Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How Did Language Come About? Part II

Human language, the language of bees, and of ants are more alike than any of them are to other animal communication systems ( henceforth, ACS).   How can that be?  We share about 98% of our DNA with  chimps, but chimps can't communicate the way humans can.  What is there about bees, ants, and humans that made their communication systems similar, and so different from other ACS?  In what way(s) are ACS different from human, bee, and ant languages?  I am here deliberately using the word language even when talking of bees and ants because, as we shall see, the difference between language and ACS is not one of quantity.  That is, it is not just that humans, bees, and ants can say more than other animals.  In fact, I'm not sure that  bees and ants can impart more messages than, say, wolves.  The difference is one of kind.  That is, bees, ants, and humans do things with their languages that no other animals we know of can do with their communication systems, and the things they can do can't be tacked onto other systems.  Language involved wholly new physiological and communication systems.

People, including scholars, often think of language as the culmination of ACS.  That is, it was the logical outcome of being intelligent.   As I will show, however,  humans became so smart because they began developing language.  Bees and ants aren't all that bright, however, although they have also developed language.  So, intelligence itself is not the catalyst for developing language.

ACS work just fine for the animals that use them.  That is why other animals never developed language. Evolution occurs when an adaptation allows a creature (or plant) to survive.  If there is no need for the things that language can do, then even highly intelligent animals, like chimpanzees won't develop it.  In fact, it may well be that the pre-humans who started on the path to language weren't much brighter than chimpanzees.  That is not an assertion.  We don't know how intelligent those pre-humans were, beyond knowing that they made tools for scraping and cutting, and that their diet  included meat.  

However, language didn't evolve in order to make tools.  Nor did it evolve in order to  hunt better.
Actually, tool-making hominids, 2,000,000 years ago, seem to have been scavengers more than hunters.  It would be a long, long time until hominids made spears and even longer until humans made bows and arrows.  There is nothing about tool-making that requires language.  The tool-maker need only demonstrate the actions needed to make a tool and then demonstrate how to use it.

As for hunting, wolves arrange hunting strategies in which different members of the pack play different roles, but they don't have language.  Wolves also assign different members of the pack different cub-rearing tasks, and they do that without language as well.  In a pack, only one female bears young.  The other females help raise them. Some even lactate without becoming pregnant so they can help nurse the litter.  It is said that you need language for culture, but ethologists show that wolves have a culture, and they have no language.  They pass it on by demonstration and discipline.  More amazing to me is that coyotes and badgers hunt cooperatively.  The badger digs deep into holes  or tunnels that prey are hiding in.  When the badger gets to the prey, it runs out, and the waiting coyote kills it.  Then the badger and coyote share the kill.  How did they work this out between them? They did, though, and neither species has language. (The Spirit of the Wild Dog:The World of Wolves, Coyotes, Foxes, Jackals, and Dingoes by Lesley Rogers & Gisela Kaplan (2003)

The point is that just because we use language for certain purposes, that doesn't mean that language evolved for those purposes.  As my previous post on evolution noted, the entire human body has been adapted for language. Such wholesale changes in anatomy devoted to producing speech can only be explained by a strong need.  In order to survive, humans--or more probably hominids--had to have been faced with a certain set of circumstances that required language. This doesn't mean that language evolved all at once.  Indeed, it couldn't because the anatomical changes it required had to have taken milennia to occur. 

However, the first steps to language must have occurred for the same reason bees developed their amazing dancing and ants developed their chemical messages to each other.  The impetus for bees and ants is that they have to find a food source, go back to the hive or anthill and recruit others to come help them gather the food and bring it back to the hive or anthill.  As Derek Bickerton has been saying for years, (for instance, in Adam's Tongue:How Humans Made Language; How Language Made Humans the same situation was encountered by pre-humans.  Climate change caused hominids to eat more meat.  They couldn't pounce on a prey animal the way a big cat could do.  In fact, they had no weapons with which to kill.  In fact, the first tools were those of scavengers: tools for cutting flesh and scraping it off skin.  However, hominids, who had neither deadly claws nor deadly teeth were in competition with scavengers like jackals, wolves and other carnivores. Even hunters will grab a tasty meal they didn't have to kill.  

Bickerton gives the scenario of foraging hominids coming across carcasses of animals like rhinos and elephants.  Their skin was so thick that other scavengers had to let it rot a while before they could get to the meat within.  Hominids, however, could use their cutters and scrapers to get at the meat before the carcass rotted.  Therefore, Bickerton says, hominids must have scouted widely to find such a carcass.  When one did, he would go back to his home den and recruit others to come and to bring certain tools.  He would also tell them where to find the kill. Then, with all those able to cut into the elephant, the entire band would be able to collect enough meat to last for many days.

Similarly, foraging bees come back to the hive and, by a dance, show the others where to find the pollen, the quality of the pollen find, and the kind of pollen. The workers in the hives can tell the foragers that the hive needs water, not pollen.

Why is this language? How is it like human language and how is it unlike ACS?  ACS communicates only emotions and desires, but it doesn't name anything in the external world.  That is, there are no referents to things of any kind.  In fact, the studies of chimps and gorillas who were supposedly trained to use chips or computer keys to emulate language show that it took as much as a thousand trials  before they realized that communication could refer to visible objects--or invisible ones, for thatmatter.

Human language, like that of bees and ants, must have started with referents to kinds of animals, tools, and perhaps even  names of others in their groups.  Ants and bees can't be creative in their languages. They are limited to a set of messages.  Human language is characterized by allowing speakers of any language to create an infinite number of messages, messages that had never been created before.  This difference probably came about because hominids were in an especially dangerous environments.  They were prey to many carnivores.  Hominids had reason to express new dangers and also, once they had some referents for things in the environment, they must have started naming even more. The women who gathered fruits and nuts would make up words for those and, again, use those words to indicate to others that they found that certain fruits were now ripe, and where to find them.  The next step was to parents passing on to children lore about where certain carcasses could be found or how to escape from predators.  Those homininds whose brains grew larger could store more information about survival; hence, they survived.

Once language could be used to speak of one's experiences, and as brains grew larger to store the experiences of others, homo sapiens with his and her full, creative language could evolve.  Language grows the mind.


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smarthotoldlady said...

I was afraid I'd get outraged Creationists excorating these evolution posts, so I was heartened to get these commnts. I know much more about langage, its evolution and use in human society. Now that I know readers aren't turned off by such posts, I'll do more.

As for the person who said that it "is pathetic that folks never look at this blog", suggest it to your friends.