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American Annals of the Deaf

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Literacy and Deaf People: Cultural and Contextual Perspectives

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of college, I enrolled in a Chicano studies course, which had a powerful impact on me, in part, because I was a very romantic, idealistic girl. But in the course, people with lives strikingly different from my own told their stories. I learned about genuine injustices that I had not understood before from those who had first-hand knowledge. I met people who could lay claim to a cultural heritage, many with active links to an exotic “foreign” homeland. I tried to examine my own heritage within the framework of 1960s radicalism. Like many Anglo people, I did not think I had any culture. What I could fashion from sets of family facts was very unsatisfactory. I learned that I could look backwards to slave owners, scoundrels who claimed Cherokee blood in order to get land in Indian Country, and a diluted gene pool. (My isolated, rural Norwegian ancestors intermarried and regularly produced severely developmentally disabled people.) None of the above, including a living mormor, my Norwegian grandmother, added up to anything that I would call culture. None of it was romantic enough to satisfy my need for an authentic culture. I concluded that I was just a slice of Wonder Bread with no culture. I did not belong to any group.


Why would I claim that something like culture is an impressive achievement? How has culture made a difference for human beings? Simply, the evolution and transmission of culture is the reason for our cognitive and linguistic successes. The ability to create and transmit culture allows individuals in each generation to save time, energy, and risk by making use of the already existing knowledge and skills of the human beings who went before us (Tomasello 1999).

On the African continent, between six million and 250,000 years ago, our primate ancestors split off from the ancestors of chimpanzees and bonobos. All primates had the capacity for cultural transmission, but our forebears apparently developed the ability to take advantage of it in a new and specific way. The fact that even six million years did not provide sufficient time for the genetic changes that would have been necessary for us to become so symbolically and materially capable indicates that we created something to speed up our development as thinking, symbol-manipulating creatures who passed our innovations to subsequent generations. The simple passage of time, even millions of years, could not have created among human beings the adaptations that have made us so skilled at recognizing and solving the problems that come with living in the world. The only way to explain how we managed the needed changes is through the development of a special capacity. Tomasello (1999) argues that the key development was the rapid evolution of the ability to accumulate culture, to participate in its ongoing invention and then transmit it to others. No material object, social practice, or symbol system was invented once and for all by an individual or group of individuals at a single moment in time. Rather, over time, between generations, creations arose, were modified, and passed on.

Tomasello posits three critical features in the evolution of culture. First, cognitive resources were pooled. A primitive invention was learned and used by others. Then it was improved upon, adopted by others, and passed on to another generation, who improved upon it, used it, and passed it on. Many heads were better than one. (There is no doubt that other primates are creative in the wild. Their creations do not get modified, however, and to our knowledge, they do not accumulate or get passed on to new generations.) Second, the accumulation of new resources was faithfully transmitted to others, who adopted it. This created a stabilizing or “ratchet” effect (Tomasello 1999, 5), which prevented innovations from getting lost due to “slippage,” or through forgetting. (Some cultural innovations are lost or rejected because they are not useful or because a better innovation replaces them.)

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