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New Publication by Department Chair Bruce McConachie

Bruce McConachie's article, "An Evolutionary Perspective on Play, Performance, and Ritual" was recently published in the journal TDR. Here, McConachie examines "biological, anthropological, cognitive, and social/historical scholarship that investigates evolutionary adaptation, animal play, the foundations of performance, and the cognitive basis of ritual." The following is a brief excerpt and you can find the full article on TDR's site.

The Evolution of Play

Cognitive philosopher Mark Johnson’s understanding of the logic of continuity in theoriesthat rely on Darwinian evolution provides a welcome framework for this investigation. Dewey realized that Darwin’s thinking challenged the tradition of inventing new ontological categories to account for phenomena in biology and culture that were actually related over evolutionary time. Categories dividing animals from humans and divisions among modes of human thought that had been a part of Kantian and Hegelian philosophy, for example, could no longer be sustained after Darwin. Dewey concluded that since all of life evolved from previously living things, there could be no ontological breaks in animal and human history and no foundational differences among aesthetic and analytical experience. Accepting these premises, Johnson elaborates Dewey’s position in a cognitive direction:

The principle of continuity entails that any explanation of the nature and workings of the mind, even the most abstract conceptualization and reasoning, must have its roots in the embodied capacities of the organism for perception, feeling, object manipulation, and bodily movement. The continuity hypothesis, however, does not entail that there are no demarcations, differentiations, or distinctions within experience. Of course there are demarcations, and they are very real and important! The continuity hypothesis insists only that wherever and whenever we find actual working distinctions, they are explicable against the background of continuous processes. Furthermore, social and cultural forces are required to develop our cognitive capacities to their full potential, including language and symbolic reasoning. Infants do not speak or discover mathematical proofs at birth. Dewey’s continuity thesis thus requires both evolutionary and developmental explanations. (Johnson 2007:122–23)

Following continuity theory, we can anticipate that play, performance, and ritual probably emerged out of each other, but how and in what order remain to be discovered. Further, the theory suggests that there are likely to be differences as well as continuities among these categories, but the differences may not be ontological ones.

According to Johnson, scholars working within the framework of continuity theory should follow three major guidelines. First, “there must be an account of the connections between humans and others animals as regards the emergence and development of meaningful patterns of organism-environment interactions” (123). Second, scholars should use a bottom-up approach, relating matters of thought and culture to our elementary “capacities for perception and motor response” (123). Finally, says Johnson, “Because judgments of value are essential to an organism’s continued functioning, there must be an account of the central role of emotions and feelings in the constitution of an organism’s world and its knowledge of it” (123).These guidelines reflect the scientifically acknowledged realities of human evolution. Because it took Homo sapiens several million years before our hominid ancestors separated from other primates and many thousands of years after that before our senses, brains, and motor responses arrived at their current capabilities, we must seek to ground our interest in organism-environment interactions, abstract thought and high culture, and even ethical judgments — all of which are a significant part of play, performance, and ritual — in our evolutionary past.