This chapter mainly outlines 'the problem of language' and only offers some solutions, more of which will come later. It should be noted that those who are particularly attached to some of Chomsky's ideas, or McKenna's 'mushrooms of language' hypothesis may not entirely enjoy what follows!
A simpler and more elegant explanation is that these behaviours have evolved, and in this light we gain our first insight, that in the world of signal communications, all possible systems of language are not the same, for there are signs and there are symbols.
“Three well-documented vervet monkey alarm calls are those for leopard, martial eagle and python. Leopard alarm calls are short tonal calls produced in a series of inhalations and exhalations. Eagle alarm calls are low pitched grunts while python alarm calls are high pitched 'chutters'. Different alarm calls seem to evoke different responses to individuals that heard the alarm calls... Leopard alarm calls... make the monkeys run up into the tree to avoid being ambushed... When an eagle alarm call is given, vervet monkeys… look up, run for the nearest bush or both to avoid an approaching aerial attack. Python alarm calls [make] the monkeys stand bipedally and look down on the ground...”
Vagell also notes that often, upon hearing the calls, the monkeys first look in the direction of the caller, and experiments have noted that if the caller is not considered reliable by the troop, or is a juvenile still learning the system of calls, each individual will scan the relevant area of the environment – forest floor for leopard, sky for eagle and so on – in order to ascertain the source of the threat for themselves. In most cases, however, once the reliability of the caller is ascertained, the monkeys do not scan the environment but run to safety. Thus we see that trust is an essential component of the system, and furthermore the monkeys' habit of checking the veracity of the caller suggests that the monkeys were not simply emitting uncontrollable auditory responses to predators, but that there was an intention to communicate.
Here, then, we have a relatively simplistic language, one of signs, based upon immediately perceptually-verifiable referents – that is to say, either the predator is there or not – and at no point have researchers seen the system subverted for deceptive purposes, which may seem surprising in the context of the high level of deceit strategies present within primate social environments. Indeed, Knight, Power & Watts report that among baboons, precisely this kind of 'predator-deceit' is a commonly seen strategy for individuals to escape awkward or dangerous social situations:
“Take the reported case of a subadult male baboon observed harassing a youngster before being pursued by the victim’s adult protectors. Unexpectedly, the culprit suddenly stared as if watching a distant predator; although this did not exist, his pursuers had to check first. The deceiver thereby distracted attention long enough to make his escape.”
We might claim this fictional predator as the first movement into a symbolic realm, however once the victims of the deceit checked the horizon and saw no danger, all interest was lost. As Knight, Power & Watts conclude, “The fiction expired at that point.”
Dolphins likewise appear to utilise complex verbal communication systems, which may even include the use of 'names' or identifiers, however in experiments investigating dolphins' understanding of object permanence, the ability to conceive that objects continue to exist even when unseen and a skill that human children easily master by the age of two, dolphins performed poorly. This finding suggests that whatever the content of dolphin communication may be, it is most likely to consist of a system of signs and immediately perceptible referents.
By contrast, human language contains a vast wealth of non-immediate and non-perceptually-verifiable elements: we speak quite naturally about past and future, giving voice to and imagining scenarios which are not currently visible and recalling them into a conceptual present, and we have words for non-existent things like unicorns and deities, non-material things like consciousness and justice, and non-real grammatical constructions like the irrealis and the conditional. These are symbols in that, like Campbell's initial definition towards the start of our journey, they extend beyond the immediate into an unseen, subjective world of reference. How this ability to speak about and conceptualise that which is invisible and not immediately present could evolve among a particularly intelligent species of primate is a central question of what it means to be human.
It has already been suggested that in seeking to answer this question, a wide range of magical methods of thinking are often invoked, and it must be said that the emergence of language seems rather inexplicable when viewed in a limited or non-holistic manner. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the work of Noam Chomsky who holds that language emerged in a “perfect or near-perfect form” due to a discrete genetic mutation in a single individual, a view which because of his considerable expertise and academic authority on the subject of language has turned its origins into “the hardest problem in science”. Chomsky has even gone so far as to refute evolutionary processes in the emergence of language in favour of the (presumably deterministic) processes of molecular biology:
“Evolutionary theory is informative about many things, but it has little to say, as of now, about questions of this nature [language and its origins]. The answers may well lie not so much in the theory of natural selection as in molecular biology, in the study of what kinds of physical systems can develop under the conditions of life on earth and why, ultimately because of physical principles. It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected… In the case of such systems as language ... it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them.”
Chomsky thus considers language to be separated or ring-fenced from Darwinian processes but does not offer much in the way of explanation as to why this should be so. Knight critiques this view at length, not least because it robs language of virtually all of its meaning:
“Chomsky views language as a biological ‘organ’ or ‘device’. As such, it’s devoid of humour, metaphor, emotion, communicative intent, social meaning or anything else people normally think of as language.”
Knight also cites examples where Chomsky insists the words for modern items such as ‘carburettor’ existed implicitly in the ancient mind at the inception of language, a remarkable view – redolent with magical thinking! – which radically curtails any notion of human creativity and brings us squarely into a mechanistic and deterministic view at profound odds with the picture of Darwinism and humanity we have been building here.
Pinker & Bloom also vehemently opposed Chomsky’s view, and insisted that language could not be ring-fenced in this way:
“Language is no different from other complex abilities, such as echolocation or stereopsis… [and] the only way to explain the origin of such abilities is through the theory of natural selection.”
Their thesis is complex, but predicates in part on the fact that the diversity of structures and forms found in human languages across the world, and the constant linguistic flow observed which includes changes in meanings and even the creation of new languages, produce grammatical variations that resemble local adaptations more than they do innate designs. We might also remark that this diversity bears a remarkable resemblance to the variety and speciation found in the natural world governed by the principles of Darwinism. They also note that language usage in all human populations conveys sexual selection – a good speaker is attractive – and thus better grammar has a reproductive advantage, a thoroughly Darwinian situation.
Essentially, then, by focussing only upon the content of language itself, or upon the molecular biology and the matter of the mind which liberates speech, and avoiding holistic and heuristic views of the totality of the human social, proto-cultural and sexual environments, Chomsky and his various intellectual allies have encouraged language to become seen as special and almost magical, and such an academic environment has also allowed pseudo-scientific theses of language origins to flourish. These popular ideas miss the mark, but it is perhaps eye-opening to note that, from an evolutionary perspective, they are no less crazy than Chomsky’s view of the ‘innateness’ of the carburettor mentioned above.
Perhaps one of the more outlandish ideas in this regard is the one put forward by psychedelic researcher Terence McKenna, that language evolved among early humans through the discovery and consumption of psilocybin-bearing hallucinogenic mushrooms and the resultant drive to talk about and share the content of their visions. This hypothesis is one that has gained considerable attention in counter-culture circles of the early twenty-first century but it lacks any genuine mark of holistic Darwinian thinking, and it might be easy to consider the idea as a kind of ‘straw man’. Nevertheless, by critiquing the many errors in McKenna's thinking here, and by noting his ironic mistaking of the symbol for the referent, we can come to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of language and why such a superficial mechanism for its emergence as McKenna proposes simply couldn't be possible.
Firstly we should note that the evolution of language has involved a number of striking physiological changes from hominid to human, not least an extreme fine-tuning of the muscle and nerve control in vast areas of the body stretching from the nose to the diaphragm. These changes have incurred at least one major cost, that of a choke risk whereby the descended larynx necessary for clear speech has caused the oesophagus and windpipe to be coincident along much of the throat pathway. While this risk is not particularly great to any given individual, its cost is very often fatal, and in the incipient stages of language usage where this risk was newly-acquired, there must surely have needed to be a much greater selective pressure than the ability to express some abstract unknown reality (which the listener may not have experienced or consider relevant) to maintain the benefits that language confers.
We might also recall the example of the baboon above, in which the unseen fiction was dismissed, and imagine a scenario during a time period when this hypothesised mushroom usage was just beginning. In this social environment, perhaps one or two individuals would be experimenting with this new food source, while most others would be rejecting it on account of its bitter taste, or perhaps simply not know about it. Any of the latter group listening to an individual from the former group attempt to speak (or otherwise make signals in a pre-linguistic environment) about its visions would surely also be dismissed in precisely the same manner. Thus, any alleged adaptive advantage for this mushroom usage rapidly evaporates in the face of primate apathy.
It also becomes obvious that McKenna engages in circular thinking here: he holds that language evolved to talk about a non-material visionary world, but the perception of that visionary world could not have been possible without the neural architecture for symbolic cognition, architecture which he proposes was engendered by the very mushrooms whose visions he deems so crucial. It is quite possible that a pre-symbolic hominid without the evolved capacity to cognize non-immediate and non-perceptually-verifiable referents would interpret the visions not as non-material truths or apparitions but as frighteningly real intrusions upon the material world, ones which might render the individual blinded by the perceived brightness or otherwise incapacitated by the experience, and in seeking to retreat from these intrusions, put itself in mortal danger through exposure to a predator or by inadvertently wandering into some incompletely-perceived real-world environment in which its incapacity causes it injury or death. Such an experience would certainly cause any surviving hominid to avoid subsequent exposure to the mushrooms with a firmness that only terror can engender.
Alternatively, the absence of symbolic cognition might mean that the hominid does not see anything of significance at all: the visionary elements are dismissed as unreal and thus irrelevant by the very structures of the neural cortex and so are never presented to the primate's consciousness for cognition and re-processing, or indeed they are presented to the consciousness but the individual ascribes no importance to them, dismissing them in the same way as it does entoptic phenomena and other intraneural oddities, mirroring the baboon's dismissal of the fictional predator.
None of this is conducive to a reliable emergence of language in these individuals in the manner McKenna describes, but there is another problem evidenced in the nature of language itself: visionary experience is, in all human languages, reified by reference to linguistic metaphors drawn from the real world. If McKenna's hypothesis had any basis in reality, we should expect it to be the other way around, with the real world expressed in terms of vision. To clarify this point, let us consider a vision in which we see an apparition of a shining woman, and consider that we report it in this way: “In my vision, I saw a shining woman floating in the sky.”
We note that the reification of experience (whether visionary or not) in cognitively modern humans through linguistic means is a ubiquitous feature of behaviour and cognition, and Jordan speculates on the possibility that this reification function may well be a modular aspect of the brain. In any case, in the example above, it can be quickly seen that virtually every grammatical feature of the report is a transposition of daylight experience: 'seeing' as a function of the eyes is used as a metaphor for 'visionary visual experience' generated by the brain, 'woman' as a real-world referent is taken to represent an intraneural visionary construct which may or may not truthfully resemble a woman, while 'shining' as her principal attribute is taken from an daylight-world experience of the behaviour of light sources. The phrase 'floating in the sky' is similarly metaphorical: the neurological view of vision discussed earlier can even interrogate the use of the preposition 'in' as a transposition of innate filters for the understanding of the behaviour of space and dimensionality. The casual thesis of the mushrooms of language cannot support any of these deeper observations.
The heart of McKenna's magical thinking, however, comes from his assumption of trust between individuals in a primate behavioural context where complex deceit strategies are the social norm. It is implied that the mushroom visions themselves engender trust, however, this partakes of the same circular methods of thinking as above.
Among chimpanzees, whose intelligence for social contexts rivals our own, levels of deception are so high that even researchers can struggle to keep up, and Kohn remarks that their intelligence primarily resides in their Machiavellian capacities, abilities which preclude the evolution of reliable trust-based systems of signals as we see with the less-intelligent vervet monkeys. This, as Knight points out, makes them “too clever for words” since in a climate of ubiquitous deceit and constant trickery, only truly expensive and energy-intensive signals are to be trusted as reliable. Knight, Power & Watts expand on this point:
“Chimpanzees [unlike vervet monkeys] are threatened by few predators... Given the general competitiveness of ape social life, ‘Machiavellian’ deception [is]... routine – and few would believe any call not accompanied by perceptible evidence. But to endorse each call perceptually would be costly, undermining the point of using a code. This may explain why... chimpanzees in the wild communicate only in perceptually verifiable ways, relying not on coded signals but on emotionally expressive vocal and other gestures which are difficult to fake... Darwinian ‘Machiavellian intelligence’ theory, then, expects large-brained primates to exploit the gullibility of their [peers], precluding by deceptive use any incipient reliance on coded signals.”
Any cheap method of communication such as speech, in which vocalisations are modulated by the movement of mouth and tongue, is dismissed as a feeble attempt at trickery when compared with verifiable emotional expressions, energy-intensive dominance displays from males or the olfactory and visual displays of female oestrus. Whereas among vervet monkeys there is to a certain extent evidence of bodily control in their communications, among chimpanzees no such signalling can occur as Kohn explains:
“Though apes have much more complex cognitive faculties than monkeys, they remain generally unable to exert deliberate control over their signals. Sometimes chimpanzees manage to stifle their cries, but only with difficulty. If they see something exciting, such as food, they generally cannot help but let the cat out of the bag. They do not cry 'food' though. Despite their much greater... capacities, chimpanzees do not attach particular meanings to particular calls.”
and we might say here 'cannot' rather than 'do not'. What McKenna cannot explain, then, is how or why talking about visions can engender a level of cooperativity that is sexually selective and doesn't disappear in an ocean of overwhelming primate deceit strategies wherein only the most expensive signals – gestures and energetic displays rather than chatter – are to be trusted. In this context, excessive reliance on unverifiable information from others, and the sharing of potentially advantageous information to others, carry risks that are much greater than their benefits.
His attempt to counter this, by reporting that mushroom use can create heightened sexual arousal, and by implication, mushroom visionaries must have been building mutual trust through sexual contact, and thereby having more sex to pass on the language tendency to their offspring, fails to take note of the fact that as human brain size has increased, a process known among Darwinists as encephalization, primate philandering behaviour has tended towards inhibition due to the immense reproductive costs among human females that extends far beyond what a single individual can deliver.
This will be elucidated in more detail later, but for now it needs simply to be said that in this context, increased mushroom usage among a given hominid group would lead, not to symbolic culture or language, but an increased level of philandering due to the heightened sexual drives that McKenna reports, and since among all primates, increased philandering often requires an increased level of Machiavellian trickery, the trust basis for the formation of language would be quickly eroded. Visionary mushroom usage in this cognitively archaic context must therefore be cast as a tendency that would render any benefits of both signal-based and symbolic language systems as worthless.
By contrast, the level of cooperativity among humans has evolved to such a degree that it is not confined merely to the psychological, the social or the proto-cultural: it has had effects on the biology of the human being also. Some examples of this will be seen in the ensuing sections but for now we need only look at our own eyes to see one of the biological foundations of human cooperativity.
Compared to other primates, human eyes are distinctive, not least for the significant colour contrast that exists between the pupil, the iris and the sclera, or whites of the eyes. In all other primates the sclera is a dark shade, but among humans this contrastive environment permits one individual to see where another is looking. That this is an ability near-innate to humans but absent from chimpanzees was demonstrated in a study that watched the responses of adult apes and human infants to movements of the researcher's head and eyes. The apes tended to follow only movements of the head, whereas the children were able to follow both the head movements and the movements of the researcher's eyes alone.
Here then can be seen a biological precursor to the kind of trust-based signal system found in language: the cooperative eye hypothesis holds that human individuals are forced to share information about where they are looking, and by implication, what they might know about the environment around them, by the very fact that the contrastive eye environment discloses that information without their conscious or unconscious volition. In this way, a significant majority of chimpanzee deception strategies, predicated as they are on misrepresenting an individual's knowledge of the immediate environment to another individual for personal gain, are eradicated through just this one physical change.
Possessing cooperative eyes, then, permits a social context of heightened trust and suppressed deceit in which complex signal and symbolic systems of communication have the potential to arise. No magical theory of language would dream of linking our eye colour to our ability to speak, but we might speculate that the cooperative eye hypothesis implies exactly that. However, what this hypothesis doesn't explain is why inter-individual trust should be so important as to transform this physical human feature, and while this attribute might be expected to liberate a system of signs similar to, but much greater in complexity than, that of the vervet monkeys, such as that which might have been spoken by Neanderthals or earlier hominids, it doesn't address how symbolic language among anatomically- and cognitively-modern humans could arise.
Mithen's view is that the conception of non-material referents requires cognitive fluidity and charts the development of human language from a signal-based system, through the use of emotional (verifiable) and social communication among Neanderthals, before a random genetic mutation of the FOXP2 gene brought down the perceptual walls between social, natural history and technical intelligence modules of the brain and permitted for the first time the capacity to perceive abstractions, which in turn liberated the symbolic world. One of the ways in which this abstraction may have expressed itself initially may have been through an interaction with social intelligence liberating a kind of non-human 'intention', as Mithen discusses:
“Perhaps the most pervasive consequence of cognitive fluidity has been for modern humans to imagine that all events have intentionality and meaning. A key element of the pre-modern human social intelligence was to infer the intentions behind another person's actions. Once that way of thinking became accessible to natural history and technical intelligence, people began to wonder what the intention was behind natural phenomena, such as thunderstorms, earthquakes and the sight of rare animals... A more specific consequence of cognitive fluidity was the ability to imagine the existence of supernatural beings.”
Mithen considers that language was the primary vehicle for the flow of such knowledge between cognitive domains, and as such, language eventually began to drive its own abstractions, and thus symbolic, ritual, religious and even visionary modes of experience emerge as natural by-products of the cognitive and linguistic functions of the brain.
While this is obviously a refined and scientific thesis, there remains an element of magic in the random mutation of the FOXP2 gene generating everything that succeeded it. This is rather unsatisfactory in light of the preceding images of holism and emergence that we have been building for Darwinian evolution. It goes some way towards explain the 'why' of language and symbolism, but it does not greatly elucidate the 'how', and a thesis which limits itself only to a single field – say, cognition or signal theory – will of necessity produce only a limited picture.
Care also needs to be taken here in that Mithen's explanation of non-human 'intention' above borders on the reductionist in terms of coming to understand the notion of deities. A simplistic or functionalist explanation of a deity as an anthropomorphised natural phenomenon with non-human intentions, rather than a complex symbolic and social reality that emerges not from one but from many aspects of the evolving human proto-culture such that its import is delocalised across the whole human individual and cooperative group, may ironically begin to disclose some of the magical thinking we are seeking to distance ourselves from.
Knight, Power & Watts emphasise this point in a discussion of a hypothesis that language may have emerged due to a 'neural macromutation' which permitted the emergence of complex symbol and syntactic language forms:
“Such ‘word-magic’ scenarios treat speech as an independent variable, unconditionally superior to alternative systems of communication. Darwinian theory, however, does not recognize superiority/inferiority in the abstract – only selection pressures... The human capacity for speech is a specialized biological adaptation which... must have evolved through standard processes of Darwinian natural selection... But postulating sudden macromutations is not Darwinism.”
Thus we find perhaps that evolutionary psychology has its limits and an interdisciplinary approach is preferred, one which fuses the field with the archaeology of the Middle Stone Age in Africa, modern ethnography of hunter-gatherers and signal theory definitions of symbolic cognition, and which nonetheless holds true to the strict focus upon selective pressures and adaptive advantages that Darwinism discloses. This approach provides the missing link and liberates a wide-ranging hypothesis on the emergence of symbolic culture which, as voiced by Christopher Knight, Camilla Power and Ian Watts, represents one of the most radical transformations of the human image ever formulated.