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Strictly Speaking

The Purpose of Human Language, Part 2

For the earliest hominids, the possibility of survival was in the thinking machine, the brain. But its transmission and implementation would require the invention of common action. Einstein did not come to us overnight, but through a line of pre-Einsteins reaching far back in time, according to need and circumstance. Genius, like time, is relative. Humans cannot hunt like cats. Even when observing from the inconvenience of distant starvation, protohumans could see that even lions, fierce and large as they were, could be driven off by sheer numbers of smaller scavengers, first hyenas, then vultures. Hyenas have one of the strongest bites of all animals, able to crush the femur of an elephant. To compete humans would need to collectively outbite hyenas, not with teeth, but spear tips.
Here’s how, a method used as recently as colonial Britons for hunting tigers in India. Better than extended relays would be encirclement and sudden ambush, but this requires communication and organization, a fearless belief in a common defense, a plan and a leader. The difference between being dinner and being diner was observable across many species lines, day after day.
But the latent advantage of being one without claws and many united against one with claws required a leap both of faith and or leadership. The first priest or priestess may have invoked both belief and reason is equal measure. The concept of individual altruism could boil down to an essential communal selfishness. The concept of hereafter, or heaven, may well have been a necessary invention of sacrifice to the collective here and now. If so, it explains how often modern religions, however peaceful in scripture, are wrapped around a perception of the need for national violence. And if so, the nation is a logical extrapolation in size from the tribe, and the belief in a numbingly comfortable tribal noise is a vestigial remnant from a time when life was more nasty, much shorter and far more frequently brutish.
This is a neat, even eloquent hypothesis, but leaves unexplained what catapulted our hominid ancestors, in particular, out of the comforting repetition of ritual ceremonies and familiar spear points into the simultaneous fluorescence of technology, art, music, dance that nurtured a departure from sameness into the vector of accelerating cultural change that positions current unthinking humanity on the dangerous precipice of complete dependence on artificial intelligence?
In the early twenty-first century, across the breadth of modern industrial cultures we no longer have to think or observe or analyze or communicate directly, because, after all, there’s an app for all of these things. But there were no apps in the Ice Age, thirty thousand years ago, when cooperation and coordinated action spelled the difference between emergence and extinction. Back then, neither isolation nor independence favored survival. When resources are scarce, a traditional static technology paves the road to extinction.
As the Neanderthals discovered, slavish cultural devotion to a marginal lifestyle is perilous. For a species capable of analytical thought, the choice was clear. Change or die. The task was, and remains, a matter of persuasive communication by a leader who can develop consensus and orchestrate change among greedy, horny, disagreeable individuals.
Raising the question: How was that done?
No one knows certainly, but the smart money is on language. The proof is one of those scintillating reducto de absurdum proofs that delight logicians. Evolution is a parsimonious process. Whether acquired through mutation or choice, traits and behaviors that favor survival are conserved. Those unfavored by a changing environment will atrophy, disappear or at best continue vestigially.
If your teeth are not sharp or claws large, a spear pointed the way toward survival and eventual dominance. Emerging technologies require novel and specific labels in a commonly shared lexicon. A command such as, “Bring me that thing,” may suffice if the only tool is a club, but once the toolkit diversifies, the limitation of the label “thing” is self-evident. A kitchen colander and a stainless steel strainer for swimming pools may be the same technology applied to different ends, but one is not necessarily interchangeable with the other. For the earliest hominids, the possibility of survival was in the thinking machine, the brain. But its transmission and implementation would require the invention of common action. Einstein did not come to us overnight, but through a line of pre-Einsteins reaching far back in time, according to need and circumstance. Genius, like time, is relative. Humans cannot hunt like cats. Even when observing from the inconvenience of distant starvation, protohumans could see that even lions, fierce and large as they were, could be driven off by sheer numbers of smaller scavengers, first hyenas, then vultures. Hyenas have one of the strongest bites of all animals, able to crush the femur of an elephant. To compete humans would need to collectively outbite hyenas, not with teeth, but spear tips.
Here’s how, a method used as recently as colonial Britons for hunting tigers in India. Better than extended relays would be encirclement and sudden ambush, but this requires communication and organization, a fearless belief in a common defense, a plan and a leader. The difference between being dinner and being diner was observable across many species lines, day after day.
But the latent advantage of being one without claws and many united against one with claws required a leap both of faith and or leadership. The first priest or priestess may have invoked both belief and reason is equal measure. The concept of individual altruism could boil down to an essential communal selfishness. The concept of hereafter, or heaven, may well have been a necessary invention of sacrifice to the collective here and now. If so, it explains how often modern religions, however peaceful in scripture, are wrapped around a perception of the need for national violence. And if so, the nation is a logical extrapolation in size from the tribe, and the belief in a numbingly comfortable tribal noise is a vestigial remnant from a time when life was more nasty, much shorter and far more frequently brutish.
This is a neat, even eloquent hypothesis, but leaves unexplained what catapulted our hominid ancestors, in particular, out of the comforting repetition of ritual ceremonies and familiar spear points into the simultaneous fluorescence of technology, art, music, dance that nurtured a departure from sameness into the vector of accelerating cultural change that positions current unthinking humanity on the dangerous precipice of complete dependence on artificial intelligence?
In the early twenty-first century, across the breadth of modern industrial cultures we no longer have to think or observe or analyze or communicate directly, because, after all, there’s an app for all of these things. But there were no apps in the Ice Age, thirty thousand years ago, when cooperation and coordinated action spelled the difference between emergence and extinction. Back then, neither isolation nor independence favored survival. When resources are scarce, a traditional static technology paves the road to extinction.
As the Neanderthals discovered, slavish cultural devotion to a marginal lifestyle is perilous. For a species capable of analytical thought, the choice was clear. Change or die. The task was, and remains, a matter of persuasive communication by a leader who can develop consensus and orchestrate change among greedy, horny, disagreeable individuals.
Raising the question: How was that done?
No one knows certainly, but the smart money is on language. The proof is one of those scintillating reducto de absurdum proofs that delight logicians. Evolution is a parsimonious process. Whether acquired through mutation or choice, traits and behaviors that favor survival are conserved. Those unfavored by a changing environment will atrophy, disappear or at best continue vestigially.
If your teeth are not sharp or claws large, a spear pointed the way toward survival and eventual dominance. Emerging technologies require novel and specific labels in a commonly shared lexicon. A command such as, “Bring me that thing,” may suffice if the only tool is a club, but once the toolkit diversifies, the limitation of the label “thing” is self-evident. A kitchen colander and a stainless steel strainer for swimming pools may be the same technology applied to different ends, but one is not necessarily interchangeable with the other.

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