The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Fall 2020 issue.
We are the Homo sapiens, the only humans. We’re able to communicate complexly, coordinate over vast distances, pass down and preserve knowledge and ideas, build tools and shelters, and bend nature itself to our will. We were not always alone as we are now. For millions of years there were other human species living on Earth, long before we existed. Archaic hominin species often possessed abilities or skills considered to be solely “human” in nature. Homo Habilis, were hitting rocks with other rocks and building crude tools some two million years ago. Homo Heidelbergensis were likely making (terrible) shelters to protect themselves from the elements 700,000 years ago. Neanderthals were making jewelry 430,000 years ago, and probably buried their dead. Around 200,000 years ago, when good ol’ Homo sapiens waded out of the primordial soup, there were at least six different human species living at the same time. So what happened to the others? What wiped out all of our closest relatives, many of whom did things uniquely “human?” And, not that I’m complaining, but why didn’t Homo sapiens die with them?
The answer is elusive, but a big part of it lies within our capacity for language. There is no doubt that some of our human ancestors were intelligent, at least to the degree that they were capable of communicating, making shelters and clothing, and cooking and hunting with tools among other things. It is likely though, that our sibling species could not use language as a tool. It is important to note the difference between language and speech. Language is the abstract use of symbols in order to represent and explain the environment around us. It also involves the combination of symbols into increasingly complex chains of thought that are representative of ideas or concepts, which can then be conveyed to others. Speech is the physical act of using language through vocal muscles. Language doesn’t have to be spoken, and can be conveyed through gestures, body language, non-verbal vocalizations, and writing. For example, chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and have what is best described as a protolanguage. They have very little ability to control vocalizations and therefore rarely rely on calls or “speech.” Instead, they have over 60 distinct gestures and are able to communicate to each other through body language and signs. The communication practices of the Deaf community also illustrate this distinction. Many hearing-impaired persons use a complex system of physical signing in order to communicate—this is language without speech. There is evidence indicating that Neanderthals, some of our most recent ancestors, may have been physically capable of speech. Language, on the other hand, and the symbolic intuition it requires, was probably impossible for them.
Homo sapiens evolved with the physical potential for speech, and more extraordinarily, the cognitive dexterity required for language. This ability to speak and create language allowed us to strengthen our social and cultural bonds as well as organize and coordinate. In turn, we were able to out-compete any other species for food, land, and other resources. Although individually we are physically weak, together human beings are the most powerful species on the planet, and our ability to “do language” allowed us to link together and become a global superorganism.
The capacity to use language is an extremely complicated and rare phenomenon and the truth is that linguists and anthropologists aren’t even sure how it evolved. There are a number of leading theories, but because brains don’t fossilize and there are no records of the origins of language, we can’t know for certain. One thing that is certain is that if there is a singular difference that can be pointed at to represent what makes us unique, it is our capability for thought. Our self-reflexive insight and what we call our consciousness stem directly from our ability to produce and understand language. Without the capacity for symbolic thought and organization both required by and produced by language, we would lack the capacities for mental abstraction and symbolism required to be ‘conscious’ – to understand our own thoughts and the distinctions between the external world and our perception of it. Our “doing language” is a curious process because it both requires our proficiency with symbolic thought, and provides for it, increasing and amplifying our ability to adopt, synthesize, and alter more symbols in a way that seems to be the spark for what we consider consciousness. In fact, what seems to be the epitome of human cognito-uniqueness is that Homo Sapiens exist in realities that they construct in their own minds by absorbing, structuring, symbolizing, and organizing the world around them. All other creatures, (most likely including Neanderthals as well) live in the worlds presented to them.
How did we get from learning how to make weird sounds with our mouths and throats and gesturing to each other to being a comprehensively interconnected and integrated network of super-intelligent primates?
The linchpin of human civilization is built directly on top of language, in the form of myths. With language, you can create myths. With myths, you have complete control over the world. They allow intricate social and political structures to form throughout the species and in turn create a linked culture. In this context, I don’t just mean myths as in stories about vengeful gods or old folk tales from the ancient past. Myths are shared ideologies that arise when a social group decides to make some shit up and most of them agree to play by the same rules. Money, political systems or governments, educational systems, and social codes are all myths. For money, we all agree that a certain object is arbitrarily worth something universally agreed upon, and then can be traded in exchange with other arbitrarily valued objects. Political systems and governments are made up of vast systems of completely conceptual abstractions put into practice, like economies, laws, and social codes. All of these things are fictions, concepts made up and agreed upon collectively. Herein lies the strength of the human union.
Humans as we are today first appeared some 200,000 years ago. After a bit of dicking about and sitting on our bipedal behinds, we end up starting to really comprehend—symbols begin appearing in our minds and, soon after, we find we can manipulate them. We experience the outside world not as passive bystanders but as perpetual builders. The world is constantly being classified, organized, and reconstructed in our minds. We see things around us, give them representations in our heads: we see a tree and we can identify that it’s a tree. When we see other trees, we know they’re trees. Then we start to move these symbols around, come up with new combinations or variations: there are different kinds of trees, trees can be a source of food, trees are made of wood, wood makes shelter, and so on. After that we start to use hand motions and then vocal projections to universalize and give physical form to the symbols we have in our minds. Symbolic representation is more complex than simply reproducing an object and its relations in our head. Concepts are symbolically realized as well. Things like sadness, pleasure, death, and colors all lack a distinct physical form, but are nonetheless still presented in our psyche as having meanings, relations, implications. Because of this new method of describing and understanding abstract conceptions like these, we become able to explain and share ideas beyond the practicality of staying alive—practices involving the dead, spirituality, and art all became possible. We share these symbols with others of our kind, and we are able to convey things about the world around us not only to ourselves but to others.
So, we develop language that gets more complex as time goes on. After some more standing around with our thumbs up our collective ass, generally being killed on a near-constant basis by most things, we start strengthening our social coordination, allowing us to greatly expand our individual lifespans. We form families beyond biology. Tribes develop social codes and ideas, coalitions of members of our species living together and sharing ideas and feelings on a mass scale. Social systems start to become more complex, and soon we end up in an era where there’s agriculture, towns, cities, huge gatherings of humans trading ideas and beliefs. Then there’s a rapid acceleration of human development, both in population and socially. We end up forming cities and then nation states and then countries, until we have a linked civilization across the globe. We’ve become the rulers of the planet, a species with unprecedented power.
Let’s take a step back. Although we may be doing fairly well as a species now—insofar as we’re not dying faster than we are being born—it has been an extremely unpleasant journey for us. Archeological evidence shows that there was a point around 75,000 years ago where the human species bottlenecked to somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 people, making us an endangered species. For a time, we were unbearably close to dying out and losing thousands of years of progress, growth, future lives, and civilizations. Through sheer luck, stubbornness, ingenuity—or possibly a combination of the three—we managed to bounce back from the bottleneck, exploding into the future and developing more rapidly than the planet that created us could ever hope to keep up with.
We evolved over millions of years, growing and changing through time. We came into existence as the Homo sapien, and spent the majority of 200,000 years shitting our pants and dying because of disease, famine, hardship, and nature, all of which had literally been killing us at every possible opportunity until now. We may still have those problems but by and large we’ve pushed back death, conquered the planet and mowed the lawn, put nature in a cage and maybe accidentally killed it. It took us 200,000 years to get to the first billion Homo sapiens in 1804. In 1927, the population reached two billion, then three billion in 1959, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1999, seven billion in 2012, right billion in the few years, and we will eventually level off around 9–10 billion (assuming the planet isn’t plunged into a nuclear winter in the near future).
Without our ability to wield language as a tool and as a weapon, Homo sapiens might have died out with the rest of the humans in the last 200 millennia and millions of years of human evolution, the rise of sentience and sapience, may have come to an end before it even had a chance to truly develop.