I recently stumbled upon the television show Falling Skies, with actor Noah Wiley. (Our kids once played together at Griffith Park, but he never let on he knew of me. Stand up guy.) It's an apocalyptic story of alien invasion, but with at least two species of alien on the menu. One species is skinny, grey and humanoid, and appears to be in charge. The other species is your usual spider-lizard monstrosity.
This second species is not just difficult to look at, but appears to hold a horrifying secret. An autopsy reveals that there are "harnesses" inside the bodies of these skitters, a sort of attachment that may allow the other aliens to control them. But the harness is all the more ominous because the aliens have also been placing them on human children. It leads one to wonder: Might the skitters have once been human? Are human kids being rigged with alien technology that transforms them into an abomination?
Harnessing humans! Oh my.
Hmmm. That word. Harnessed. It seems to ring a bell...
Ah, I know! It's because I recently wrote a book by that name. In particular, my book is called Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.
Now, their use of the term harnessed in Falling Skies is quite different than mine.
In their case the skitters may (so some viewers speculate) have once been human. They were transformed into something radically different via alien technology. Knowing aliens and sci-fi writers, one might guess that Noah Wiley's harnessed is probably tapping into the human genetic machinery, and redirecting it to grow itself into an entirely new arachno-reptilian body and brain.
That's not what I mean by harnessed.
My recent research and new book is about how culture harnessed our ancient brain capabilities to give us powers we never evolved, in particular reading, speech and music. My story is about culture's trick - that it shaped artifacts to look and sound like natural stimuli we evolved to process. Namely, cultural evolution gave us writing that looks in fundamental ways like opaque objects, speech that sounds like solid-object events, and music that sounds like people moving and carrying out evocative behaviors.
For Wiley the entire animal shape is changing. But for Changizi (that's me) the shape is not changing. And that's key for my thesis, because culture is not a genetic engineer, and can only summon novel brilliant powers out of us humans by tricking the brain into thinking it is carrying out the ancient tasks it evolved to do.
Noah Wiley and I mean quite different things by harnessed.
Or do we? As I thought about it more, it became less and less clear to me that we were saying anything deeply different. In fact, I began to wonder whether skitters might provide an illustrative model for what we humans have truly become today.
Sure, my notion of harnessed doesn't involve a change in the genes or the morphology of the animal, but even more important than body shape is function. My harnessing may leave the meat unchanged to that found in an unharnessed Homo sapiens, but the resulting change in what the animal can do is as severe as anything found in Falling Skies.
More severe. Wiley's harnessing converts humans to spider-lizards, but my harnessing converts the smartest great ape into an unrecognizably powerful interstellar philosopher!
We are aliens ... to our original Homo sapiens genetically-identical selves. And the harnesser is no extra-terrestrial creature, but ourselves, our culture, the new blind watchmaker it became, and the shaped-like-nature artifacts of writing, speech and music that harnessed us.
Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI. He is the 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 Huffington/AOL.