God spaketh, but why? Part 6: Language

This series attempts to gather thoughts around the change in human behaviour which led us to dominate nature rather than live in balance with it. I have referred to Sapiens: a brief history of humankind written by Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari. Harari argues that our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers required a brain that could create and believe in fiction, a skill thought to have appeared some 70,000 years ago. If this figure is accurate, this ‘cognitive revolution’ took place thousands of years after several species of human being survived various periods of glaciation in places relatively unravaged by snow and ice, some of whom were able to use fire to keep cold and predators at bay, and to cook food. And I reckon they could talk.

I believe that to survive Ice Ages would have required cooperation, but then wolves cooperate, it’s not a uniquely human strategy. As I said in Part 1, we probably developed the ability to learn from past events, such as floods and famines, through storytelling, before we realised that we could invent a story too, a story of a different future. Perhaps the first was a story of cooperation, of working together  to prevent, or at least lessen, the impact of future extreme weather events on our numbers. Humans had a self-awareness which gave death a whole new meaning. It was about more than flight, fight or freeze reactions – at some point, we learned how to question the present and plan a more secure future.

It is obvious that some kind of language would be required to transmit any story but many species have sophisticated means of communication, whether or not we consider it a ‘language’ as such. For most species, the story being communicated is rigid, genetically programmed, perhaps. Ants don’t withhold their labour for better reward! We are beginning to understand (or remember) that most species communicate, often in ways we can’t detect with our own senses. David Attenborough’s excellent Blue Planet 2 introduced the world to singing fish, and Dame Judi Dench is soon to be on TV talking about the “secret lives of trees and the stories that they tell us”! Understanding our place in the world, that we are part of nature, was lost when we decided to control nature for our own benefit. Maybe one cannot control another species unless convinced it is subordinate, certainly not an equal. Having god put it there for you is certainly a good story, but why do we no longer thank those who sustain us. I’ll consider indigenous cultures and values in a future post.

But back to language, which is as important for teaching harmonious living as it is for something less sustainable. According to the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University, “Darwin started thinking about the origin of language in the late 1830s…. In his private notebooks, he reflected on the communicative powers of animals, their ability to learn new sounds and even to associate them with words. ‘The distinction of language in man is very great from all animals’, he wrote, ‘but do not overrate—animals communicate to each other’. There seems to be a spectrum of belief running from language being unique to Homo sapiens, God-given in some cases, to it being “derived from natural, instinctive utterances that were shared with some animals… and spread gradually according to various natural laws and processes”.

Darwin eventually published his views on language in Descent of Man (1871), acknowledging that language had “justly been considered as one of the chief distinctions between man and the lower animals”; but he went on to emphasize the similarities between animal and human communication. Debate continues today because language is ephemeral, detectable only by indirect proxies, such as the presence of a certain bone or the ability to make symbolic objects. A few years ago, analysis of a Neanderthal’s fossilised hyoid bone – a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck crucial for speaking – suggested the species had the ability to speak. But whether it did or not is the tricky bit to prove. The report continues, “It was commonly believed that complex language did not evolve until about 100,000 years ago and that modern humans were the only ones capable of complex speech. But that changed with the discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone in 1989…”. Much older hyoid fossils, over 500,000 years old, have been discovered in Spain and are attributed to Homo heidelbergensis.

There is no consensus on the origin or age of human language. Once again, Wikipedia sheds some light on the complexity of what is meant by language. Utterances or descriptive statements? Does song count? How about imitation? While Neanderthals may have been anatomically capable of producing sounds similar to modern humans, the Neanderthal brain may have not reached the level of complexity required for modern speech. Whatever the truth is, I think it’s safe to say that, along with the use of fire, language was a skill many humans possessed long before Harari’s Cognitive Revolution. Perhaps it was around a camp fire that people first discussed how to make life better: free from hunger and cold, predation and death. A discussion that continues to this day.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal, amongst other things, and welcomes all comments and corrections. It also seems that links have returned so many thanks to bug-fixers!


About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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2 Responses to God spaketh, but why? Part 6: Language

  1. Percy Mark says:

    Thank you, once again!
    Very stimulating and thought provoking. But to find a defining, essential difference between us humans and other animals in the phenomenon of language, I think, is unlikely to prove successful – important as language is of course for all development in Nature. Our cat, who is probably four years old and has been with us for two years, has a large vocabulary which she uses continually in her efforts to communicate with my wife and myself. And there is no doubt that she is learning and refining this all the time. When I come down from the bedroom in the morning she is waiting somewhere under a table or chair and when I say “good morning” she replies with a short Miauw, which is always the same and quite different from other noises she makes. Sometimes her frustration at our lack of understanding what she is saying is only too evident.
    I have been translating a book written by Dr. Albert Schweitzer in which he builds a case for regarding ‘ethics’ as the most significant difference between humankind and the rest of the animated world, which I find pretty convincing. Although he has trouble in finding a satisfactory foundation for this point of view in Nature, I have come to be convinced, that this is the contribution to her many marvels, which Nature is seeking to bring about through us – the human species.
    And it is our obstinate refusal to cooperate effectively in this experiment, which has brought us to the point where it looks likely, that if we don’t “get it” soon, she will leave us to our own self-destruction as a failed experiment.
    Looking forward to your next instalment…..!…..:-)

    • Hi Percy – I couldn’t agree more. That was kind of the point, that language is as important for teaching harmonious living as it is for something less sustainable. And that other animals having ways of communication.

      I’m interested in when various aspects of humanity evolved – language, use of fire, making ritualistic symbols and so on. None of these things led to that new story of domination as can be seen by looking at indigenous ways of living.

      And thanks for suggesting ‘ethics’ as the most significant difference between humankind and other animals – I’ll have to give that some thought!

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