Codex Suprasliensis (source). Texts were less reader-friendly in the past. An ability to read and write meant not only a good livelihood but also reproductive success.
The Visual Word Form Area (VWFA) is a brain region that specializes in recognizing written words and letters. Though not essential to reading and writing, it makes these tasks much easier. It plays no role in other mental tasks, as shown when a case of epilepsy was treated by a surgical lesion to the VWFA:
[…] our patient presented a clear-cut reading impairment following surgery, while his performance remained flawless in object recognition and naming, face processing, and general language abilities. (Gaillard et al, 2006).
Some improvement was observed six months afterwards, but reading still took twice as long as it had before surgery.
The VWFA seems to function differently in different human populations, particularly between users of alphabetical script, where symbols represent sounds, and users of logographic script, where symbols represent ideas. Chinese subjects, for instance, process their idea-based symbols with assistance from other brain regions, whereas Westerners process their sound-based symbols only in the VWFA (Liu et al., 2008). Similarly, dyslexics activate this brain region in ways that differ by linguistic background, apparently because of differences in spelling and writing (Paulesu et al., 2001).
Evolutionarily speaking, these population differences seem paradoxical, as does the very existence of the VWFA. As Dehaene and Cohen (2011) note, natural selection could not have created a specialized mental organ for reading because “the invention of writing is too recent and, until the last century, concerned too small a fraction of humanity to have influenced the human genome.” Writing emerged in the Middle East only six thousand years ago, and some societies adopted writing only within the past century. Even in societies that have long been literate, reading and writing were confined to a minority until recent times.
To resolve this paradox, Dehaene and Cohen (2011) argue that our brains deal with word recognition by recycling neurons that were originally meant for face recognition:
Thus, learning to read must involve a ‘neuronal recycling’ process whereby pre-existing cortical systems are harnessed for the novel task of recognizing written words. […] reading acquisition should ‘encroach’ on particular areas of the cortex – those that possess the appropriate receptive fields to recognize the small contrasted shapes that are used as characters, and the appropriate connections to send this information to temporal lobe language areas. […] We have proposed that writing evolved as a recycling of the ventral visual cortex’s competence for extracting configurations of object contours (Dehaene & Cohen, 2011)
For Dehaene and Cohen, the VWFA is not hardwired in our genes. It always takes up the same area of the brain because that is where we can most easily recruit neurons when learning to recognize words. But why then does this recruitment happen so fast in young children and illiterate adults? A study on kindergarten children found that their VWFAs preferentially responded to pictures of letter strings after the subjects had played a grapheme/phoneme correspondence game for a total of 3.6 hours over an 8-week period. This finding is all the more strange because only a few of the children could actually read, and even then only at a rudimentary level (Brem et al., 2010; Dehaene et al., 2010).
So are we born with a ready-to-activate VWFA? And has this mental organ evolved out of an assortment of face-recognition neurons through generations of natural selection? But we’re now back to our evolutionary paradox. How could the VWFA have arisen in no more than six thousand years? The time constraint seems all the more paradoxical if we remember that literacy was confined until recent times to a privileged minority.
But maybe the paradox is only apparent. First, we estimate the literacy rate of past societies from signed documents of one sort or another: wills, court depositions, marriage certificates, etc. (Barr & Kamil, 1996, p. 52). If the “signature” is an ‘X’, the person is deemed to have been illiterate. We can thus measure the admittedly small proportion of people who could read and write cursive script. But a larger proportion could read and write texts of block letters, and even more could read short texts of block letters, e.g., storefront signs and graffiti, while not being able to write. Current historical methods thus underestimate the total proportion of people who had some reading ability.
Second, as Clark (2007) has shown, a selection pressure can affect an entire population even though it acts only on a minority of better-off individuals. As late as the 19th century, the English lower class did not replace itself demographically and was continually replenished by downwardly mobile individuals from the middle and upper classes. The average English man or woman, however poor, was largely descended from yesteryear’s kings, merchants, and scribes.
Finally, new mental organs can arise through natural selection over a fairly short time, especially if they evolve out of pre-existing structures. As Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran point out:
Even if 40 or 50 thousand years were too short a time for the evolutionary development of a truly new and highly complex mental adaptation, which is by no means certain, it is certainly long enough for some groups to lose such an adaptation, for some groups to develop a highly exaggerated version of an adaptation, or for changes in the triggers or timing of that adaptation to evolve. That is what we see in domesticated dogs, for example, who have entirely lost certain key behavioral adaptations of wolves such as paternal investment. Other wolf behaviors have been exaggerated or distorted (Harpending & Cochran, 2002)
So who needs a VWFA?
Still, is the VWFA really vital to survival? Is it something that natural selection could have favored? As our epileptic patient showed, one can read without a functioning VWFA—admittedly at only half the normal speed.
Keep in mind that texts were a lot less reader-friendly in the past. Because parchment was expensive, writing usually took the form of a continuous stream of characters with little or no punctuation. It was a rare person who could read and write such texts on a sustained basis, so it is no surprise that scribes enjoyed not only good livelihoods but also reproductive success. According to the Book of Sirach [39: 11], “If [a scribe] lives long, he will leave a name greater than a thousand” (Frost, 2011).
When people began to read and write some six thousand years ago, they made use of neurons and neural networks that had served other purposes. It was a make-do solution that nonetheless paved the way for later improvements. If you had a knack for reading and writing, you now had an edge over those who did not, and that knack would be better represented in the next generation. Such mental characteristics would have become more and more widespread with the growing need for people who could process large volumes of textual information on a daily basis.
In this, as in many other ways, humans have directed their own evolution. After creating a new behavior by pushing their envelope of phenotypic plasticity, they gradually acquire a genetic basis for the new phenotype through natural selection for genetic characteristics that make it work better. Humans shape their cultural environment, and this cultural environment in turn shapes humans.
Indeed, there is a suspicious resemblance between the spread of alphabetical writing and the spread of the most recent variant of ASPM, a gene implicated in the regulation of primate brain growth. In humans, a new variant arose some six thousand years ago, apparently somewhere in the Middle East. It then spread outward, becoming more prevalent in the Middle East (37-52% incidence) and Europe (38-50%) than in East Asia (0-25%) (Frost, 2011; Mekel-Bobrov et al., 2005).
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Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.
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Frost, P. (2011). Human nature or human natures? Futures, 43, 740-748.http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2011.05.017
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