The blogger. Edmund Blair Bolles at a reunion of Peace Corps Volunteers in October 2007. Photo taken by fellow volunteer Marilyn Kelly.
Last month, without my noticing, I passed the first anniversary of this blog. Now that I have noticed the event, I thought this might be a good time to update the “declaration of purpose” with which I began this blog (here). Visitors to the site regularly check out that original post, but I did not read it once it went up. So I looked it up and find that, at least, the main ambition of the blog has held steady and stayed in my mind:
…become the main source of news and information about the evolution of speech, from primate vocalizations to meaningful exchanges. … The questions that concern this blog are where did [speech] come from? Why did we evolve it? When did we evolve it? How did we evolve it? Somewhere along the human line our ancestors began speaking while chimpanzee ancestors did not. What accounts for the difference?
My anticipated reward for success at understanding the origins of speech is also the same as I suggested at the outset, gain “a good, detailed knowledge of just what it is that made humans human,” although it is plain that not everybody who writes in this field looks for the same reward. Some expect to find that the differences between animals (including the great apes) and humans are overrated and that we are part of a continuum of species, not an outlier. Others are looking for mechanical and computational explanations of speech’s details. How did we become talking machines? But whatever goal drives one’s curiosity we are all faced with the same data and are pushed in the direction it points.
What has changed is my sense of the elements of speech. The original declaration of purpose listed a series of “elements of speaking” that now needs revising. Below is my current list of elements. If we understood their development we would have a good detailed knowledge of how we came to be human, although, as I said in my original post, “we must admit that with so many circumstances lost forever, the best we can hope for is probably a very grainy story. But right now, grainy sounds good.” Grainy still sounds good, but perhaps the list is a bit more clearly focused:
Attention: This element was not even listed last year, but I’m inserting it in place of the original declaration’s “imagination.” That first post said, “Imagination gives us something to say,” but it gave me nothing to say. Instead it turns out that attention gives us something to say. A year ago I might have said, “Jane has a musical imagination;” today I’m more likely to say she pays attention to music. Primates pay attention to things as well, so this change gives us something to wonder about. How has attention changed in the past five million years? One change appears to be an increase in the things that catch our interest. Speech gives us a tool for discussing topics, but we also pay attention to topics that no other primate cares about.
Concern for another: Last year’s post very briefly said, “Speech requires listeners as well as speakers, and to listen you have to care about what is going on in the head of another.” I did not dwell on the point, but it has been a fruitful concept throughout the blogging year. Primate society strikes me as being generally sociopathic; its members are intelligent and alert to one another, but their primary social motive seems to be manipulative. How can I use this one as a means to my ends? They neither expect nor offer support, and they play their cards very close to their chest. Humans are remarkably different, so different that the sclera of our eyes have change color, from black to white, making it easier for our fellows to see where we are looking. Without a change to a much greater community orientation, speech seems impossible no matter how logical, imaginative, or curious a species might become.
Vocabulary: Originally I focused on the many words available to speakers, contrasted with the few vocalizations of primates. More notable now seems to be the fixity of vocalizations versus the aptness of words. Speech is focused on the details of the moment in a way that primate vocalizations are not, and vocalizations no longer strikes me as worth much comment. Surviving human vocalizations include laughing and sobbing, and nobody thinks they have much to tell us about speech.
Syntax: It remains obvious that speech is governed by rules, most of them specific to the language being spoken, but also by some general ones common to all languages. Important linguists consider the rise of syntax to be the question whose solution will be key to understanding how speech evolved, yet there has been little news about language evolution from this corner. That could be because syntactical origins are so difficult to determine. Neurologically speaking, we don’t know how we speak syntactically, so we are in no position to study where the power comes from. But there may be other reasons as well, and as the year has progressed I have become increasingly firm and confident about my skepticism over syntax’s leading role in this story. I suspect that universal elements of syntax mainly reflect universal rules for directing attention. Still, this is an area where a breakthrough between the abstractions of linguistic inquiry and physical understanding might come at any moment. Little news now does not imply little news in the future.
Symbolic representation: My biggest surprise has been the symbol’s dead end. Last year I wrote, “Words are profoundly unlike vocalizations for having a symbolic meaning. … The importance of symbols as the distinguishing difference of human thought has long been accepted by many schools of philosophy and retains its central role among many people who have not embraced syntax as the key difference.” I expected much of my news to cover this feature. Instead I have been radicalized by the work on attention and I no longer understand meaning as some kind of content communicated (i.e., transmitted) by language. Meaning refers to where our attention is directed; e.g., in “Hear that lion roar,” the meaning of “lion roar” is the sound that the sentence directs our attention to. There are, of course, symbols—plus signs, crucifixes, etc.—but they are probably a late cultural development, coming long after the beginning of speech. Probably they are more important for understanding the differences between Homo sapiens and H. erectus, than in understanding the nature of speech itself.
Speech organs: I stand by what I wrote last year, “[Thanks to work trying to teach sign language to primates, we know that speech] cannot simply reflect our body’s ability to fine tune sounds. …the organs of speech are a chicken that came out of an egg that already supported some Difference with our non-verbal, primate cousins. Obviously, the evolution of speech involved a great many anatomical adaptations, but they have the look of a lagging indicator.” The truly invaluable thing about speech organs is that we can always hope to find something in the fossil or DNA evidence that can lead to more precise dating.
In the dark night of the blogger’s soul I am tempted to toss it all aside. What the heck am I doing reporting all these unconfirmable speculations? So it is restorative to pause from time to time and see how the big picture progresses. I now have a more focused list of things that distinguishes the human species that emerged from a long evolutionary process:
- communal attention,
- interest in neutral topics,
- communal concerns and sympathies, and
- the aptness of our expressions.
The listed items are not speculations but observable details of human life, and I take encouragement from their specificity and ordinariness. It makes me fell I can still keep plugging.