Symbols and How We Came to Be Human
A longstanding belief commonly mentioned in support of human exceptionalism is that our species is distinct from others in using symbols (a word I use here, as it is in the social sciences, to describe anything with a socially shared meaning that isn’t obvious). Countering the assumption that symbols are a distinct category that's unique to humans, I propose that they be properly recognized as operating in concert with an impressive number and diversity of less widely meaningful, or outright meaningless, social markers. This chapter critiques the views on symbolism in our species often expressed by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and biologists. I consider how symbolism could have evolved from behaviors of non-human animals, some of which live in societies bound together by more superficial “markers” of identity that do not convey any more profound significance. Such markers, considered broadly, can be essential in holding societies together.