The advances brought about by human thought have made modern life so different from the way it was just a few hundred years ago, that folks of those days might rightly have called us sorcerers or magicians, were we and a few of our many technologies to suddenly have appeared among them.
People of such times would have had the upmost difficulty to understand how we can talk to someone many kilometres away, can be heard or how their image can be projected upon a screen, nor how heavy machines can fly through the air, how joints and body organs can be replaced, or how pest- and disease-resistant plants can be developed. Today most of us take these developments for granted.
How has it been possible for humans to discover and accomplish so much in just a few thousand years? Only 5000 years have elapsed since the first major road some 2,857 km from the Persian Gulf to the Aegean Sea, was built, although humans seem to have emerged some 3 million years before that.
Many other species have existed for tens of millions of years; why have none ever attained anything even remotely approaching human achievements? Why did their cognitive ability not develop as it has for humans? The answer, we know, is twofold: We are a relatively puny species, and had to find ways to survive in competition with better adapted animals.
Fortunately the forest dwelling ancestors of humans developed opposable thumbs for locomotion in trees, and that grasping, manipulative capacity led to Homo Hablis. When the forest receded (or humans migrated to the savannah grasslands) standing on the back legs provided a wider field of view for avoiding predators and finding prey. Eventually perpetual bipedalism released the upper limbs from locomotion, allowing unrestricted hand usage and maximizing latent abilities to build and use tools. Learning how to make and use tools and weapons involves much more imagination than merely copying, and our ancestors therefore developed advanced, formal signalling which led to language.
Formal audible signalling is widely used to express emotions. Many animals and birds can be heard declaring their feelings when they grunt, cry, bark or sing to signal danger, mark territory or attract mates. Such sounds sum their current emotional state and declare it to the world, conveying meaning to other sentient species around them. Human mothers recognize infant cries and know 'instinctively' when their infants are hungry, uncomfortable, distressed or merely bored.
Intentional sounds such as an infant cry are not just involuntary reactions to a stimuli — are dramatically improve the probability of survival for the originator and its species.
There is an important difference between publicizing one emotion and vocalizing a series of them. A cry of pain can be an instinctive reaction, requiring no thinking ability—a behaviour discussed previously. A cry of pain followed by one of anger, then one of threat, may well be demonstrating the use of something like a language because the animal is attempting to make others understand and respond to its mental or emotional state.
The development of any language, like most evolutionary change, would doubtlessly have taken place sporadically, in dribbles and spurts. Significant advances were likely only made whenever a particular kind of vocalization could be repeatedly used to convey some special meaning to another, or when an exchange of sounds enabled an exchange of intentions, and such an interchange was reiterated with some consistency.
Animals can, and do, use advanced signalling systems with some proficiency. Gerbils have developed a fairly complex language to warn one another of the presence of predators. Dolphins, like whales, exchange complex information sonically; they can also recognize, and respond appropriately to, the meaning hidden within the grammatical structure of human hand signals. Chimpanzees use primitive language forms, and many have been trained to select symbols that convey their desires for food, drink, or toys. They are also able to express a whole range of other reactions in response to questioning. Several have been trained to use ASL signs, and one such chimp subsequently taught others some signs. The experiments are regarded widely as failures - the chimps did not learn language, they were simply able to mimic an extremely limited number of signs in more-or-less appropriate contexts.
Primitive language usage would have emerged a great many times as species developed, but it has never developed to any significant extent (as far as we know) in any species other than our own. Two evolutionary developments contributed to our ability: a deep-set larynx (which forms a large, resonating chamber, possibly helped into position as we began walking upright) and vocal chords (which can vibrate and are controllable). These features allow us to form and vocalize an almost unlimited number of distinctly different sounds.
Thinking by using word equivalents became possible as soon as words began to be used. A simple proto-language (employing nouns, verbs, subjects, objects, and simple sentence structures) would have begun to take shape from the outset.
Language use improved our species’ ability to recall memories (the first step in discovering links or relationships between them and incoming stimuli). Once relationships had been found and named, early humans would have used this knowledge within their clans to enhance their group’s survival. Third-level thinking and language development would now continue forever hand-in-hand, because an improvement in one concomitantly produces an improvement in the other.
Cassirer, discussing these early phases of language development, stated: “Before the intellectual work of conceiving and understanding of phenomena can set in, the work of naming must have preceded it, and have reached a certain point of elaboration. For it is this process which transforms the world of sense impression, which animals also possess, into a mental world, a world of ideas and meanings. All theoretical cognition takes its departure from a world already preformed by language.”
Word arrangements, syntax and sentence structures are essential components of all languages. Thus the ability to sequence thoughts must have developed before language could have evolved. Calvin suggests that this skill first arose as our ancestors learned how to throw rocks and sticks accurately, an ability which requires the careful sequencing of vision, arm, and finger movements to be successful. This is likely to have happened some two million years ago, when Homo erectus emerged from trees to live on the African plains, where surveillance and throwing from an upright posture became a common occurrence.
Sequencing (of data) is a necessary part of comparing memories and incoming stimuli; it simplifies the discovery of meaningful relationships between mental data, and, as earlier noted, relationship-discovering is the quintessential feature of second-level thinking.
Various kinds of evidence exist indicating early human life forms used sophisticated language. Rudgley, in The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, refers to work done by Dietrich and Ursula Mania, on findings that date to between 350,000 and 300,000 years ago from the Bilzingsleben Lower Palaeolithic site near Halle in former East Germany. This site contains evidence of workshop areas, complete with anvil stones (where tools were made) and stone, wood and bone remnants (all showing tool markings). Four artifacts with a series of parallel-cut incisions were also found. It is thought that a clan of considerable dexterity lived and worked in this area, one which very likely used some rudimentary form of language, and that the parallel lines probably conveyed some specific meaning.
Rhulen, a linguist, investigated word origins, and has found evidence that supports the theory that all languages originate from one, proto-sapiens, language, which existed some 100,000 years ago. Nichols has examined syntax and other structural mechanisms used in languages, and dates their origins even further back, to at least 132,000 y.a.
Words and language are central to what we are calling third-level thinking. We may not always select and use actual words when thinking consciously, but a few moment’s reflection about how attention is being directed from one aspect to another within our mind when thinking consciously makes it apparent that we use sentence-structure equivalents. (Tattersall and Matternes go as far as to say that we could not even conceive the idea of thought if we did not use a language.)
Third-level thinking manifests itself as if we were talking to ourselves. For instance, when we are preparing to express a point of view we fabricate sentences, developing and rejecting trains of thought within our minds. We usually attempt to follow one main track when thinking, but our central theme is always surrounded by a plethora of other, loosely associated, thoughts and images, each offering more data for potential inclusion. Our thoughts wend their way among these submissions, and only finally crystallize when we mouth or write a statement, or act upon a thought. Cassirer again: “only symbolic expression can yield the possibility of prospect and retrospect, because it is only by symbols that distinctions are not merely made, but fixed in consciousness. What the mind has once created, what has been culled from the total sphere of consciousness, does not fade away again when the spoken word has set its seal upon it and given it definite form.”
Third-level thinking is slow compared to the speed of second-level thinking because word selection and arrangement takes time. Moreover, third-level thinking is always preceded by second-level thinking. Although we may feel that our conscious thoughts occur immediately, experiments (particularly those with people who have sustained brain damage) show that unconscious emotional signals—a component of subconscious thinking, alluded to earlier—always precede conscious thinking, and certainly affect decision making.
The consequences of prior subconscious second-level thinking have been often noted by novelists. They, not infrequently, state that their characters “took over” and wrote the story. Actually, their subconscious second-level thinking would have continuously explored and developed associations between memories of characters, and the results of this activity would have been fed to their conscious second and third level of thinking, giving rise to the feeling that their characters were in control.
Language development facilitated huge improvements in Homo sapiens’ ability to problem solve, and this significantly increased their survival ability. Language use allowed early men and women to teach weapon construction, organize group hunting, deploy themselves to previously determined purposes, and so on, considerably enhancing their chances of obtaining food, killing animals or besting enemies. Greater skill and efficiency in these areas left more time for other activities—in animal and plant domestication, artistry and creativity, pottery and ornament production, culture and recreation, to provide just a few examples. Thinking, language use, problem solving, and the practical application of what has been learned form a spiral of constant and accelerating improvement that continues in humans today. (But only as long as the whole is reality-based: introducing fanciful assumptions about the nature of things warps and obstructs the whole process. More about this in later chapters.)
- Much more than this may have been needed. For instance, recent research suggests that the gene FOXP2 mutated some 100,000 years ago, giving humans a genetic sequence that differs from apes in this area. In humans, a deficiency in this gene severely affects how language is both expressed and understood. See Wolfgang Enard et al., “Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language,” Nature, 418, 869-872.
- For example, a 14-year old bonobo chimpanzee called Panbanisha, first refused, then “granted” and participated in, an interview with a reporter. Panbanisha lives at Georgia State University, and has been taught the meaning of about 3,000 words by scientists at the university’s Language Research Centre. Another chimp, Washoe, living at Central Washington University, has a working vocabulary of 240 signs and has taught other chimpanzees to sign.
- Robin Dunbar, in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, postulated that ape and monkey groups are necessarily limited in size to less than about 150 animals because they socialize through grooming. He extended this theory to state that languages developed to permit larger groups to bond via social gossip. I favour a different explanation. Group bonding requires intelligence to observe, analyze (i.e., associate relevant memories) or recognize behaviours that promote bonding rather than distancing. In other words, social intelligence incorporates the results of a great number of problem-solving activities. Thus problem solving predates bonding. In my opinion, languages developed to facilitate problem solving.
- We are not the only hominids to possess the low-lying larynxes required to form a full range of sounds: 200,000 year old Neandertal bones show that they also possessed such an anatomical feature.
- Cassirer, Language and Myth, 28.
- Klaus Zuberbüler, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, may have found monkey-communication syntax. If so, then some monkey tribes may have developed relatively advanced linguistic abilities. (See James Randerson, “Call of the wild?” New Scientist, 30 March, 2002, 10.) This issue of the New Scientist also contains an article that describes how robots, programmed only with “goals, agendas and the desire to form relationships” developed languages employing around 8,000 words. See Helen Phillips, “First Words,” pages 24-27.
- William H. Calvin, The River that Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1986). This very readable book interlaces a fact-filled description of the evolution of life and the universe with anecdotes about a trip down the Colorado River.
- This, if valid, nicely illustrates how a skill that evolved due to its survival value in one area can be put to use in quite a different area. Another, perhaps better known, example of this phenomenon (termed “exaptation”) is the transition of feathers, which are thought to have first evolved as light-weight insulating material to keep the body warm. Animal bodies have been built from, and consist of, numerous adaptations. Their convoluted origins frequently cause them to be more cumbersome and less efficient than those an intelligent being might design from scratch. The retina of most animal species, for instance, receives photons of light only after they have been filtered through several layers of non-active cells. Contrast this with the eyes of molluscs—light falls immediately upon the retina of an octopus, for example, a much more efficient and sensitive arrangement. Generally, body organs are effective, but probably all might be modified and made more efficient—something scientists have deliberated, and are beginning to attempt.
- Richard Rudgley, The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 224-233.
- Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (New York: John Wiley, 1994).
- Johanna Nichols, Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time (University of Chicago Press, 1999).
- Ian Tattersall and Jay H. Matternes, “Once We Were Not Alone,” Scientific American, January 2000, 62. For a slightly more recent discussion of the significance of language, read Ian Tattersall, “How We Came to be Human,” Scientific American, December 2001, 56-63.
- Cassirer, Language and Myth, 38.
- For instance, when the connection between the inferior temporal cortex (which handles the signals that allow us to recognize faces) and the limbic system (which deals with emotions) is severed, familiar faces (relatives, for instance) can be recognized, but this recollection is devoid of all emotional associations, making it impossible for affected persons to decide how to appropriately greet an approaching visitor.
- Magnetic resonance imaging provides evidence suggesting that emotions play a part in every decision made, even decisions that might be considered to be entirely based upon reason. (These emotions may be arising from the role our personal or private goals play in all decision making—see Practical Decisions.)
- The reason why this kind of subconscious activity takes place is explored more fully in The Source Of Revelations.
- E. MacPhail, “Vertebrate Intelligence: The Null Hypothesis,” in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1985, B308:37-51, declares that language is the “big step” to becoming intelligent. I disagree, for “intelligence,” to me, includes that which animals demonstrate when challenged by a problem of concern to them. (For example, tool-invention by animals or barrier-circumvention by squirrels demonstrates intelligence.) Intelligence (see section seven of this chapter) and second-level thinking are one and the same thing; neither requires language. However, language greatly improves the ability to associate findings and ideas; thus language use increases the ability to solve problems, and so acts to increase intelligence.