The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas
Tel Aviv University
Language, imagination, and the evolution of autobiographical memory
I suggest that the early stages of the evolution of symbolic, imagination-instructing language, which occurred in small cohesive social groups, led to the problem of distinguishing between the narrated experiences of others and one’s personal, private past experiences. Humans made new types of mistakes, which are similar to those observed in young children where “false” (misattributed) memory is common, and became open to new types of social manipulation. In these conditions, individuals with better autobiographical memory had a selective advantage, and such memory developed and evolved through cultural, and possibly also genetic, selection. However, the flexibility allowed by imagination which enabled forward planning and sophisticated decision-making, meant that memory distortions, although controlled and moderated by autobiographical memory, could not be totally eradicated. An additional form of memory control, through social and linguistic norms, may have been employed in some special social conditions, and I interpret the language and the social norms of the Pirahã as the outcome of the cultural-evolutionary control of memory distortions, and suggest ways of testing some specific aspects of this thesis.
Eva Jablonka has a M.Sc. in Microbiology from Ben-Gurion University, Israel and a Ph.D in Genetics from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel. Her post-Doctoral studies were in the Philosophy of Science, and in Developmental Genetics. She is a professor in the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel-Aviv and a member of the Sagol School for Brain Research. Her main interest is the understanding of evolution, especially evolution that is driven by non-genetic hereditary variations and the evolution of nervous systems and consciousness. She has published many papers and co-authored several books that analyse and discuss these topics.
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