Living with things

Many problems flow from the simple prejudice that there is a quality that is essential to the definition of‘us’ humans. This commonly held quality is often perceived to be a kind of ill-defined ‘human nature’ (Hull 1986; cf. Kronfeldner 2018; Hannon & Lewens 2018), and it is the one thing that is often believed to be fundamental in defining ‘what it is to be human’. From a western perspective it is a quality that apparently lies within our physical existence and it belongs to us individually. Despite the realisation that humanity has evolved as part of the natural world, it is this essentially ‘human quality’ that is often treated as if it separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (Kronfeldner 2018). It is therefore unlikely that we would regard members of the animal kingdom in the same light in which we regard ourselves: we are often happy to give credence to claims about our own ‘inner being’, whilst regarding talk of the inner blackbird or the inner dormouse as ridiculous. In a similar vein, Ingold notes the ease with which we refer to ourselves as ‘human beings’ but, he asks: ‘why we do not also speak of “elephant beings” and “mouse beings”. Are not elephants just elephants and mice just mice?’ (Ingold 2013, 7). The claim we make to the special nature of our own kind of embodied selfhood would seem to signal our desire to cling to the idea of an inner self, whilst at the same time expressing what for many is a profound scepticism towards the existence of the human soul. Given that the widespread commitment to an inner being is no longer to be founded, at least for many people in the western world, upon a form of spirituality, but is founded instead upon the presence of our physical bodies alone, then the potential challenge of locating the innate quality of humanity appears to be addressed by relocating it from the spiritual soul to the mind. The mind is treated as originating with the activity of the biological brain, from whence our hopes and desires supposedly originate. If we appear no longer to have souls then we do at least have minds courtesy of our brains, and many elements of outward behaviour are treated as if they were the expressions of some inner mental condition. This would imply that the physical products of human behaviour are the symbolic representations of a prior cognitive state (our ‘ideas’), but our brains must grow, develop, and ultimately decay as part of our bodies, and it is our bodies that act, and that act with a purpose.

John Searle, in discussing the background upon which social norms might become possible, has argued that ‘[t]he Background ... is simply a set of skills, stances, preintentional assumptions and presuppositions, practices and habits. All of these, as far as we know, are realised in human brains and bodies’ (Searle 1983, 154). Why does Searle refer to ‘human brains and bodies’? Human brains are, after all, parts of human bodies, and bodies do not live and develop without brains any more than brains function without living bodies. We can certainly allow that specific organs, such as the stomach, have particular roles in sustaining the functioning of our bodies, but it would be odd indeed to discuss a human behaviour, such as eating and digesting, as if it were the product of‘human stomachs and bodies’. So why would Searle refer to ‘human brains and bodies’?

The treatment of biologically modern humans as the thinking species (homo sapiens) that is a user of symbols, and therefore capable of abstract thought, has resulted in the consequent emphasis upon tracing the forward evolution of the brain towards a primate with these capabilities, including the use of language (Deacon 1997). This has resulted in archaeologists claiming that the first evidence of‘symbolic’ expression in the production of material culture must also signify the first appearance of biologically modern humans onto the stage of history (Hopkinson 2013; cf. Mellars et al. 2007). Perhaps it is time to reconsider the value that we place upon our cognitive abilities when we seek to define ourselves (cf. Tallis 2011)?

In the last chapter the case was made that different forms of humanness have been created as humans have grown, with a developing ability, to participate proficiently in differently structured worlds. The aim of this argument has been to shift the emphasis away from claims that the cultural order of things was imposed cognitively upon the world, and to claim that it was by performance amongst things that bodies became familiar with the shape of the particular world that they inhabited. From this perspective ‘human nature’ identifies the comfort that people feel in their familiarity with the world as they know it, and in the embodied confidence that comes with knowing how to act aright in that world. The aim of this chapter will be to consider briefly how those performances might have changed as the result of the different ways that human relations with plants and animals emerged during the periods that marked the beginning of agricultural systems in south-western Asia and in Europe.

Lambros Malafouris (2013) has produced a full-length study of‘material engagement theory’, which is an archaeological attempt to override the distinction drawn between an inner cognitive state and its supposed external expression. He builds upon earlier arguments in favour of treating the human mind as an ‘extended’ or ‘distributed’ condition that exploits the possibilities offered by the processes of memory storage that operate outside the brain, via such mechanisms as notetaking (Clark 2008). Malafouris then offers us the idea of the mind as a system that integrates an engagement between bodies and things. It is in the nature of many things that actions and emotions, expressed by the body, are directed towards them (cf. Barrett 2013).

The argument that embodied performance expresses the value of things in ways that are signalled to others, poses a particular challenge to archaeology. Renfrew has commented, for example, that ‘[t]he mistake made by commentators who focus exclusively upon the “mind” is that they emphasize the potential for rich symbolic behaviour without indicating that the ultimate criterion is the praxis in the material world’ (Renfrew 2001, 129). I take ‘praxis in the material world’ to refer to an interpretive performance that was directed towards some material condition. Whilst agreeing with this assessment I am also aware that such performances need leave little by way of an archaeological trace. This allows us to reject the idea of a ‘sapient paradox’, by which the lack of material expression for much of the earliest history of a human cognitive existence has been characterised as contradicting certain archaeological expectations (Renfrew 1996). Cognitively modern human communities might well have emerged some 150kya, by performing (and by this I would also include speaking), and thus by communicating their interpretations of their landscapes. This might certainly have resulted in a dynamic and eventful history of shared and developing understandings, alongside the processes of colonisation (Gamble 1993), but during such a time, at least to the archaeological observer, nothing much appears to have happened before the end of the Pleistocene.

Abandoning the ‘brain-centric’ definition of what it is to be human (T allis 2011 & 2020) requires us to accept that the emergence of humanity, expressed in its various forms of humanness, was simply embodied and performed like any other form of life. All forms of life develop through their responses to the conditions in which they find themselves, and they trace a path moving from growth and development to death. As we have already noted (Chapter 6), and as John Dupre (2012) has argued, human life cannot therefore be characterised as if it was represented by a static form of being, but instead it has always been a process of development. This developmental, or process, perspective on the developing practices of life means that we should recognise, among many other things, the vulnerability that accompanies the birth and immature development of the human infant (Taylor 2010). Timothy Taylor has emphasised that the development in the embodied skills of becoming a certain kind of human (a form of humanness) is achieved by one who learns how to inhabit a particular environment of material things. Things are therefore technologies of becoming. These material contexts are developed and extended throughout an individual’s lifetime, and their long-term, technical histories have facilitated the various strands of human evolution. The implication of this argument is that the development and growth of individual bodies is not simply a matter of biology. Instead the development of embodied skills is achieved by virtue of the sensor)' familiarity gained from living within a landscape of things and in the company of others. This process affirms the self’s growing understanding of its own existence. This perspective means that our understanding of the historical processes of becoming returns us to the Peircean concept of the interpretant (Short 2004; see page 79). This concept matters to us because the sign is the material context of an interpretant’s development, and something of this context has survived as the residues that are recovered archaeologically. Human agency cannot therefore be treated as if it emerged as the author who had engraved some meaning upon the material world, and the challenge of archaeology is not to seek to interpret the residue as if it were the representation either of human actions or the representation of the cognitive motivations resulting in those actions. The alternative is to accept that the material conditions of life were the things to which the human agent had responded as an interpretant, and that it was through these responses that the agent made themselves. The interpretant’s development grew from the realisation that certain things had a significance for it, and the validity of the actions executed in response towards those things could be seen and evaluated by others. It is from this that co-operation between the participants could emerge (Adami & Hintze 2018). The material therefore made particular kinds of social ‘becomings’ possible.

This results in the important conclusion that the replication of a population comprising a kind of humanness is not the same thing as the replication of a biological population because the former is the product of biocultural replication, while the latter is supposedly the product of biological replication alone. The distinction (which will be important in the consideration of DNA analysis, below) might entice us towards using it to distinguish the worlds of humanness from the world of ‘nature’. This is a line of reasoning that I would be unhappy to follow because I am unconvinced that humanity is the only form of life that learns from, and develops strategically, its embodied practices. It is certainly the case, for example, that forms of humanness are not the only forms of life that develop the embodied mechanisms of social recognition and strategic development (Wilson 2012).

In the previous chapter I already commented upon the widely held assumption that a form of life is prefigured by its genetic line of inheritance. If that were indeed the case then that form of life might well be genetically maladapted to the material conditions within which it develops, given that those conditions might have changed since the reproduction of previous generations that had submitted for selection. It might also be maladapted to any new environments that were open for colonisation (Ward 2018, 50). Development that requires the continuity of a form of life therefore depends upon life’s inherent plasticity'. It is the ability to recognise, and to adapt to, changing conditions, rather than a dependency upon the adaptive success of previous generations, that is the requirement for an emergent form of life to be reproductively successful. As John Dupre puts it: ‘the best way to persist is not always determinable in advance; it will often be adaptive, to have the capacity to respond flexibly to environmental contingencies’ (Dupre 2018, 96).

He goes on to suggest that:

distinctive modes of flexibility characterize the major different modes of organization of life. For microbes, plasticity is chemical or metabolic. Microbes appear to be able to extract energy from almost any chemical substance from which this is in principle possible. . . . These chemical capacities of microbes are exploited by . . . most multicellular eukaryotic organisms, most obviously ... in digestion. (Dupre 2018, 96)

Neo-Darwinian modelling of the process of natural selection acting upon populations of genetic variability therefore offers a deceptively simple model for far more complex evolutionary and historical processes. By referring to the evolution of developmental systems, the complexity of the evolutionary process becomes clearer. Individual organisms and populations develop as ‘far from equilibrium’ systems because of their abilities to seek out and appropriate the energy necessary to stay alive, to grow, and thus to develop. Various forms of life, from the simple cells of bacteria and archaea, to plants and animals, and on to whole populations, sustain their reproductive capability by various degrees of behavioural flexibility. In the case of humans, as Taylor (2010) has argued, evolving technologies do not so much represent the environments to which those humans had adapted throughout their histories, rather they operated as part of the ‘exoskeleton’ that sustained an evolving humanness. Humans in this form have always diversified as cyborgs (Clark 2003), and archaeology should be able to provide some understanding of these different human-cyborg histories.

A developing ecology of organisms, such as those imagined by Darwin living in his ‘entangled bank’ (page 102), is able to sustain the order reproduced across the generations by the exchange of energy. This is a process that starts with the conversion of energy from the sun into glucose by plant photosynthesis, where the plants have themselves responded to soils, drainage, and climate (Nealon 2016). We need to understand how the different components of each ecology had arranged themselves to map a gradient in the flows of energy. Ecologies, to which humans have added a range of material technologies, degrade the input of a highly structured source of solar energy, such that the entire ‘ecosystem must be viewed as an active element with processes and structure, configuring itself to capture and degrade as much energy as possible’ (Schneider & Sagan 2005, 226). In this way the ecological system has determined the living trajectories of its component organisms, and it is thus in this way that the ecologies to which others once belonged might be best understood, as a series of processes and flows of energy', information, and materials (Harvey 1996).

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