Is language universal?: Why did humans develop complex spoken languages--and even more complex musical tendencies? Evolutionary neuroscientist Mark Changizi examines those questions and others in his new book. Image: iStockphoto/lisegagne
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of the new book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, by Mark Changizi. Copyright (c) 2011 by Mark Changizi.
If one of our last nonspeaking ancestors were found frozen in a glacier and revived, we imagine that he would find our world jarringly alien. His brain was built for nature, not for the freak-of-nature modern landscape we humans inhabit. The concrete, the cars, the clothes, the constant jabbering—it's enough to make a hominid jump into the nearest freezer and hope to be reawakened after the apocalypse.
But would modernity really seem so frightening to our guest? Although cities and savannas would appear to have little in common, might there actually be deep similarities? Could civilization have retained vestiges of nature, easing our ancestor's transition? And if so, why should it—why would civilization care about being a hospitable host to the freshly thawed really-really-great-uncle?
The answer is that, although we were born into civilization rather than melted into it, from an evolutionary point of view we're an uncivilized beast dropped into cultured society. We prefer nature as much as the next hominid, in the sense that our brains work best when their computationally sophisticated mechanisms can be applied as evolution intended. Living in modern civilization is not what our bodies and brains were selected to be good at.
Perhaps, then, civilization shaped itself for us, not for thawed-out time travelers. Perhaps civilization possesses signature features of nature in order to squeeze every drop of evolution's genius out of our brains for use in the modern world. Perhaps we're hospitable to our ancestor because we have been hospitable to ourselves.
Does civilization mimic nature? I believe so. And I won't merely suggest that civilization mimics nature by, for example, planting trees along the boulevards. Rather, I will make the case that some of the most fundamental pillars of humanity are thoroughly infused with signs of the ancestral world…and that, without this infusion of nature, the pillars would crumble, leaving us as very smart hominids (or "apes," as I say at times), but something considerably less than the humans we take ourselves to be today.
In particular, those fundamental pillars of humankind are (spoken) language and music. Language is at the heart of what makes us apes so special, and music is one of the principal examples of our uniquely human artistic side.
As you will see, the fact that speech and music sound like other aspects of the natural world is crucial to the story about how we apes got language and music. Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature. Now that's a deep, ancient secret, one that has remained hidden despite language and music being right in front of our eyes and ears, and being obsessively studied by generations of scientists. And like any great secret code, it has great power—it is so powerful it turned clever apes into Earth-conquering humans. By mimicking nature, language and music could be effortlessly absorbed by our ancient brains, which did not evolve to process language and music. In this way, culture figured out how to trick nonlinguistic, nonmusical ape brains into becoming master communicators and music connoisseurs.
One consequence of this secret is that the brain of the long-lost, illiterate, and unmusical ancestor we unthaw is no different in its fundamental design from yours or mine. Our thawed ancestor might do just fine here, because our language and music would harness his brain as well. Rather than jumping into a freezer, our long-lost relative might instead choose to enter engineering school and invent the next-generation refrigerator.
The origins of language and music may be attributable, not to brains having evolved language and music instincts, but rather to language and music having culturally evolved brain instincts. Language and music shaped themselves over many thousands of years to be tailored to our brains, and because our brains were cut for nature, language and music mimicked nature…and transformed ape to man.