I’ve been reading Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man by Mark Changizi.
Changizi claims that our brains aren’t made for language and music; rather these forms of expression harnesses the brain functions developed to deal with nature. Here’s an overview of the book from Changizi’s blog:
If one of our non-speaking ancestors were found frozen in a glacier and revived, we imagine that he would find our world jarringly alien. The concrete, the cars, the clothes, the constant jabbering – it’s enough to make a hominid jump into the nearest freezer and hope to be reawoken after the apocalypse. But would modernity really seem so frightening to our guest? Although cities and savannas would appear to have little in common, might there be deep similarities? Could civilization have retained vestiges of nature, easing our ancestor’s transition?
Although we were born into civilization rather than thawed into it, from an evolutionary point of view we’re an uncivilized beast dropped into cultured society. We prefer nature as much as the next hominid, in the sense that our brains work best when their computationally sophisticated mechanisms can be applied as evolutionarily intended. One might, then, expect that civilization will have been shaped over time to possess signature features of nature, thereby squeezing every drop of evolution’s genius for use in the modern world.
Does civilization mimic nature? In his new book, HARNESSED, Mark Changizi argues that the most fundamental pillars of humankind are thoroughly infused with signs of the ancestral world. Those pillars are language and music. Cultural evolution over time has led to language and music designed as a simulacra of nature, so that they can be nearly effortlessly utilized by our ancient brains. Languages have evolved so that words look like natural objects when written and sound like natural events when spoken. And music has come to have the signature auditory patterns of people moving in one’s midst.
But if the key to our human specialness rests upon powers likely found in our non-linguistic hominid ancestors, then it suggests we are our non-linguistic hominid ancestors. Our thawed ancestors may do just fine here because our language would harness their brain as well. Rather than jumping into a freezer, our long-lost relative may choose instead to enter engineering school and invent the next generation of refrigerator. The origins of language and music may be attributable not to brains having evolved language or music instincts, but, rather, to language and music having culturally evolved brain instincts. Language and music shaped themselves over many thousands of years to be tailored for our brains, and because our brains were cut for nature, language and music mimicked nature. …transforming ape to man.
It’s a fascinating concept – even if it is worked out in a self-congratulating writing style that tends to excruciating detail. One thing Changizi doesn’t cover, as the Scientific American review comments, is why our ape brains have harnessed nature in this way, and why other ape brains haven’t.
I’ve went looking for something else I’ve read – about the role of instinct suppression in language development. As far as I recall, the idea goes something like this: Animals make sounds in response to stimuli. see a leopard; make the “beware leopard” noise. Fully volitional sound production – as is required for a spoken language – is possible for only a few animals. The biological precursor for the development of language is the voluntary control of breathing and vocalisation. This, the marine biologist Alister Hardy says, is found only in humankind and in aquatic animals.
Put the two ideas together: cultural adaption to produce language through nature harnessing, and the removal or dampening of instincts to provide volitionary sound control. It isn’t language that makes us different from the other apes; it’s the loss of instincts.
Any repeated behavior can be called “instinctual,” as can any behavior for which there is a strong innate component. However, to distinguish behavior beyond the control of the organism from behavior that has a repetitive component one can turn to the book Instinct (1961) stemming from the 1960 conference. A number of criteria were established that distinguished instinctual from other kinds of behavior. To be considered instinctual, a behavior must a) be automatic, b) be irresistible, c) occur at some point in development, d) be triggered by some event in the environment, e) occur in every member of the species, f) be unmodifiable, and g) govern behavior for which the organism needs no training (although the organism may profit from experience and to that degree the behavior is modifiable). The absence of one or more of these criteria indicates that the behavior is not fully instinctual.
If these criteria are used in a rigorous scientific manner, application of the term “instinct” cannot be used in reference to human behavior. When terms, such as mothering, territoriality, eating, mating, and so on, are used to denote human behavior, they are seen to not meet the criteria listed above. In comparison to animal behaviors, such as hibernation, migration, nest building, mating, and so on, that are clearly instinctual, no human behavior meets the necessary criteria. In other words, under this definition, there are no human instincts. [New World Encyclopedia]
Interesting, isn’t it? We are what we are because we have free will. Who’d have thunk?
Looking for references for this post led me to a review of the book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis, and that in turn led to Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazziniqa. I’ve put them on my to-read list.