Nature, Brain, and Culture

Although many neuroscientists are trying to figure out how the brain works, Mark Changizi is bent on determining WHY it works that way.

Language, and How to Have a Fair Fight with a Chimpanzee

In a chimp-human fight, is language allowed?

Go mano-a-mano against a chimpanzee and the chimp wins, hands down - and fingers, testes and face off.

But what happens when a group of humans goes up against a same-sized group of chimpanzees? For specificity, imagine it's a several-dozen-person tribe of bare-knuckle brutes versus a same-sized troupe of chimps. Who wins?

I seriously hope no one knows the answer to this, but it seems plausible to speculate that it would be a tough fight. The humans are physically weak in comparison, of course, but with language on the field of battle they can better organize their attack and defense. Perhaps language can help the brainy human team yank victory from the brawny jaws of defeat.

But wait. Isn't using language cheating?

It depends.

If language is something we evolved via natural selection, then it is part of our intrinsic biology, and so it's fair game in a fight.

But what if language is a technology? If so, then, given the ban on technology, the human warriors need to be language-less - in which case the odds would appear to favor the chimps.

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So, which is it? Is language part of our nature, or is it a technology?

We need to find out before we can start the ape fight.

And much more is at stake here than a fair ape fight. The question is one of the most important of our age - today's biggest science silverbacks (Chomsky and Pinker, for example) were forged on it.

In my new book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, I make the case that language is a technology, not part of our nature at all. And I make the analogous case for music as well.

Instead, language is a result of cultural selection, a kind of evolutionary process capable of "design" that occurs at lightning speed compared to natural selection. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the structure of speech came to sound like something the brain was really good at processing. I call this "harnessing."

In particular, speech was carved into the shapes of the fundamental physical event sounds that occur in our world. Speech evolved to mimic the sounds of nature, and thereby could be processed by human auditory systems that never evolved for speech comprehension. I call this "nature-harnessing."

In HARNESSED I describe, more specifically, the sorts of natural physical event sounds that human speech culturally evolved to mimic. It is the most fundamental sort of sound occurring in the terrestrial habitats that matter for our evolution: namely, the sounds that solid objects make when they're involved in events.

In the book I work through the "grammar" of these solid-object event sounds, and ask whether spoken words across human languages have the same regularities. They appear to.

We humans have speech because spoken words have culturally evolved to sound like nature. We speak because we've been nature-harnessed, not because we evolved to speak.

And the same goes for music - I make the case in HARNESSED that music has culturally evolved to possess the fundamental signature sounds humans make when we move and behave and do stuff. Music taps into the auditory system competencies we evolved via natural selection for recognizing the behaviors of people in our midst.

But let's set aside music in this essay, because it would seem to provide little advantage in gladiatorial fist-and-teeth-icuff battle. (...although tribal dance certainly seems to signal tribal strength among real humans.)

The key issue is that, because language is a technology - one nature-harnessed upon us by cultural evolution - language is against the battle rules. The human team must leave its speech at the door. In fact, just to play it safe, let's place onto the human team only humans plucked directly out from the long ago far away times, before we had gotten nature-harnessed in the first place.

These poor pre-language Homo sapiens schmucks are in for a severe chimp-schooling, because what makes us modern language-wielding humans formidable compared to chimps is not what's in our genes, but what's in our memes. It is the cultural artifacts that have evolved to fit our minds and transform ancient event-recognition software into communication software that makes us kick-arse.

The rise of the planet of the apes - the first such rise, when we humans rose and took over the planet - was due to culture having nature-harnessed us, and transforming us into a new kind of creature. Without it, and the chimps win.

~~~
Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and author of books such as The Vision Revolution (2009), and his new book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (2011). This piece originally appeared at Forbes online.

 

Mark Changizi is author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella), and Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs.

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