the nonhuman and signless world of “nature,” but from others like ourselves experiencing the same freedom to shape their signs as indicators of intention. It is this circulation of intentionality within the human community that is absolutely new and that creates a human consciousness of a clearly higher level than that of other animals.

I believe that if today it is considered bad form to express this as definitively as we should, it is largely for victimary (“PC”) reasons; how dare we arrogate to ourselves a consciousness we refuse to other creatures? But asking, as Nagel famously did, “what it is like to be a bat,” meaning “what does it feel like,” is not a useful question unless the bat itself can tell you how it feels. Otherwise it just feels; there is no “how” because it can never become for the bat, and hence for us, a content of consciousness. We will never get beyond broad indications of whether the bat is “working” (to use Deacon’s pregnant term) to maintain its homeostasis or at rest, in pain, asleep, etc. What is it like to be you? How do you feel? It’s not so easy to describe, is it, so how can one expect to formulate such a description for a bat? This kind of silliness is all too typical of philosophers.

I would restrict the use of “consciousness” to humans and use “awareness” for animals, since the ability to express what one is conscious of is essentially what consciousness is. The first, minimal consciousness is of the central object, but this even in our necessarily idealized and schematic scenario requires a scenic awareness of the self in relation to the others in the group as mediated by this (common) object of desire, significance, and renunciation. I communicate to my fellows my need/desire to recognize the object as significant, meaning sacred, not in the sense (which Deacon unfortunately fails to disambiguate) that a piece of food or a predator is “significant” in commanding an animal’s attention. Amoebas understand this kind of significance; even plants have tropisms. We should only use significant for what can become the object of a signifier.

One reviewer suggested that perhaps Deacon was thinking of Sartre’s néant when he spoke of teleonomic beings and categories as “absential.” Indeed, Sartre’s metaphysical terminology, for whom I have recently expressed some not entirely nostalgic affection (see Chronicle 478), describes the specificity of the human better than Deacon’s system-theory vocabulary. Sartre never talks about language either, but he was writing in an age when traditional metaphysics still held sway. Deacon would reject as naive Sartre’s idea that everything that is not human is massif, lacking in absence-filled categories which can only be imposed by the human mind. But Sartre indeed has a point: although even an amoeba is absential in its search for nutrients, the ideas to think this are all human. Without reference to language, the use of “thought” and “mind” to mean anything more than “brain function” is to my mind misleading. Animals can have dispositions and calculate responses on the basis of dispositions and inputs; they don’t have “ideas” or “thoughts.” And to understand why we, and not they, have ideas, one has to face the question of the origin of language that I had been impressed to see discussed at some length in The Symbolic Species.

In conclusion, I must admit that, disappointing as the book’s neglect of language may be, in terms of my self, to borrow a piece of Deacon’s terminology, I can’t help finding a certain satisfaction in the fact that after this long-awaited major work, GA’s originary hypothesis still remains the only non-metaphysical theory of human origin. This certainly suggests that it would be valuable for GA and the systems theorists and neuroscientists to join forces. I’m not holding my breath.