One chapter of E.O. Wilson’s
The Social Conquest of the Earth
covers The Evolution of Language.
Excerpted here, and topped off with an idea of how language is related to human consciousness.
Sociality and Intentionality
The climb that lifted humanity to world dominance had begun in Africa at least two million years ago, with the Homo habiline precursors of Homo erectus. At that point the forebrain began its phenomenal growth, not seen in any other complex structure during half a billion previous years of animal evolution. And the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other animal species, including our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, is the ability to collaborate for the purpose of achieving shared goals and intentions.
Homo erectus advanced to sociality — a level of cooperation among groups. Small groups had begun to establish campsites. They selected defensible sites and fortified them, with some members of the group staying for extended periods to protect the young while others hunted.
The human specialty is intentionality, fashioned from an extremely large working memory. We have become the experts at mind reading, and the world champions at inventing culture. We not only interact intensely with one another, as do other animals with advanced social organizations, but to a unique degree we have added the urge to collaborate. We express our intentions as appropriate to the moment and read those of others brilliantly, cooperating closely and competently to build tools and shelters, to train the young to plan foraging expeditions, to play on teams, to accomplish almost all we need to do to survive as human beings.
The early populations of Homo sapiens, or their immediate ancestors in Africa, approached the highest level of social intelligence when they acquired a combination of three particular attributes. They developed shared attention—in other words, the tendency to pay attention to the same object at ongoing events as others. They acquired a high level of the awareness they needed to act together in achieving a common goal (or thwarting others in the attempt). And they acquired a "theory of mind," the recognition that their own mental states would be shared by others.
When these qualities had been sufficiently developed, languages comparable to those that prevail today were invented. This advance certainly occurred before the African breakout 60,000 years ago. By that time, tribes had the full linguistic capability of their modern descendants and probably used sophisticated languages.
The boon of language
Language was the grail of human social evolution, achieved. Once installed, it bestowed almost magical powers on the human species. Language uses symbols and words to convey meaning and generate a potentially infinite number of messages. It is capable of expressing to at least a crude degree everything the human senses can perceive, every dream and experience the human mind can imagine, and every mathematical statement our analyses can construct. It seems logical that language did not create the mind, but the opposite.
The sequence was from intense social interaction in early settlements to a synergism with increasing ability to read and act upon intention, to a capacity to create abstraction in dealing with others and the outside world and, finally, to language. The rudiments of human language might have appeared as the essential enabling mental qualities came together and coevolved in a synergistic fashion. But it is highly unlikely that it preceded them. Michael Tomasello and his coauthors have stated the case as follows:
What is human language?
Language is not basic; it is derived. It rests on the same underlying cognitive and social skills that lead infants to point to things and show things to other people declaratively and informatively, in a way that other primates do not do, and that lead them to engage in collaborative and joint attentional activities with others of a kind that are also unique among primates. The general question is, what is language if not a set of coordination devices for directing the attention of others? What could it mean to say that language is responsible for understanding and sharing intentions, when in fact the idea of linguistic communication without these underlying skills is incoherent And so, while it is true that language represents a major difference between human and other primates, we believe that it actually derives from the uniquely human abilities to read and share intentions with other people—which also underwrite other uniquely human skills that emerge along with language such as declarative gestures, collaboration, pretense, and imitative learning.
Unlike communication in bees and other animals, human language became capable of detached representation, in which reference is made to objects and events not present in the immediate vicinity—or even in existence. Further, human speech adds information by prosody, the emphasis on particular words and the pacing of their flow in order to invoke mood, to highlight emphasis, or denote one meaning of a phrase as opposed to another. Human language is shot through with irony, a fine-tuned play of hyperbole and misdirection that conveys a meaning different from that in the phrase as literally worded. Language can be indirect, insinuating a message instead of stating it baldly.
Examples include overt, even clichéd sexual come-ons ("Would you like to come up and see my etchings?"); polite requests ("If you could help me change this flat tire, I’d be eternally grateful"); threats ("Nice store you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it"); bribes ("Gee, officer, would it be possible for me to pay the ticket right here?"); soliciting for a donation ("We hope you will join our leadership Program"). As explained by Steven Pinker and other scholars of the subject, indirect speech has two functions, to convey information and to negotiate a relationship between the speaker and the hearer.
The evolution of language
Because language is central to human existence, it is important to know its evolutionary history. In pursuing that goal, we are hampered by the fact that language is also the most perishable of artifacts. Archaeological evidence goes back only to the origin of writing about five thousand years ago, by which time the critical genetic changes in Homo sapiens had occurred and the sophisticated rules of speech were uniformly in place in all societies worldwide.
Even so, there exist a few patterns in speech that can be cited as products of evolution. One such vestige is taking turns during conversations. The fundamental question concerning the origin of language is not conversational turn-taking, however, but grammar. Is the order in which words and phrases are strung together learned, or in some manner innate? In 1989, a historic exchange occurred between B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky on this subject. It took the form of a long essay review by Chomsky of Skinner's book Verbal Behavior, published in 1982. Skinner, the founder of behaviorism, said language is all learned. Chomsky disagreed. Learning a language, he said, with all its grammatical rules added, is too complex for a child to memorize during the time available.
Is there really a universal grammar as Chomsky maintained? An overwhelmingly powerful instinct to learn language certainly exists. There is also a sensitive period in a child's cognitive development when the learning is quickest. So swift is language acquisition, and so fierce the child's effort to learn, that perhaps there is a time in early childhood when the ability to learn words and word order is so efficient that a special brain module for grammar is not a necessity.
The psychologist and philosopher Daniel Nettle has described the new directions in research on linguistics:
All human languages perform the same function, and the set of distinctions they use to do so is probably highly constrained. The constraints come from the universal architecture of the human mind, which influences language form through the way it hears, articulates, remembers, and learns. However, within these constraints, there is latitude for variation from language to language. For example, the major categories of subject, verb, and object vary in their typical order, and some languages signal grammatical distinctions primarily by syntax, or the combinatorics of words, whereas others achieve this mainly through morphology or the internal mutation of words.
In warm climates, to take a simple example, languages around the world have evolved to use more vowels and fewer consonants, creating more sonorous combinations of sounds. The explanation for the trend may be a simple matter of acoustic efficiency. Sonorous sounds carry further, in accord with the tendency of people in warm climates to spend more time outdoors and keep greater distances apart.
The key properties of the mind guiding language evolution almost certainly appeared before the origin of language itself. Their wellsprings are thought to be in the earlier, more fundamental architecture of cognition. Language evolved at first to fit the human brain.
Consciousness —I feel like I just woke up
Language in turn has had the most profound effect on the human mind. It has allowed us to achieve a higher level of conscious awareness by making our thought processes more accessible to us.
In Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett looks into how our brain generates consciousness. The human mind is more aware than that of other animals, partly because of our ability to communicate. We have the ability to tell ourselves and others, in spoken language, our reasons for doing things. This means we develop a facility in our brains for monitoring our reasons, our agendas.
It is only once a creature begins to develop the activity of communication, and in particular the communication of its actions and plans, that it has some capacity for monitoring its formation of intentions . . . a level of self-monitoring that keeps track of which situation-action schemes are in the queue for execution, or in current competition for execution—and which candidates are under consideration. Freedom Evolves pg. 248
Once we develop this language facility, we can tell ourselves and other people what is going on in our thoughts.
And it works both ways—not just monitoring, but directing. When language came about, it brought into existence the kind of mind that can transform itself on a moment’s notice into a somewhat different virtual machine, taking on new projects. For instance when I landed my last job, I told myself, “I am no longer a job-getting machine. Now I am a job-keeping machine.” So with language we can ask others to do things, and we can ask ourselves to do things. In the course of trying to make sense of our own lives, language helps us keep track by helping us organize our agendas.