Enculturation Recapitulates Civilization

When I was a kid, we lived in a big, drafty bungalow-style house, verandas, mango trees and all. The dining room floor was some sort of dull red matte-like surface. It worked perfectly as a chalkboard. I would frequently cover the entire floor with chalk drawings. It strikes me that the way I drew back then was rather caveman-like. Atavistic mixes of symbols, metaphors and icons. Here’s a scene I drew frequently. Not quite a buffalo hunt.


Isn’t it curious that kids choose to recreate the formulaic images they encounter in picture books, and the landscapes of the stories they hear, rather than what they see? Our parents minds get to us before our environment does.

In this entirely cliched picture, the one bit of originality I showed was in always putting in a helicopter with a dangling rope. I have no idea where I first encountered that image, but something about it must have captured my attention for me to put it, rather incongruously, into a cliched rural landscape. I had a story to go with it, about how you could pull on the rope and make the helicopter fall down. When guests came over, having me explain my helicopter-rope was a part of the evening’s entertainment.

My helicopter-in-rural-landscape image was clearly a mashup of pieces of mental models I was downloading from others. I suspect most of the images little children create are mashups of images significant adults put in their heads. I think kids break free and start defining themselves once they start paying more attention to the raw world of sensory information, and less attention to their parents. For me the first time this happened was probably when I drew a steam engine:

engineThe key point about this picture is that I drew streaks where wheels should have been. Notice that in my picture of the helicopter, I had a freeze-frame rotor rather than the more realistic (if still iconic) rotor-blur. I am told I drew something like this when I was three or so, but have no memory of it. One of my uncles liked to keep reminding me whenever he saw me, of the explanation I gave to the question, “why does the engine have no wheels?” Apparently I answered, “the train is going so fast, you can’t see the wheels.”

We didn’t have TV then, and I have a very vague memory of noticing the blurriness of moving objects. So at least in my individual origin myth, I think of this as the first episode where I went beyond mashing up received images, and integrated something of my own experience of the world.

It struck me, as I was pondering childhood creativity, that there is a strong analogy here to the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (the controversial idea that the developmental stages of a fetus in the womb mirror the evolutionary stages that led to that species; I personally think there is some truth to this, even if the details are wrong).  We recreate in our individual evolution into adult human beings, the trajectory of humanity from caves to skyscrapers.

I call this idea enculturation recapitulates civilization.

I saw a very powerful example recently, of this little French girl who seems to be making up the most amazing story starting with Winnie the Pooh, and improvising a vast narrative incorporating apparently every fairy tale she’s ever heard. Watch the video. If she actually came up with this herself, it tells us a lot about how little kids’ minds develop.

But what’s even more amazing is that my pictures, as well as the little girl’s story, have almost no elements drawn from real sensory experience.

My explanation: the real world is much too complex for a kid to model and integrate into a world view from scratch. A kid must necessarily begin with received mental models, learned from stories, and then start integrating his/her own experiences. I suspect even cavemen didn’t make those great hunting images based on memories of their own hunts. They probably depicted stories they heard of famous hunts by tribal ancestors. But I guess we’ll never know. Did the guy who drew this on the wall of a cave in Lascaux hear a story from his grandfather, or experience it himself?

Lascaux II

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter