After a mid-winter break to look at some of the ways we can generate different ‘truths’, let’s return to the issue of why humans, as a species, no longer live in harmony with nature. Some humans live in perfect balance with their environment but, usually, when ‘we’ ‘discover’ such people, we try to change how they live. As I said in a post entitled ‘What Makes a Fair Society?’, I do not believe that our current ‘fast-track to oblivion’ approach to life is ‘just human nature’ for it is not a trait of all human beings. It’s a cultural defect, in my opinion, but how far back does it go?
We’ve seen that our earliest ancestors lived through many periods of natural turmoil but, somehow, they survived. I have no doubt that the ability to understand and use, if not make, fire was key to the survival of early humans. We most likely developed the ability to learn from past events through storytelling before realising that we could invent a story too, a story of a different future where nature was controlled.
Look who’s talking
In the last post of this series, we saw that there is no consensus on the origin or age of human language —our voice-based mode of communication. Last August, New Scientist ran a story on the evolution of the human voice. “Anatomy doesn’t impede primates from producing distinct vocalisations that are homologues to different human vowels”, says Adriano Lameira of the University of St Andrews, who had previously shown that orang-utans can mimic some of the sounds of human speech.
It makes sense to me that speech gradually improved over the course of human evolution but scientific evidence is a bit more reliable than intuition. There is evidence that Neanderthals and Denisovans could speak, at least to some extent. “Neanderthals most likely had brains capable of learning and executing the complex manoeuvres involved in talking, but their speech would not have been as clear and comprehensible as ours, perhaps accounting in part for their extinction,” says Philip Lieberman of Brown University in Rhode Island. “I think Neanderthals could talk, but more indistinctly than us.”
Neanderthals lived from 350 to 40 thousand years ago and, based on limited archaeological evidence, Denisovans were known to be alive 40 thousand years ago but if the temporal range is known, it’s probably behind a paywall. It is in this context that the ‘cognitive revolution’ of 70,000 years ago, as argued by Yuval Noah Harari, should be considered. Humans other than Homo sapiens could talk but, for various reasons, H. sapiens did it best.
Back to the New Scientist article. Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem examined DNA from two modern-day people, four humans who lived within the last 50,000 years, two Neanderthals, a Denisovan and six chimpanzees. The analysis reveals key evolutionary changes that reshaped our faces and larynxes; not major mutations in our genes but tweaks in the activity of existing genes that we shared with our immediate ancestors. The theory goes that changes in gene activity seem to have given us flat faces, and led to the resculpting of the larynx, moving it further down in the throat, allowing our ancestors to make sounds with greater subtleties. Which I assume equates to having a wider vocabulary.
While some researchers focus on similarities between different species of human, William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch III, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, says “…anatomically speaking, macaques are perfectly well equipped for humanlike speech…. And because their vocal anatomy is nearly identical to that of other monkeys and apes—and to most other mammals—these animals are also ‘speech-ready’. Anthropologists who scour the fossil record for evidence of when our ancestors learned to speak are “wasting their time” he says, because all human ancestors had vocal anatomies capable of speech. Instead, the field should focus on genetic factors known to be necessary for proper speech and language development, to figure out when humans gained ‘the gift of the gab’. Monkeys and apes lack the neural control over their vocal tract muscles to properly configure them for speech, but “If a human brain were in control, they could talk,” Fitch concludes.
So, this isn’t a debate about to be wrapped up soon, but that’s fine as I don’t think our ability to talk is important to why we live apart from nature. However, it does give us a huge advantage when creating a story for others to follow, to believe in.
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal. Some might say she thinks too much but that’s not possible; it’s what one thinks about that matters!