Niches of the Mind;The Brain and Language

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Niches of the Mind;The Brain and Language As the story goes, creation is characterized by expansion and contraction, disorder and order, random change and selection. It is observed in evolution how random change and disorder have brought about, from the scraps floating in a puddle on early earth, the fantastic diversity and incomprehensible complexity of life. The counterpart to this is death, making space for the new and guiding changes in the old through selection. What can this story tell us about the evolution of humans, and our most distinguishing trait; our ability to tell stories? The human intellect is widely understood to be that which distinguishes us from other animals. Mayr tells us that the rapid brain expansion that took place in Australopithecines and early Homo is correlated with two factors; a change in hominids niche, moving from the trees to bush savanna, and the development of speech. (p 252) This essay attempts to summarize some current explanations of the relationships between language and the brain in human evolution, and relate them to another characteristic of humans correlated with the human intellect- our social complexity. Symbolic communication is by no means limited to humans, or, for that matter, to the most complex organisms. Most fairly social animals have a range of about fifteen to thirty-five physical displays or calls. "As far as we know, cuttlefish, related to squids, have about the same size repertoire size as non-human primates do." (class notes Ling. 101) The evolution of animal communication is thought to have occurred through "ritualization of previously existing behavior" (class notes Ling. 101) In most animals, communicative displays are innate, that is, genetically determined. This is not at all the case in humans; human language is learned. Yet a few of the main things that distinguish human language from other animal communication, namely grammar and syntax, are argued by some linguists to be instinctive. (Pinker) In addition to the lack of syntax, grammar, and a large lexicon, other animals, including higher-order primates, lack a highly developed theory of mind; the ability to conceptualize others' "knowledge, beliefs, intentions and goals" (class notes Ling. 101) For a long time the increase in brain size was seen as being correlated with the increasing complexity of tool technology in Australopithecines and early Homo. This theory is loosing popularity due to the observance of widespread tool use in other primates, and is giving way to theories in which the main thrust is rising social complexity.

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