Friday, May 25, 2007

One Hominids Path: from sound to symbol

To gain any understanding of how it is humans are "human", it helps to step back a moment and take in all the “madness’- images, histories, emotions, logic - of "us". Searching for threads linking who we are today back through to our distant evolutionary past can shed light on understanding "humanness". The unique blending of community, language, and sensory/cognitive perceptions that is the homind story has, through the eons, come together to create a unique human community.

If you think about it, on our own, as animals go, we are fairly weak, ugly, hairless little primates that would have pretty low odds for survival on our own. Put a bunch of us together, however, and things change. Humans are amazingly gregarious and seem to posses a powerful capacity to exponentially increase our survival capacity by coming together. Like the primordial coming together of cellular colonies to produce a more effective whole, human civilization seems to be another manifestation of possible outcomes bubbling out of the ever changing cauldron of the force of natural selection.

Among the many supreme and awesome varieties of living organisms that have risen and fallen, it seems, this little hominid; Homo sapiens, may belong to a unique group.Whether an accident, freak anomaly, or more likely just another possible direction for natural selection to take, humans have stumbled upon a supreme survival tool- the ability to communicate with empathy for their brethren. That is, to communicate an infinite amount of meaning through language to other humans, while at the same time having the capability to be in some else’s head; to imagine how they think and feel- these are huge jumps in informational capacity that truly makes us unique.

If you think about it, this evolutionary development created a virtual world, like a computer game, where perceived objects and instinctual reactions to danger for example, were progressively transformed into ideas, theories, social constructs, beliefs, and a profound capacity for creating meaning and possibilities.

This plays a profound role in our societies and seems to have spun off a variety of side effects or by-products that have varying degrees of importance depending upon the circumstance of a given group, culture, or nation. Religiosity, national patriotism, sport affiliation could all be considered differing forms of cooperation stemming from the human ability to communicate ideas to others while at the same time imagining what others might be thinking. The roots of empathy, love, society, tribalism…etc., to some extent, have deep roots here.

To understand the flow from simple reaction; from grunts and gesture, to the infinite flow of information of today’s human language provides insight to what we are and how we came about in a rather hostile and contingent environment. To some degree, this trick of language, this jump from immediate moment to moment perception toward an ability to project mentally into a future, or examine possible futures when making decisions lies at the core of what it is to be conscious in a human sense.

Imagine a species that reacted to an immediate danger. Rita Carter* describes this reaction as a direct result of actually seeing the danger. Through time this quality could have favored individuals who were better able to “read” danger by hearing or seeing warning signs, like the rustling sound of a predator and reacting to that instead of waiting to actually see that danger.

Through the force of natural selection and time, this species may have developed sophisticated capabilities of warning and reading each others reactions and movements in anticipation of danger. From here, having basic reactive meaning to communicative barks or grunts is easy to imagine.

A short evolutionary jump would expand meaning and elaborate “reading” an individuals reactions and emotional states progressively favoring ones survival odds. Combining these traits with other unique hominid evolutionary circumstances such as bipedalism and the ability to gesture with hands could have given the hominid species a toe hold towards a whole new level of interactive communication that took off.

Comparing the communication capabilities of differing animals helps to understand how human language is constructed as well as how it might have come about. A lot of the basic evolutionary literature regarding language deals with the tactics of communication in different species. A common thread is that, although some species have remarkably complex combinations of sound, they are fairly limited in flexibility especially with respect to creating syntax, or flexible meanings to words and phrases. In order for there to be interactive and meaningful communication, it is essential that there are basic and consistent rules in place that provide a foundation from where humans “agree” on a general framework.

According to Deacon,** there are three basic elements that characterize human language and that make it unique in the animal kingdom. This framework jelled and coalesced through time and the force of selective attributes favoring survival. First, there needs to be basic units of language, such as vowels, that provide the building blocks for more complex structure. A crucial characteristic of these units is their inherent lack of meaning.

Second, groups of these building blocks can be grouped together forming a meaning, for example, as words describe objects in the natural environment. These grouping are described as “morphemes” by Deacon and provide a basic language structure. Some species, however rudimentary, attain a form of morpheme language. Vervet monkeys have a repertoire of sounds that correlate directly to specific predator animals. Humpback whales will string together long songs of elements that have a resemblance to phrases, but do not have the structure or coherence defining any clear meaning. They seem to be more related to procreation, mimicry, and competition, varying and changing in sound combinations and order from season to season.

The third quality for truly expressive language as contrasted to more basic reactive communications is the ability to put these morphemes into groupings that begin to symbolize the world. This is uniquely human and opens the door to developing cognitive capacity for projecting into the future, or imagining what others are thinking- the possible building blocks of society, religion, and culture.

Associated with this expansion in communicative ability, there coincides a fascinating series of evolutionary developments in the human brain. Unlike other animals, the human brain has an asymmetrical arrangement with a large region in the left hemisphere dedicated to language and meaningful symbolic communication.

This asymmetry seems to be the result of a progressive interaction of hominid social development through the eons. Areas in the left hemisphere in the temporal and frontal lobes dedicated to environmental sound and spatial direction were slowly co-opted by areas dedicated to motor speech, meaning in language, and complex connections to deeper parts of the brain have developed including to limbic and cortical areas implying a cohesive relationship between consciousness and language. These language centers process sensory stimuli, such as hearing and touch bringing them together and reassembling them into coherent memories. Other animals do not have a language center like this and their sounds are processed along with environmental sound and spatial direction.

It seems human language came about in a region where several important and different functions converged. These functions may have merged through human evolutionary pressures combining for example, hand gestures with sound and these to sensual memories that later became virtual symbolic thinking. This would have created the conditions for the human brains asymmetrical set up as language centers “rearranged” areas of the brain. Other areas influenced these processes such as the prefrontal cortex involving the ability to infer about another persons’ state of mind and suggests how and where empathy and cooperative behavior may have evolved.

The evolution of language probably has been tied to several developmental changes in the human brain and it is likely that our consciousness, our human consciousness is an intimate part of this process either as a “by-product”, or a natural emergent quality of the brain.

This incredible journey of sound to symbol in human evolution is well summarized by Rita Carter:

“Just as each separate brain cell reaches out to make contact with others, so each brain is designed to communicate with its like. Our ability to enter the minds of others , by intuition and by speech, gives human beings a singular advantage over other species. It allows us to create and live in the highly organized hives we call civilization, and as a species we can join in endeavors so grandiose that they alter our environment on a global scale.”

Ref: *Jones, S, Martin,R, et al. Human Evolution.Cambridge Univ. Press. Cambridge,UK.2005

**Carter, R. Mapping the mind.Univ. of CA Press. LA, CA.1999

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