Symbolism and the Significance of Language
In order to survive in the world, an animal needs information about both the environment around it and its internal status. Humans tend to define information as something spoken or written, but the term is actually much broader than that. As we saw earlier, the evolution of the nervous system came about because living things needed some way of sensing their surroundings, and those that could do so survived better than those that couldn’t. As the primates evolved, and as primates with more and more elaborate nervous systems came to be in the world, the definition of information grew broader and deeper. The gestural repertoire of primates allowed them to form hierarchies and social groupings more elaborate than those of any other animals. The evolution of the advanced prefrontal cortex and centers of the brain increasingly capable of categorizing various external phenomena, and the evolution of a vocal apparatus that permitted unprecedented flexibility in the making of sounds, tended to reinforce each other in a synergistic way. There now existed an animal capable of true language. Language is a conscious act. In language, sounds have specific meanings and perform specific functions (such as naming things). In a language these sounds are arranged in a particular way in order to effect communication. The emergence of true language, perhaps first in the late forms of erectus, but most highly in the advanced forms of sapiens, would revolutionize the world.
We will look at the emergence of language in much greater detail in a subsequent volume, but we cannot pass over the subject when examining the nature of Upper Paleolithic culture. When we speak of a culture, a way of life handed down through time and space, we are discussing a phenomenon that rests overwhelmingly on language. The essence of culture is the ability to not only perceive the world but to A. communicate one’s response to that perception to others and B. be exposed to others’ response to their perception. (I say “response to perception” because we cannot truly convey the fullness of our internal perception to another human—a crucially important point.) As we noted in the first section of this book, the sole factor that prevents the complete existential isolation of a human is the ability to communicate. The inability to communicate, as in the case of individuals suffering from aphasia, cuts a human off from others in a way nothing else can. In a sense, it is worse than banishment or forced physical isolation. In such a situation one can be surrounded by other humans and be just as out of touch with them as if one were in solitary confinement. It can be argued that the greatest consequence of the emergence of human consciousness was the increasing ability to break the bounds of existential isolation.
The non-human animals, of course, have their own ways of communicating with each other, such as scent, color, or threat display. We must imagine that the primates of the late Oligocene Epoch or the early Miocene Epoch that ultimately gave rise to the genus Homo were able to convey meaning to each other, but the methods by which meaning was conveyed must have been very basic and very broad—loud, simian vocalizations, the baring of teeth, spontaneous displays of physical affection and so on. Natural selection favored those primates who were able to survive more effectively because of their use of these methods, but the evolution of complex interpersonal communication was apparently agonizingly slow.
Increasingly large, internally complex brains were the product of both the continuous, unconscious “trial-and-error” processes of genetics and the ability of such brains to interact with the outside world in such a way that this genetic tendency was reinforced. The interactivity of the advanced hominid brain with the physical world in which it was located, mediated by the senses, established a complicated web of feedback loops that “rewarded” certain tendencies, “punished” others, and “ignored” many more. The centers of the brain involved with the ability to generate and understand symbolism were among those “rewarded”. What do we mean by symbolism?
Symbolism is a way of representing some aspect of reality in concrete form, a representation that communicates, or expresses a response to, some aspect of that reality. In itself, in its raw, experienced form, human-perceived reality is tremendously diverse in its manifestations, overwhelming in the thoroughness with which it engulfs human consciousness, and oftentimes mysterious in its origins and ultimate nature. This raw experience elicits emotional responses in most humans, the nature of which they do not usually fully understand (in my view). This raw experience of reality also raises in most AMH brains the desire to—
1. simply say something about it or
2. explain it or
3. convey information about it to someone else or
4. ask or demand to have an object on the basis of that perceived reality or
5. suggest or demand a course of action to others on the basis of that perceived reality or
6. put a human need into some form that others can understand.
In short, most AMH brains seem to need some way of grabbing a piece of reality and holding on to it. The AMH brain generates this need. The AMH brain also attempts to meet the very need it has generated. In my view, both the generation of the need and the means by which this need is met are not well understood by the brain that is doing both of these things, often simultaneously.
In its earliest form, the use of symbolism was probably meant as an expression of sheer feeling, or a celebration of something in the external environment that humans found to be beautiful and stirring, or a simple visual representation of some object or event in the external environment, or—most significantly—an expression of something which the human had imagined, something in his or her own brain that they needed to show to others. But the AMH brain made possible another way in which to grab and express reality: words. Words are a particularly important form of symbol. What do we mean by symbol in this context? We mean--
-- sounds, pictures, or various abstract lines and curves used to refer to an object, even if that object is not physically present. The persistent use of the same sounds to refer to particular objects causes those sounds to become symbols, and those spoken symbols and the object to which they are referring come to be associated with each other. It is by this means that nouns come into existence. When writing evolves, the written symbol represents the sound associated with the noun. (Of course, this association of written symbol and sound is true with every part of speech.)
-- sounds, pictures, or various abstract lines and curves used to suggest, demand, or implore others to take a physical action of some sort, or to refer to a physical action that others have taken or which has occurred in the natural environment even if that action is not occurring at the present moment. Again, the regular use of certain sounds to refer to such actions causes them to be associated with each other. In this way verbs come into existence. (It is my assumption that nouns and verbs were the first parts of speech to emerge.)
-- sounds, pictures, or various abstract lines and curves used to describe objects or actions, or make a judgment about their desirability, usefulness, effectiveness, causation, or lack thereof. Objects have shape, number, dimensions, weight, color(s), effects on other objects, effects on sentient beings, and proportions in relationship to other objects. They exist (or existed) in a specific place and during a specific time. They have a physical relationship to other objects (they are on them, near them, under them, between them, and so on). Symbols can describe such qualities and relationships, or be used to react to them in some way. Actions take place in space and time. They have effects, ranging from negligible to profound, on the objects or sentient beings either in proximity to them at the time of their occurrence, or after their occurrence. They exist in relation to other actions. They are caused by specific events, either volitional or unintended. These actions can be described, assessed, and judged through the use of symbols. In this way, by the assessment of objects and actions, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions come into existence.
-- sounds, pictures, or various abstract lines and curves that are used to refer to one’s self (I) or other individuals (he, she) by something other than a personal designation (such as a name), or to refer to a group of persons of which the individual may be a part (we, us) or to refer to a group of persons of which the individual is not a part (they, them). These symbols can also be used to refer to an inanimate object or to actions of various kinds (it). The use of symbols for these purposes establishes a sort of “shorthand” that allows humans to refer to themselves, others, objects, actions, or to groups of various sizes in such a way so as to obviate the need to designate all these individuals, objects, or actions by name. Such symbols are enormously significant. They are used to convey the deeply felt human emotions of us vs. them, or to allow humans to sweepingly (and often misleadingly) lump every member of a human group into a common category. They permit humans to pose questions in which people, objects, or actions are referred to by such terms as which or who. They permit humans to express possession of an object or responsibility for an action (my, mine, ours, theirs). It is by the use of symbols in such ways that pronouns come to exist.
The ways in which nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, and pronouns can be used are extremely variable. Further, symbols can be used to link other symbols together (conjunctions), or designate particular objects or actions (articles), although there are languages that lack articles, or have no way of expressing the present tense of the verb to be, or which lack certain kinds of descriptors. But it was the emergence of words, first as spoken symbols and later as ones drawn or written on a surface of some sort, that gave rise to the sentence, a compact expression of communication.
Sentences in turn rest on syntax—the arrangement of words within a sentence, an arrangement that in itself communicates in a certain way. It is through the use of sentences that larger bodies of meaning can be communicated. Sentences used in conjunction with other sentences allow the emergence of narratives, fictional or non-fictional accounts of reality. Sentences are the basis of paragraphs, which in turn are elements of longer forms of communication. As humans gained more and more ability to use and understand spoken symbols, their ability to survive in an often terrifying and dangerous world was enormously enhanced. Facility with words was a selective advantage. Language also altered the internal life of the mind as well: it was now possible to think in words and reflect on the self in verbal terms.
It is through the use of symbols that humans can communicate a state of being experienced within their brains, or a state of being that once existed, or a reaction to the outside world, or a desire or a complaint or an emotional expression or an idea or a statement of fact or opinion. Symbols allow humans to give other humans a way of understanding what is going on in the mind of the human initiating the communication. Primates have a general tendency to stick together in groups. Spoken language allowed a level of interpersonal communication within groups that was without precedent in the primate world. It made possible greater specificity and precision of communication. Many primates exhibit social behaviors. Spoken language now permitted forms of social behavior far more complicated than any ape or monkey could possibly experience. Reality could now be discussed. The conversation became possible. Spoken language established interpersonal relationships of great complexity. It allowed a level of organization to emerge that had hitherto been unknown in the animal kingdom. It permitted the formulation and expression of rules governing human conduct or setting the terms of interpersonal interaction. It was truly the basis of human culture, that which made possible the ability to learn from the experience of others, beyond that learning gleaned from personal observation or imitation. Any chimpanzee, gorilla, or baboon can imitate that which it sees. Only humans can learn from people they have never met.
Spoken language allowed humans to absorb the customs and traditions particular to their group. It allowed humans to know something about the humans who had lived before them. It would, eventually, help humans create the concept of history, an account of the world as it had once been, an account which became possible only when the events of the past could be remembered and expressed through language. The evolution of the sapiens brain gave rise to the ability to use complex language. In turn, it was through spoken language that the modern human social-cultural world came to exist.
But spoken language carried its own pitfalls. Words can mean different things to different people. Some people are less adept than others at conveying meaning clearly or accurately. Language can be misunderstood. Different groups evolve their own languages, a phenomenon that can divide people from each other deeply. Language can be used to deceive, deliberately confuse, or trick other humans. Language can cause emotional reactions or resentments entirely unintended by the persons using it. Some feelings or ideas cannot be expressed very well (or even at all) in language. In my view, many of our problems can be traced to the fact that all language is approximate. It is never an exact expression of meaning. Even the simplest act of communication can be surrounded by ambiguity. Language was an enormously important human advantage—but it was also a phenomenon the disruptive power of which was not very well understood at first. It wasn’t simply a method of communication—it was a way of communicating error.