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THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE AND SYMBOLIC COMMUNICATION Pages 12345 Imagine that you are attending a corporate meeting about a new product. Even if this is your first such meeting, you know how to behave. You take your cues from the people around you and much of it seems like well-practiced ritual. There are no surprises about how you are dressed, the way you move and sit, the tone of your voice or the general flow of the proceedings. Some aspects, of course, are strictly of the moment: a rumbling of hunger in your stomach, a gestured request for the water pitcher, the poor ventilation that prompts you to loosen your jacket, your disagreement with a colleagues opinion. Nevertheless, the interactions, the environment and the business at hand all seem smoothly integrated into a single event, the meeting about the product. Visual symbols and numbers As unified as the event might seem, your participation has required you to understandinformation of many different kinds,communicated in widely different forms, such as written and spoken language, body language, group behavior, numbers, visual symbols, pictures and slides, charts, electronic sounds, an analog clock on the wall, and a physical model of the product. How did these vastly different forms of communication come to be, and how have they developed over the course of human life on earth? What do they reflect about our genetic and cultural heritage? Language, Communication and Experience Cuneiform was the first known form of written language, but spoken language is believed to predate writing by tens of thousands of years. What is language? We will use the word language broadly to mean any system of communication; any system for transferring information from one party to another. This would include body language and mathematics, not simply the customary notion of speech or writing. Likewise, we wont restrict the idea of communication only to humans; there are many examples of communication among animals, and also between humans and objects such as clocks or computers. People use languages to express their experience. However, each language is uniquely adapted for expressing only certain parts of our experience and is less effective for describing other parts. We cannot completely describe a painting in words, or describe emotions with numbers. And because experiences differ widely from one culture to another, we cannot completely express the concepts and nuances of one culture in the languages of another. For example, the Ohlone Indians of the western United States, who had a stable population for 5,000 years before the Spanish arrived, had no word for famine, presumably because they had never experienced that condition. To refine the notion of language further, we call symbolic a language that represents information in the abstract, outside of its immediate context. For example, we can understand the word five as a symbol for a group of ideas that have to do with

Organizing Experience into Mental Models As we mentioned above, we can recognize a distinction between what a group can communicate among themselves (which determines their culture) and what they can think about individually. It is reasonable to assume that many of the higher animals can think and understand well beyond their immediate episodic awareness. At the very least, survival would depend upon the ability to remember past experiences and organize those memories into useful knowledge. Thor's battle against the giants (1872) by Mrten Eskil Winge Individuals organize information into mental models, which are perceived patterns or scenarios that can be used to make sense of their observations. For example, I might organize two events into a cause-and-effect scenario, by which I believe that one of them causes the other, and thereafter I will expect that if the first event occurs, the second one will also occur. (If I step on a burning ember I can expect to feel pain.) This kind of learning seems so basic in higher species that calling it mental modeling might seem pedantic. However, in human thought there is often an array of models to choose from, and which model an individual selects will affect his memory, response and expectations with regard to the information. In other words, he will view and understand the very same piece of information differently, depending on the mental model he has chosen to interpret it. When we hear thunder, do we explain it as the anger of the gods, the noise made by an atmospheric event, or some other model? Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case One of our extraordinary human capacities is to rapidly sort through numerous possible models, select relevant details, and keep multiple models in mind simultaneously. Humor, in fact, is often based on setting up the expectation of one scenario and then switching to another by surprise, or exploiting an ambiguity. Pinker gives many examples of humorously ambiguous newspaper headlines such as, Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case. The humor in this example, of course, comes from two widely different interpretations (models) of the phrase violin case, and recognizing that one scenario is pl ausible in this context while the other one is silly. Consider the following exchange: John asks, Should I light the candles? and Mary responds, Well have cake and ice cream a fter the children have washed their hands. On the literal surface, Marys response does not answer Johns yes-or-no question at all, and could be completely unrelated. However, you can come to some quite detailed, reasonable conclusions about this exchange using a particular mental model: The setting is a childs birthday party and the candles are on a cake. John is not asking Mary if he should light the candles at all, he is asking if he should light them now. Her implied answer is that, no, he should wait until after the children have washed their hands, which he knows from past experience will take a few minutes. Then he should light them, the birthday child will blow them out, and the cake will be cut up and served with ice cream. Should I light the candles? We could continue in this vein to make a wealth of other reasonable conjectures: John and Mary are probably adults or older children, since they seem to be in charge and are allowed to handle fire; they are likely to be relatives or friends of the birthday child; John is probably male and Mary female; there are fewer than 15 candles on the cake; and so on. Do we know these things for sure? Certainly not, but we are hard pressed to find alternative models that produce such a plausible interpretation. If it werent for mental models, this brief communication would be meaningless without a large amount of addi tional detail spelled out explicitly. As you can see, the communicative power of two sentences is increased enormously through the use of models. Not just one but many models are invoked by this example: birthday parties, social conventions, child behavior, names, safety, hygiene, candles, time, and so forth. Each word or phrase generates its own scenarios which, in turn, evoke new details. And the human brain miraculously manages to sort and select among these in the blink of an eye. For communication to occur, the parties must not only share a common language and overlapping experience as we mentioned above, but they must also share the same mental models for interpreting the language. The types of models available to an individual will be influenced by his genetics as well as his culture. Merlin Donald believes that animals, early hominids and humans probably differ in the types of models they can construct, based on the types of awareness they are capable of. For example, animals that are capable of episodic, but not reflective, awareness could construct action/event models like cause-and-effect, but they would not be able to conceive of mythical explanations for why events occur as they do or analytical theories based on rules of evidence and logic. Symbolic Language Begins with Mimesis According to Donald, Homo erectus (beginning 1.5 million years ago) made a qualitative break with other primate cultures when he began to use the most basic form of symbolic representation, pantomime or mimesis, to reenact events outside their immediate context. Mimesis undoubtedly included the same movements used for behavioral communication, but the difference came in using them separately from their real-life situations. With a sufficiently elaborate mimetic language, Homo erectus could create a culture that was intermediate between apes and modern humans, with complex rules, social structures and highly cooperative forms of behavior. Rituals, games, sports and dance all grew out of mimesis. Skills like coordinated hunting and warfare, which already existed in hominids and other species, could be taught mimetically, away from their normal, problematic contexts. Rules of movement Mimesis is still very much in use today. Particularly in our group behavior we follow ritualistic rules of movement, action and dress that are conveyed and reinforced mimetically. Each culture also has its own repertoire of hand and body gestures that accompany speech or stand on their own: gestures like clapping your palm to your forehead, scratching your head while scrunching your face, or folding your arms across your chest while tightening your lips are understood to have certain meanings. Chances are that nobody has ever explained these meanings to you, but you have learned them through observation. Actors rely on the common recognition of specific movements to convey a broader picture of their characters than words alone could deliver, and comic actors often use a conflict between mimetic and spoken meanings for humorous effect. Pages 12345 TOP

Ideas Precede Symbols, Symbols Generate Ideas In order for a symbol, such as a gesture, word, picture or number, to represent an idea, it seems obvious that the idea must have preceded the symbol. When the symbol is introduced, it must identify something that both parties recognize, and it must be agreed upon and remembered before it can become a useful communication tool. Donald makes a strong case that humans must have invented symbols because they needed them to represent ideas they could already think about but could not communicate effectively. Once a symbol or symbolic system is in use, however, it can have profound influences on the generation of new thoughts and new kinds of models. For example, the Arabic number system introduced a symbol for zero. Although the concept ofnothing was previously understood, it had not been explicitly expressed in a concise numeric notation. Once this system with zero was available, it led to mathematical discoveries, new ways of using numbers that would not have been possible using a system without zero. The symbols available in a culture serve to focus communication and social reliance on certain forms of thinking. Interactions are affected, and new areas of understanding will arise while other areas may be limited or obscured. For example, the thought processes that are most effectively expressed with mimesis are action based, ritualistic and socially interactive. When Homo erectus developed mimetic language, therefore, they could move beyond the limitations of behavioral language, and could go on to form societies that were more highly cooperative. Oral Culture Takes Off Some of the areas of the brain involved in language processing: Broca's area (Blue), Wernicke's area (Green), Supramarginal gyrus (Yellow), Angular gyrus (Orange) and Primary Auditory Cortex (Pink) We dont know exactly when hominids began using speech, but it may have been as early as 200,000 years ago, and almost certai nly had progressed by 50,000 years ago. When modern humans entered Europe about 45,000 to 42,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already there. The two groups lived side by side and competed for the same resources until Neanderthals died out, about 35,000 years ago. Some scholars believe that speech was the primary advantage modern humans had over Neanderthals, based on skull differences in the basicranial line, nasopharynx and upper vocal cavity (Donald, 1991, pp. 206-7).During the period between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago, genetically modern humans achieved what Marvin Harris calls cultural takeoff, which he associates with linguistic takeoff. It was a time of enormous cultural changes, and likely was also the time that we acquired the capability for fully developed speech, based on anatomical evidence including a new, descended larynx and changes to the suboral cavity and tongue. Both Harris and Donald believe that the cultural advances of this period were linked to linguistic developments. If this is true, what were the special benefits of speech over mimesis? For one thing, speech does not interfere with other brain activities such as locomotion, manual skills, orientation in space or visual perception, so people could talk to each other at times when it would have been impossible to use mimesis. Another advantage is the tremendous range of vocal sounds humans can produce, tens of thousands of distinct sound combinations, which is substantially more than a usable repertoire of mimetic symbols or the two dozen sounds that apes can produce. And lastly, speech is relatively easy to remember and rehearse, so a group could produce a large body of words that were retrievable in memory. For these reasons, speech was the ideal medium for developing symbolic communication among people who lived close together, without compromising the visual and motor skills they relied on for survival. Sign language The capability and drive for oral expression are innate in genetically modern humans. All cultures use speech; all babies babble; humans are born with the ability to distinguish the significant sounds of their own cultures speech and learn the mental models that make sense out of those sounds. Helen Kelle r, an American woman who was deaf, dumb and blind from infancy, says in her autobiography that as a child she felt driven to vocalize, even though she could not hear her sounds and didnt know that speech was for communicating. Although her family tried to discourage her from making what they thought of as random noise, she could not resist the sensation of vocalizing. She also relates the incident when, after intensive efforts by her teacher to teach sign language to her, she suddenly recognized what it all meant: that everything has a name. This was the very powerful mental model that united sign language and the world of experience for her, and it is likely a basic model for the understanding of all symbolic languages. Early humans could use the spoken word to communicate mental models they could not express with mimesis. Specifically, they could communicate about overall patterns and themes. Donald believes that the evolution of speech was driven by the minds desire to communicate those kinds of concepts. Narrativ es, explanations, rules, collective plans and decisions became important forms of social discourse, beyond the simple relating of here-and-now events and circumstances. We think of these early cultures with speech as oral societies, because the facility of speech dominated and profoundly affected the nature of their group interactions. Mythic invention, the expression of human experience with a unified explanation and significance, was an early and dominant development in oral societies. All Stone Age cultures that have been found surviving into the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have highly developed mythic/religious systems, which separates them from their ancestors who did not have speech, even though the technology may not have differed significantly. In predominantly oral societies, myth is the main controlling social force, assigning meaning and place to every act, event, object and creature.

External Symbols, Analytical Thought Cave painting as visual system. Writing and other visual systems such as tokens, painting, sculpture and carving can record ideas externally to human memory, and so they can be used to extend the range of knowledge possessed by a group. Unlike speech, however, writing is not instinctive; all human cultures have speech, but many did not or do not have written languages. The earliest external symbol systems came after speech was developed, but they were independent of spoken language in that they represented ideas directly rather than representing spoken words. For example, a counting system based on clay tokens was developed in Mesopotamia around 8500 BC. The first known systems of writing were pictographs and counting methods used in commerce between 4000 and 3000 BC, such as Sumerian cuneiform. Egyptian hieroglyphics date from 2000 to 1500 BC. The first phonetic written systems, which began to bridge the gap between speech and external symbols, started around 1700 BC. Written language Where written language did develop, additional types of mental models could be expressed. Writing lends itself in particular to analytical and theoreticalthinking, in contrast to mythical models of explanation. It is not surprising, then, that the advent of external symbol systems coincided with an explosion of cultural and technological innovation. The use of a phonetic alphabet made written language even more accessible to the general population, rather than restricted to an elite educated class. During the golden age of Greek city-states between 500 and 300 BC, for instance, the great flowering of culture may have been stimulated by public study and discussion of ideas made possible by an alphabetic written language. Modern Cultures, Symbolic Systems and Evolution Todays cultures make use of a wide spectrum of thought and forms of expression developed throughout our history: episodic aw areness, mimesis, spoken language and myth, as well as external systems like writing, art, mathematics, myriad visual media and increasing varieties of electronic representation. All of these systems support specific kinds of awareness and modeling at the expense of others. There is fossil evidence that the transitions from episodic to mimetic and then to oral culture involved biological evolution. The transition from speech to external symbols may also have been supported by biological changes. In an article about the rate of genetic evolution in relatively recent times, Karen Kaplan writes, In the last 5,000 to 10,000 years, as agriculture was able to support increasingly large societies, the rate of evolutionary change [in human genetics] rose to more than 100 times historical levels, the study concluded. Among the fastest-evolving genes were those related to brain development (Kaplan, 2007) Wikipedia spelled in binary code Compared to biological memory, external memory is boundless and, in Donalds opinion, it has become the driving force behind our ceaseless invention and change. This, in his opinion, marks our most significant difference with oral cultures. The interplay between symbols and models within a culture exerts a subtle and powerful influence on our thinking. As we saw in the birthday party example, a symbol can evoke many models, and a model in turn can produce additional symbols; the cumulative effect is far greater than the face value of the original symbols or words alone. The stylized signature of Sultan Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire was written in Arabic calligraphy. It reads Mahmud Khan son of Abdulhamid is forever victorious. As an illustration of the power of models to shape our thinking, consider how much effort a modern corporation or government puts into selecting specific words to use when describing its activities to the public. When the United States government changed the name of one of its organizations from the Department of War to the Department of Defense, it was probably for the purpose of changing public perception from warlike associations (such as aggression, conflict, weapons, death, destruction and suffering) to defense-related ideals (such as home, family, justice, protection and liberty). The important point is that the mental models we associate with words and phrases can limit as well as enrich our interpretations.

Conclusions and Ongoing Consideration Communication has progressed from behavioral forms to mimesis, speech, and most recently to external symbolic systems, which can extend the knowledge of a group beyond the capacity of human memory. As each new method was developed, the older forms also continued in use, so that in todays modern cultures we have a vast array of symbolic systems for expressing our experience. However, some forms will be dominant in use over others. Whenever a new form of communication comes to dominate discourse in a society, certain types of thought and social interaction will receive focus at the expense of others. For communication to be effective the parties must share a common language, experience and mental models for interpreting the language. When we study the influence of a culture on its people it is important to look at the lexicon (symbols), symbolic systems and models that are not available in common discourse, as well as those that are. It is important to note what types of thought are encouraged or discouraged by the prevailing media and vocabulary. Graffiti in Rome Human experience is too vast and subtle to be captured precisely by a single symbolic system of any kind. All symbol systems are inherently limited or ambiguous, and apparently all spoken and written languages contain ambiguities that can only be resolved by the use of the proper models. Systems such as mathematics and logic may be internally precise, but they are limited in scope to expressing only a portion of our overall experience. Venus of Willendorf It is likely that early humans could formulate types of thought, such as narrative, mythology or analytic explanation before they had the communication tools to share them. In fact, Donald believes that various symbolic systems evolved because of the minds need to express its ideas. Is this an ongoing process for the human species? Is our inventiveness an effort to express new kinds of models, or are we just catering to a craving for entertainment and new stimuli? Is this drive perhaps a biologically driven excess, like eating more than we need because of our biological imperative to eat for survival? Do our mental models generate our outlook, or vice versa, or is the influence in both directions? Can the influence be tracked in examples or experiments? What role does metaphorical thinking (that one thing is like another) play in our thought processes and in our culture? Is it the same thing as constructing mental models? Is it a survival imperative? A springboard of creativity? The basis of art? Why are we driven to communicate our ideas? Sources: Donald, Merlin, Origins of the Modern Mind, 1993. Harris, Marvin, Our Kind, 1990. Kaplan, Karen, Study finds humans still evolving, and quickly, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2007. Keller, Helen, Helen Keller.