Language, at its core and as presented on this blog, is a tool for sharing joint attention in contemplation of a topic. By now it has other functions as well, but the definition I just offered is the sine qua non of the phenomenon. When language appeared, it suddenly became possible to discuss or at least report matters of mutual interest. Most definitions ignore the business about joint attention and say something like language is a tool for communicating with symbols. But I have become persuaded that focusing on symbols misses language’s key feature, the harnessing of attention.Symbol-based theories of language origins look for the introduction of a words, but a better question asks how the human lineage managed to bring attention under control.
Attention itself is very old and reflexive. Animals do not control it; it controls them. Any of the senses can be startled and reflexively an animal directs attention to the surprise. Chimpanzees have figured out how to use that reflex. They have been observed slapping the ground and then, when a troop-mate turns its head, the slapper begs for food. Presumably, the apes of 6 million years ago did the same, but joint attention is something else. If a chimpanzee slapped the ground and then, upon catching another’s attention, pointed toward a third thing, perhaps a pineapple bush, we would have an example of harnessed attention producing joint attention. It turns out, however, that chimpanzees do not harness attention to point elsewhere. Their attention-claiming is very much a look-at-me-dammit kind of action. Joint attention is a double phenomenon. A person pays attention to something out there in the world, but is also is aware of the other attender.
Joint attention is more complicated than simply paying attention to the same thing. Two strangers can pay attention to the same thing just by standing at the corner and watching for the green light. Joint attention allows one person to say to another, “Boy, it is a long time coming,” and the listener replies, “Will it ever change?” In this case, their common attention of the light signal is complicated by their mutual awareness of the other’s focus on the same thing. That’s joint attention: focus on one thing along with shared awareness of each other.
Joint attention might have begun with a sound and a pointer. Ork and point toward a rival band of hunters on the horizon; ork and point toward vultures circling and landing off toward the horizon. Ork may have been just an attention getter, but once attention was combined with pointing, language became inevitable, assuming our ancestors had world enough and time. The cooperative benefits were just too great for evolution to ignore. But what happened to make our ancestors willing to share attention?
If speech is a side effect of joint attention, speech has several astonishing side effects of its own. First, talkers live much more of a conscious life than non-verbal species. Attention requires awareness. An animal is startled by a sound or a movement or odor and focuses attention on it, becoming aware of sensations and perceptions. Awareness is a total mystery, but I see no reason to suppose that an elephant at attention is any less aware than a human. However, humans have become such chatterboxes, paying joint attention to one thing after another, that we live in our consciousness much more than any other animal type does. Sure we have plenty of unconscious reflexes and associations shaping our behavior as well, but we can have conscious purposes too. Apes, especially orangutans, are clever and surely have conscious purposes at times, but human civilization is amazingly shaped by conscious purposes. Many people attribute these talents to language, but computers can use language (in a way) but they process it purely on the symbolic level; joint attention has no role in computer processing. Meanwhile, people use language to direct their attention and have prolonged conscious experiences. It is the joint-attention part of language, not the symbolic part, that keeps us conscious, allowing us to have novel purposes, pleasures, and powers.
Conscious attention has another strange side effect. It moves us out of the here and now. All the world’s other animals live in the moment. Their senses alert them to their present condition. From time to time they focus attention on something, but that is to understand the present more clearly. Suppose for some random neurological reason a chimpanzee’s brain flashes a picture of its mother’s face. Maybe some smell or sound has called up an association. The chimpanzee may be surprised but the moment passes and the chimpanzee is right back in the here and now. Now let’s suppose that an aged human is suddenly reminded of his mother. He has a name for the unexpected image (mother) and may use that term to start recalling other things about his mother. Suddenly thirty seconds have gone by in which the human was engaged with the past instead of the now. Is that good? Many would say no, but it is part of being human and has created a strange fact about human societies everywhere. They are engaged in a world very much of their own making. Every human community is full of symbols, laws, and beliefs that must be learned by its members. Is that good? Romantics say no, but it does not matter. We cannot escape living in a cultural world as well as the physical one. Today’s world is full of stories, religions, dramas, entertainments, concerts, and rituals that take us out of the immediate setting around us. We have harnessed attention and focused it on a something other than the physical present.
Breaking with the present also allows us to harness our thoughts. Thinking in language means directing our attention from one thing to another without losing the thread. When I was 11 years old, for example, I lived in Paris and thought about how I had learned English from my parents while my schoolmates had learned French from theirs. It was a random observation, but I was able to imagine back to the stone age when cave men first came up with language. I then imagined the Neanderthals meeting to agree on what to call things. My head jerked as I realized such a gathering was impossible without language already existing. Attention kept me focused on a topic long enough to imagine a series of incidents and understand something new. That kind of ability to have and recognize unexpected ideas is probably not confined to the Homo line, but language certainly makes it a lot easier to stay conscious and imagine a series of related associations until, pop, we think of something unexpected. I am pretty sure that every so often a chimpanzee has a good idea, but it is likely more difficult to push their imagination without having a reliable means of harnessing attention.
And then when the chimpanzee has a good idea, so what? Maybe the smart chimp benefits, but chimpanzeedom as a whole is none the wiser. Meanwhile, among the bipeds, another side effect of language is that we can have second-hand knowledge. By now, very little of what any of us knows is what we figured out for ourselves. The Royal Society was founded by scientists determined to take no man’s word for anything, but the scientific learning they promoted is probably the greatest, most hard-sought collection of second-hand knowing in history. That’s what makes science so powerful. People in many settings, with many varied points of curiosity set out not just to learn things but to share their discoveries. At this point, it does not matter whether the average chimp is as smart as the average human. The great stockpile of intellectual capital made possible by sharing our knowledge of every topic long ago outpaced whatever advantage apes might once have had in brains and brawn.
All of these side effects of language—consciousness, life beyond the present moment, thinking, and shared knowledge—have transformed our existence far more than would have been possible if we just processed symbols while an irrelevant awareness looked on. Just as startling may be that these side effects seem to be free or mostly free from the chains of Darwinian logic that rule the rest of the biological world. Language-based communities are far more able to cooperate and prosper than are the non-verbal societies of gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. That Darwinian edge allowed the Homo line to spread far and wide, but the other side effects—consciousness, life in an imaginary world of culture and thought, and the amassing of second-hand knowledge—all seem to have just come along for the ride without Darwinian selection voting on whether it is good or not to have those features. Of course, in the end we may fry ourselves in an intolerably hot climate or blow ourselves to bits in a series of nuclear explosions. Then Darwinian logic will have the last laugh. In the meantime, however, it seems to be sitting on its hands.