Fiction and Other Minds: Language, Tool Use, and the Evolution of Human Culture

This term’s Fiction and Other Minds seminar welcomed John Parrington who is an Associate Professor in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Oxford. He is author of The Deeper Genome (OUP 2015), Redesigning Life (OUP 2016), and Mind Shift: How the Human Brain Became Conscious (OUP, forthcoming).

‘The Strange Redemption of William Golding’s Pincher Martin: Language, Tool Use, and the Evolution of Human Culture’
Prof John Parrington, University of Oxford

Upon first reading, William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin appears to be the story of one shipwrecked sailor’s battle to survive upon an isolated rock in the north Atlantic. As the novel progresses, however, it becomes clear that all is not what it seems, something we glimpse only gradually at first, and then brutally with the story’s famous final twist. Drawing in particular on the ideas of the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky and linguist Valentin Voloshinov, Parrington suggested that the protagonist’s struggle to survive can be seen as a profound and positive representation of the unique features of humankind—our ability to manipulate the world around us with tools and our self-conscious awareness based on language. The insights that we get from Golding’s novel in combination with Vygotsky’s and Voloshinov’s work from the 1930s were related to more recent evidence about the biological and social roots of thought and language, to discuss the question of what makes human consciousness unique compared to that of other species.

The seminar is convened by Professor Ben Morgan ( and Dr Naomi Rokotnitz (

As always, the talk will be followed by drinks for all attendees.

About the Seminar: The Fiction and Other Minds seminar series, convened by Ben Morgan and Naomi Rokotnitz, has been running since 2013, hosting a range of speakers working at the interface between literary studies, cognitive science and phenomenology. The seminar explores the field that opens when features investigated by the cognitive sciences are tested and expanded across different cultural contexts. In particular, we are interested in the ways by which literary texts often challenge and differentiate theoretical insights especially through their attention to the culturally situated aspects of cognition, and how cognitively informed approaches to literature can deepen our understanding of the embodied and affective processes that underpin meaning-making, including literary reading.