Translate Me

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Evolution of Language: Chatty Cathy 2,000,000 years B.C.

Homo Erectus a.k.a Homo Garrulus

     The dawn of man is perhaps the most bankrupt and simplified clichés used to envisage where the tipping point was in the evolution of modern man. Paleoanthropologists have been locked in debate over how the base and the trunk of the homo sapien tree should look. That seems to me to be the academic equivalent to a judicial kangaroo court. In situ remains and artifacts belie the hard empirical evidence and point to crazy, spurious and evidentiary anomalies which bemuddle the need for a relative framework, as baseline, from which we can extrapolate an overall trend. Of course, classifying and cataloguing the minutiae by detailing each branch and twig of the hominids is a necessary aspect of the study of the evolution of modern man; too often it emerges as pettifogging or scientific megalomania. The branch of the hominid tree which is truly magical is the emergence of Homo Erectus. 
     Homo Erectus gives rise to the philosophical and physiological concepts of what is means to be divergent from animals. The evidence displays a skilled and calculated manipulation of the their environment through the use of fire and tool technologies; primarily Oldowan and Acheulean technologies. A less tangible but titillating development is that of cognition and a sense of abstraction through communication which are intrinsic building blocks for language. The appearance of Homo Erectus brought with it the physiological evolutionary features like a brain size in proportion to body mass and a pronounced Broca's area. Both of these qualities are intractably necessary for language. The language of the Homo Erectus may have made use of simplistic vocalizations but was more plausibly transmitted through the use of gestures. This proto-language quite possibly was the flywheel for religion and art and symbolic representation. The academic jury is still deliberating on this point and the fact is that it may never be conclusively answered. Nonetheless, it appears reasonable that the manipulation of ideas which are done by an ordering process of giving a name (labeling) to specific things would lead to a process of categorizing these things. This learned method of categorizing in turn promotes the labeling of concepts in an abstract form. Pointing is as rudimentary as it gets when it comes to communication in a gesture driving proto-language. The need for complex syntax and semantics is a priori redundant. The act of pointing makes apparent that the “thing” of discernment is the object of the contextual information. When pointing to the object no abstraction is taking place; it is purely mundane and concrete.

     Imagine a hunting party (by the time of Homo Erectus the classic assemblage of a hunter-gatherer society is starting to emerge), skulking about on the Savannah stalking animals all day, they then point to a herd of buffalo. Those in the hunting party know exactly what is being pointed to and subsequently know that the buffalo's could soon be dinner. No extra gesturing is needed. The contextual information is self contained. Suppose again that the hunters have for the last week been entirely unlucky in providing protein to the clan for any number of reasons. For instance, a particularly arid summer has forced animals to stay congregated around sparsely located watering holes which are further away than the traditional nomadic range of the clan. Or perhaps a large pride of lions has converged on the same hunting territory of the clan making competition futile. Whatever the reason may be, some senior male member of the clan would certainly advise a different tactic; choosing a path of least resistance to acquiring a fresh kill. Remembering that the buffalo's were especially easy the previous time they set out on a hunt, this senior male member gestures to the other males that they should hunt buffalo again. How does he communicate this idea through abstraction? Let's surmise that the clan have a gesture whereby two hands are made flat with the thumbs sticking out and the thumbs are touching the temples on either side of the head. This rudimentary gesture symbolizes buffalo as a category; as an abstraction; as language. If we can take a another leap of scientific faith then we could also argue that the gestural lexicon might include many more types of abstractions.

     Indeed, the case can securely be made that gestures are the linchpin in the origin of language. Oliver Sacks points out in his book “Seeing Voices” that “...isolated deaf adults...will invent gestural systems, with a very simple syntax and morphology, by which they can communicate basic needs and feelings to their neighbors...”. As we touched on earlier the cranial capacity of Homo Erectus was certainly robust enough for proto-language and possessed a defined Broca's area which is the epicenter for language orchestration in the brain. However, Sacks asserts, rightly, that without a group to share these gestures with and have that sharing extended over at least two generation the gestures wouldn't evolve into a rich and full language. Although Sacks is spot on with his assessment of a full and rich grammatically savvy language with vibrant syntax, it does overstate the fact that not all languages need necessarily be as robust to be effective in conveying concepts and contextual abstractions. A pidgin is a contraction of languages and symbols which is germinated out of a need to communicate basal ideas and concepts and by that very nature might never achieve a robust structure as Sacks espouses. Regardless, these fundamental gestures as conveyers of abstraction gave rise to verbal language much like the manufacture and use of tools in emerging technologies aided the development and manipulation of their environment.

     If we fast forward to present day where robust languages are the norm we discover that gestures persist. Not only have they remained but they are distinct and unique to common cultures despite the apparent difference in language. Why have gestures persisted? What is the significance of the gesture? What do these gestures say about the need to gesticulate them and not verbalize them? These, I feel are intriguing questions but beyond the scope of this introduction to the evolution of gestures. Stay tuned.

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