Nick Lane’s latest book, The Vital Question: energy, evolution and the origins of complex life has nothing to do with language origins, but it has set me to thinking. We tend (or at least I tend) to think of evolution in terms of changes in genetic information. And it is that, but it is more. The physical universe consists of at least three fundamentals: matter, energy, and information.
Dr. Lane reminds readers that it is not only genes that are passed down through the ages. Sperm and ova are more than strands of DNA. They are cells (matter) that are already alive before they unite to begin the process of growing into a new organism. To stay alive these cells need energy, and they need it all the time. Sperm in the testicles and eggs in the ovaries need a constant supply of energy. The DNA is the information that ensures the growth and behavior of these cells is not random.
Although these statements are fundamental, we take them so much for granted that we can be tempted to forget about them when we think about evolutionary events like the origin of language. The classic example of such naïveté is the suggestion that language began with a single mutation. That simplifies the story but reduces it to a tweak in the information. Was no change necessary to the matter or energy of the talking organism? If you want to reduce language to an abstract computation, be my guest, but that will never be enough to allow for practical accounts of origins or diagnoses of developmental problems.
Another difficulty promoted by the information-only approach is the challenge of saying what makes humans different from other primates, especially the apes. If you include physical properties, it is pretty easy: apes are all knuckle-walking quadrupeds, while humans are all upright bipeds. Apes are furry, while even the hairiest of humans is essentially bare-skinned. Humans have much bigger brains than apes. Apes are physically much stronger than humans. If we dismiss material traits as trivial, we miss something practical. Plainly, we evolved to occupy a different niche from other primates.
When thinking about language origins then, we should at least consider the fact that we are descended from a lineage that had materially different adaptive needs than the other primate lines.
Humans also have different energy demands. The most obvious of these different demands concerns our brains. The brain’s material and energy demands put a constant pressure on humans to support these massive cellular consumers. Lane’s book does not let readers forget that cells need a constant supply of energy to stay alive. The fossil collection of our lineage shows a steady growth in brain size, meaning there was a constantly increasing pressure to keep up a food intake that provides the material and energy to keep the brains alive. Perhaps that demand is why we are so much weaker than apes. We have literally transferred our energy consumption from brawn to brain.
So when thinking about language origins, we should at least consider the fact that we are descended from a lineage that had substantially higher and more persistent energy needs than other primate lines.
Different material and energetic needs implies radically different information needs as well. We see in humans a number of behavioral differences from other apes. We communicate to cooperate. We cook our food and share our meals. We share the child-raising burden. Our males are at least semi-domesticated, enough to allow them to participate in a cooperative society without causing constant disruptions. We mark our life cycles with ceremonies. Our leaders are not just a team of the strongest; they seek wise counsel as well. All these differences allow us to live in communities with quite different structures from those of other apes. To get these differences, we have had to acquire new information. And yet our DNA is not much different from the other apes. That fact does not mean we are really chimpanzees after all. We could have developed an alternative form of passing information from generation to generation. And, of course, we have. We are as dependent on our cultures as well as on our DNA. Raise a chimpanzee like a child in a human family and DNA alone is sufficient to mean that the end result of this effort will still be an ape who acts like a chimpanzee. But switch human babies so that a child born in the Congo forest is raised as a member of a Chinese family and you will get an adult with a Congolese physique but who speaks, thinks and acts like a Chinese person.
So when thinking about language origins, we need to consider the fact that we are descended from a lineage that has an unprecedented information system for shaping our identities.
As I say, none of this meditation quotes passages from Nick Lane’s book, but it all comes from his valuable reminder that evolution is not an abstract process. It has not let us escape from a world of information, matter, and energy.