MichaelCD - The Blog.

The thoughts of Michael Cadwallader. Coffee loving, history book reading, Cheshire man.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Gift Of Gods

It seems that the Auster v Derbyshire debate, has now died down. The debate was started by this article in NRO by Derbyshire, focusing on his views on God. Now, I am not going to enter into that particular debate today. But I am puzzled by Derbyshire's views on humanity, and its place on the planet. Looking at it in a rational and godless way, he basically believes that we are no more important or special, than any other species. Furthermore, he seems to think that we are not substantially different in thought or behaviour, as well.

In his post, Derbyshire asks:
But doesn’t the I the Me, that I mentioned earlier — the self-awareness that we humans uniquely have — doesn’t that make us special? Do tigers, toads, and ticks have an I? Do they have a connection to the Creator? I don’t know. Perhaps they have a fuzzier one — perhaps higher animals, at any rate, see through a glass as we do, but more darkly. In any case, that only makes us special in the way that an elephant is special by virtue of having that long trunk — more exactly, the way the first creatures who were able to register visible light as images were special. We are part of nature — an exceptionally advanced and interesting part, but… not special.
Derbyshire talks about an ‘I’, without realising that this is the cornerstone of humanity. We have the ability to place ourselves in the world, to understand the concepts of distance, space and time. And as most humans think in this way, they seem to believe that all animals’ brains, especially the highly intelligent ones, work in exactly the same way, albeit, as Derbyshire said, they are a little ‘fuzzier’. Frankly, I do not believe this is true, we have unique tools to unlock the potential and brilliance of the brain. And, science has not shown us an animal that has this tool. Even more striking than that is the fact that there is no proof that early Homo species had it as well. So what is this tool? Well, I think it's the most convincing argument as to why anatomically modern and fully modern humans, seemed to have behaved differently. The tool is language, and its most sophisticated aspect - syntax.

To understand why this is the reason behind humanities unique abilities, and to why this shows us as different, we have to look at the history of language development. Derbyshire’s view that language can be explained by Darwinian adaptations is, in a way, correct. But, franly, it belies the fact that the origins are shrouded in mystery. Simply put, language cannot be shown to have evolved for a specific purpose. Indeed, the only satisfying conclusions that have been reached about it are that the physical characteristics of language, the development of the linguistical areas of the brain, the development of the larynx e.t.c are simply by-products of the evolvement of bipedalism and the brain.

We then reach the evolution of Homo species, who had large brains and who's voice boxes had become more and more human-esque. But, despite this, their behaviour was far more like that of very early human, not Cro-Magnon man. Their ‘language’ was in all probability a holistic based one, without specific words. The holistic language hypothesis was developed by Alison Wray, her belief is that holistic (sounds) would have engendered a conservatism in thought, as such a language would have been limited to a specific number of utterances, stored in the long term memory. Thus, a new ‘phrase’ would have had to be clearly understood between the two Early Humans, meaning it would have to be radically different from any of the other phrases. Ambiguity was simply not an option. The hypothesis is supported by the evidence, as there is a marked lack of innovation between 1.8 – 0.25 million years ago, Hominid stone tools remained unchanged and strictly limited, there are no engravings in bone and fire may have been harnessed, but there is no evidence of fireplaces, so, therefore it was never controlled.

And then there are Neanderthals. There is a distinct lack of evidence for linguistics.
Some scientists believe that without language, it was simply impossible to teach youths how to make the complicated Neanderthal tools. However, a Japanese study showed that two sets of human subjects, had about the same proficiency in tool making, despite the fact that one group was shown how to make them without verbal instructions. Perhaps Neanderthals did have a large lexicon of words for objects. Or maybe they didn’t. Either way, it is obvious that with such a difference in anatomy, Neanderthals certainly didn’t have the richness of human like speech. And, most importantly, they were unlikely to have syntax. This is perhaps the most convincing argument as to why Cro-Magnon man out lived Neanderthals, in Ice-age Europe. Cro-Magnon man is one of the most divisive aspects of human history. He, and his descendents, produced brilliant paintings, Venus figures, carved bone and wore jewellery. There is no doubt that they were fully modern. The contrast with anatomically modern humans, who lived in Africa 120,000 years ago, is stark. They did not live a particularly different lifestyle to their predecessor species. And, if the out of Africa hypothesis is correct, they didn’t successfully leave Africa, until 60,000 years ago, when humans were fully modern. The behavioural contrast grows even sharper when you think of how quickly humanity conquered the planet reaching Australia very quickly. Science simply cannot explain why such wanderlust suddenly emerged. So what makes us different and special? Well, Steven Mithen provided the answer:
How can humans be so biologically close to our great ape relatives but so radically different in terms of behaviour and thought? How is it that our close relatives, such as the Neanderthals, possessed equivalent sized brains to modern humans and language, but remained culturally archaic, with no signs of art, religious behaviour or scientific thought in their behaviour? In my previous work I have argued that the answers to such questions relate to the particular form of mentality possessed by modern humans within which there is a substantially greater degree of cognitive fluidity than in other types of (extinct) humans and primates. This provided the critical capacity for metaphorical thought that underlies so much of modern culture. In this talk I wish to develop this theme by examining how we should see the products of our culture, such as pieces of art, songs, dance, and social institutions, not only as the products of our modern mentality, but also as its source: such cultural behaviour may indeed be the mechanism by which our minds escaped from the constraints on human thought imposed by the evolutionary history of our brains
Ultimately, most cultures and traditions speak of the creation of langauges in the same way. They were the original gift from God. Well, maybe they were, or maybe they are simply a gift of evolution. It works both ways for me, as I am a Christian who believes in evolution. Either way, with them, we are certainly the most extraordinary species that has ever lived on this planet, and, as far as we know, on any other planet as well.


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