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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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As I understand your ideas, you assume that some changes in attention such as the emergence of joint attention were the main prerequisite of the emergence of language. However, in my opinion, such a hypothesis has a fundamental problem because attention is not autonomous. Except rare situations when attention automatically shifts between objects usually due to astonishment or pain other systems control attention. Humans can voluntarily pay attention to various objects or attention is involuntarily directed to things, objects which relate to the ongoing actions of an individual. Obviously, that attention is also not autonomous in animals. Of course, it is possible to suggest that attention could evolve without changing control systems however it seems more reasonable to assume that the changes in control systems preceded the evolution of attention. In this case changes in attention were not the main prerequisite for language.
BLOGGER RESPONSE: This is an important comment that gets to the heart of the matter: is change in attention the sine qua non of language, or is language the sine qua non of changes to attention?

First, I think the prerequisite for language was not an evolutionary shift to joint attention, but a shift to cooperative living. At that point such things as joint attention and language became evolutionary possibilities.

Second, there are two attention circuits in the brain. One (the older evolutionary one) is reflexive; e.g., I hear a noise and turn my attention toward it. The other is sustained; e.g., I am eating berries and shift my attention from one berry to another. Humans are unique in having a circuit that joins these other two, making it possible to mix reflexive and sustained attention.

Third, changes in attention circuitry and language likely co-evolved. Words began as ways of reflexively directing attention, and we still see this in toddlers and pets where they reflexively look about for the object named. Sentences came (and still come) later. They direct attention to a variety of separate objects (c.f. picking berries) and bind them together in a meaningful whole.

Finally, the selective force behind all the evolutionary changes was more successful cooperative living. My scenario is that cooperative living led to joint attention which led to many other changes. These changes were selected because populations that cooperate successfully enjoy greater prosperity than those that don’t. Is there a scenario by which changes that later prove useful in supporting language are first selected, leading to language and then leading to cooperation?


The idea that language resulted from changes in cooperative living is probably correct because an alternative to it is the emergence of language from a single mutation. However, the idea itself is insufficient because it raises a question on why cooperative living became more complex, etc. Moreover, the complication of cooperative living per se results in complex languages but ants and bees demonstrate that such languages are very different from human language.

My scenario of language origin can be presented as follows. The behavior of any organism is defined by its needs (hunger, sex, curiosity, fear, etc.). In my opinion, the main difference between animals and humans is that the system of the needs of animals is innately closed and that of humans is open. The fact that the animal system of needs is closed does not mean that the behavior of animals is automatic, instinctive, etc. This simply means that the animal is able to construct and pursue a limited amount of goals because the construction and maintenance of a goal require the activation of an innate need.

For example, a hungry chimpanzee can demonstrate very complex and diverse behavior including the manufacture and use of tools. However, a saturated ape does not manufacture tools in store because for apes the manufacture and use of tools is not a special activity but a consequence of the activation of an innate need. If no need is activated even useful activities cannot be performed. Only humans can manufacture tools ( drive cars, write texts, etc, etc,) regardless of the state of their innate needs because the human brain is able to construct learned needs which are as strong and stable as innate needs.
All other distinctions between humans and animals may be the result of this characteristic. For example, animals also have language but unlike human language, the language of animals always has a limited amount of signals. This reflects the fact that animals have a limited number of activities in which their language can be used. Also, due to the ability to construct learned needs, the use of language itself could became a special activity for ancient hominids when they could try to use conventional signals in novel situations thus giving these signals multiple senses. Moreover, in this case ancient hominids could combine and join signals thus forming something similar to primitive utterances.
Thus language as a system with the unlimited number of signals which can be combined arbitrarily could be the direct consequence of the ability to form long-term, learned actions. After the emergence of language, language and the ability evolved jointly. New forms of cooperation could emerge from this evolution, etc.

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