David Brooks is a New York Times columnist who for some time now has been pondering over the changing view of human nature which this blog has been reporting. Last week he had a column ("Nice Guys Finish First") that considered this issue again and concluded that "cooperation permeates our nature" and that "a rigorous 'scientific'" analysis of human origins or behavior cannot be based on selfishness alone. Brooks is a political conservative and his remarks are aimed chiefly at the free-market thinkers who favor unmitigated competition. They could, however, be aimed at this blog as well.
Some thinkers have tried to look at forces that might have made language inevitable. Deacon looked at a coevolution of language and brain, pushed by a need for symbols that hold society together. Bickerton focused on niche construction, the interaction of human society and the environment from which language emerged. Yet these approaches still suffer from a lack of full integration of language and human nature. When I look around, it is difficult to conceive of any human community that lacks language, even if the members are all monks or nuns who have taken vows of silence. A complete theory of language origins should make it clear why language is so central to our identity.
Brooks' column has a splendid metaphor that shows exactly what I mean. Brooks reports, "Human beings, [Jonathan] Haidt [author of The Righteous Mind, forthcoming] argues, are 'the giraffes of altruism.' Just as giraffes got long necks to help them survive, humans developed moral minds that help them and their groups succeed." I love that image because it reminds us that the zoological world is full of remarkable things that are so demanding they permeate the animal's identity.
I say demanding because the giraffe's neck goes beyond being remarkable. It may be an adaptation to browsing on high branches, but many other adaptations are needed to support so enormous a neck. The animal has to maintain extra-high blood pressure to send blood up to the brain and then needs protection to keep from destroying their brains when the blood arrives. The body that supports the neck has to be unusually big. Giraffes lower their head to drink water and must control the way the blood rushes to the brain. They also need special pumping mechanisms to bring water up the neck, and special ways of manipulating their legs so that their lowered head and neck doesn't make them topple head over heels. The result is an animal transformed; wherever you look you find the animal has been rebuilt to support its enormous neck.
We see the same kind of integrated adaptations in the human community. Altruism is only part of the story. Community members have to behave respectfully toward one another. They have to find a way of keeping sexual drives from tearing the community apart, but cannot damp it down so far that the community is out-peopled by its neighbors. Members have to trust one another and to merit such trust people need to be loyal, courageous, and reliable. They have to be able to share things, including information and perceptions. In times of peril they don't separate, but come together.
If I were investigating the story of the evolution of the giraffe, I would not be satisfied unless the elements were part of one coherent tale. Likewise, investigating the origin of speech should produce a coherent story in which speech, cooperation, the whites of the eyes, loyalty, courage, trustworthiness, and group solidarity emerge as a elements of a piece.
When I started this blog I expected no such unity, but now I pretty much insist on it. The origin of speech is part of the story of the origin the human community.