A Short History of Evolution: Deconstructing the Promethean Spark (Part 2)

This article is part of Carl Coon’s ongoing “A Short History of Evolution” series. Click here to read all entries in this series.

Image credit: lightwise / 123RF
Last week we discussed intentionality, an advanced kind of intelligence that distinguishes humans from other forms of life. Now we turn to two other evolutionary developments, language and altruism, that worked together to make intentionality possible. We’ll discuss language here and leave altruism until next week.  


Natural selection can produce remarkable results. Bats can fly freely in pitch-dark caverns, "seeing" through their ears by echolocation. Every species that finds an ecological niche undergoes natural selection tailored toward a better fit with that niche, and often the result is some quality or bundle of qualities that is unique. Homo sapiens are no exception. Among our many innovations, language is the one that most clearly distinguishes us from all other life forms. We can communicate with gestures and body language and simple sounds, and do so quite frequently, but so do other animals. There are limits, however, to the complexity of the messages that can be sent this way. When you can put these relatively simple sets of sounds into a framework that everyone around you takes for granted, the stage is set for more complicated messages. A communicable pattern forms that is intrinsic to the whole, rather than just being the sum of its parts. This can add an entire new dimension to the capacity to generate, transmit, and receive information. Take the analogy of automobile license plates. Say each plate consists of just half a dozen numbers. If you were brought up to believe that each of the numbers conveyed a separate message and the order in which they were sequenced didn't matter, you'd see this mélange as six separate messages, each conveying a possibility of ten possible alternatives, for a total of sixty possible different outcomes. But when they are numbered sequentially and we perceive them as part of a system, the possibilities shoot up to a million. That's because of our assumption that there is a framework, which in this case happens to be the decimal system. That system isn't exactly hard-wired, but the infant is predisposed to learn systems that function that way early in life, and that predisposition appears to be part of its genetic inheritance.  

Why Did Language Evolve?

Any adaptation survives because in the short term it helps the organism survive and multiply. This had to be the case with language also; its revolutionary long-term implications were collateral benefits that unfolded only later. Among the more proximate causes, some theories postulate that speech helped man the hunter and woman the gatherer garner food. Speech evolved when the fossil record shows increasing consumption of large mammals. That requires hunting in groups, the larger the better. Improved ways of communicating between individuals can be useful, both for planning hunts and for executing them. It can also help on the gathering side, in passing on information about where and when to find which edible vegetables, herbs, and so forth. This doesn’t mean that our language capability only started after the African breakout. It must have started earlier, but it fits the evidence to assume that the environment in Eurasian hunting grounds gave it a major stimulus. Flickers of intentionality in Africa during the preceding 50,000 years may well indicate the early emergence of the first efforts of the human brain to develop the extraordinary new capability of language. People love to talk about themselves and gossip about others in their group. This human quality probably was present even in our first sapient ancestors and may well have been another powerful incentive to start talking. If something seems to be worth doing, evolution will find ingenious ways to make it happen. One theory1 holds that language co-evolved with the evolution of an innate human ability to use it. Linguistic structures governing vocal communication grew more complicated in ways that were user-friendly, adapted to the learning proclivities of children, even as the children grew more receptive to learning them.  

Is There a Language Gene?

A half century ago the linguist Noam Chomsky first identified what he considered to be an innate human capacity for grammar. He based this on the observable fact that very small children can pick up their first language quickly, despite its complexities, even though no other animal shows this capability, and even though the same child may show much less aptitude for rapid acquisition of other information. But where did this so-called "language gene" come from? Was it a singular biological event, a kind of mutation that came on very rapidly in terms of the generational tempo at which biological evolution proceeded? Or was it essentially another adaptation, more cultural than genetic? The answer is probably somewhere in between. Language was a product of the natural world, an extraordinary adaptation that exceeded far beyond just helping its bearers survive and multiply in a changing environment. It was also an enabler, a midwife that made possible the birth of a whole new kind of evolutionary process. The history of evolution has many markers, and in a longer history than this there would be thousands, but by any standards this one was a winner. There is plenty of evidence in the world around us that demonstrates the instinctive nature of a special language learning ability in children. The lamentable fact is that adults don’t usually retain it, for it tapers off rapidly with the onset of adolescence. Some individuals retain traces of it into their first decade or two of adulthood.2 A small minority seems specially gifted with a lifetime ability. Our human capacity for speech may still be evolving. Within our own lifetimes, Apple introduced the user-friendly laptop, with revolutionary effects on the way the public at large came to handle large bundles of information. As anyone my age has learned, the kids took to the new techniques immediately and painlessly, while we oldsters had much more trouble adapting. There are too many times these days when I feel like an erectus whose fumblings are tolerated with barely disguised amusement by my more sapient descendants. A major portion of my confusion is linguistic. The lucky few language savants in our midst may be harbingers of further genetic evolution in our ability to handle information. And then there are the few gifted people, often politicians, who have absolute recall of hundreds or even thousands of individuals, such that they not only remember their names after an absence of years, but also details about their family. Other rare individuals have absolute pitch in music; or can see four or five moves ahead in chess; or can see farther into mathematical mysteries than the rest of us. Are these singular developments flickering premonitions of what is to come? If we look beyond our own species and see evolution in its broader context we can isolate the breakthrough on language as playing a role as central to the evolutionary history we are describing as was the much earlier newfound ability of multicellular organisms to reproduce sexually. Sex was a change that enabled life to branch out and proliferate and populate the planet with life as we know it. Language enabled our ancestors to break out of the pack and change the world. In both cases, the factors that allowed such a game-changing breakthrough can be described as something that allowed a quantum jump in the capacity for managing large quantities of information. Was there some special evolutionary development that kick-started language on a new track? The answer is altruism, applied to other members of a group of people larger than a family. Altruism and language are so closely intertwined that it is hard to see how either could have evolved by itself. Tune in next week.

[1] The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon, 1997, pp. 102-110.
[2] I supervised the School of Language Studies at the State Department’ Foreign Service Institute for several years in the late ‘70’s. I ran a survey at that time on how well various categories of officers succeeded in mastering hard languages. Fluency was achieved only by a minority and they were all among the younger cohort.

This article is part of Carl Coon’s ongoing “A Short History of Evolution” series. Click here to read all entries in this series.