The new Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History does not have much about language, but it does have a couple of displays.
They also have a plaque that boldly asks, “What makes us human?” The answer seems to be “symbolic consciousness,” for it enables us to counterbalance our “selfish motivations” with “spirituality and a shared sense of empathy and morality.”
It is nice to have one of philosophy’s greatest mysteries answered in a paragraph, although it is too bad they don’t offer any evidence to support their claim.
I suppose by “symbolic consciousness,” they mean our capacity to think in symbols, that is in words. I think that’s a new claim on me. I’ve seen arguments that language enables us to think abstractly and religiously. Crediting language as the source of empathy and morality seems surprising, however. Whether you go with Marc Hauser’s view that the principles of human morality are innate or my own view that much of it is a function of perception, it seems independent of symbolic thinking. Hauser and I agree, perhaps, that the contribution of language in this area is largely left to rationalizing what we already feel.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the assertion that empathy comes from language. Science magazine just last year published a report that 18-month-old human infants have the understanding and altruism to “quite readily help others achieve their goals.” Infants of this age are on the cusp of learning to speak, although, who knows?, perhaps they are already imbued with a “symbolic consciousness.” However, the report also found that infant chimpanzees demonstrated “similar but less robust skills and motivations” (abstract here). Isn’t this pretty much what anybody reading the museum’s plaque would have expected? Humans are more altruistic than apes, but empathy is not a complete unknown to chimpanzees.
Providing some shading to this story, was a letter published a few months earlier in Nature magazine (here) with a lively title that nicely summarizes its thesis, “Chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members.”
It is not that empathy is unknown outside the human world; it is found to some degree. But the robustness and generality of altruistic behavior is peculiarly human. The story of how it developed beyond kinship lines in humans is important and mysterious, but there is no evidence in the world to say that symbolic consciousness leads to empathy.
In short, on your next visit to New York, the natural history museum’s new Hall of Human Origins is a good place to check out, but don’t look for much that is insightful or interesting on this blog’s topic, speech origins. More intriguing are the casts of fossils. I could have spent a long time examining them, if it hadn’t been for the other visitors also craning to have a look.