The Ape That Spoke: Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind
by John McCrone

This is a great philosophical essay backed up by a substantial amount of science. I was hoping the author would give evidence and reasons to prove that language is necessary to develop abstract thought, moral principles, a sense of self-consciousness, and conscience. Instead he asserts that language is necessary for these things, but he doesn't make a case.
"It ends up with the controversial conclusion that the human mind is only a few degrees different from an animal's and that self consciousness, memory, and higher emotions are all simple language-driven abilities which we pick up as children." (7)
But this is not a conclusion of an investigation. It is a hypothesis that he assumes is true. He presents facts and inferences that could be used to make a case, but he does not take the final step of organizing them into a compelling argument. He seems to think that the facts speak for themselves. So I will attempt to make the case for him using the information that he has provided.

The Brain

"In the past, philosophers in particular have muddied the waters by treating the mind as if it were an object with a separate existence, independent from the flesh and blood of the brain. ...This confused view of the mind should disappear once we realize that the word mind is simply a convenient label for describing the brain at work." (11)

"Out of the billions of neurons that make up the brain, it is only the nerves active at a particular moment that are of real interest to us. We are seeking the fleeting patterns of neurons that stand out from the gray background as they jangle together in response to sensation, a thought, a memory, or an action. These fleeting waves of firing across the brain are like a television screen. Look closely at the face of a TV tube and it is easy to see the thousands of dots glowing red, blue, and green that make up the picture. Each dot can take part in many different images┘perhaps one second a cow and the next a speedboat. We can know everything there is to know about television-tube dots and yet miss completely the fleeting patterns playing across the screen. Similarly with neurons, we need to concentrate on the fleeting images rather than the individual cells." (51)

Yes. Behaviorists who say that thoughts are epiphenomena are like people who focus on the dots when they watch TV. They miss the big picture. They ignore what is obvious and important in communication. B. F. Skinner was the stupidest man who ever wrote a book.


He uses the word net as follows:
"... a net is an apt description of the tangled mesh of neurons that makes up our mental building block and it can be any size or shape ... nets are used for trapping and the main job of neural networks is to trap information." (60)

"A net lights up either as a map of the outside world or as a web of nerves that traces out a memory. ... we could talk about learning as being the setting up of a net, memory as the reactivation of a net, attention as the act of focusing on a particular net, and sensation as the fleeting flicker of a net. Thought could be the logical linking together of several nets and self-awareness the forming of a memory net about itself." (60-61)

"the same neuron can be part of many different nets .. like the dots on a TV screen" (61)

"... the mind is like a stage. Nets have to step out of the wings and cross to center stage to come under the spotlight of attention." (94)

Memory and Language

Memory is impressionistic. Maybe this is the truth that I appreciate in the works of the French impressionistic painters.
"In fact, the more we analyze our memory of the meeting, the more we can see how much it is a practiced re-creation of events rather than a faithful replay of what our senses recorded. We assemble as many elements in working memory as we can and then accept an impressionistic run-through of them as an impressively vivid memory." (115)

... most of the re-creation would have to be done with general "fill-in" images.

... personal memory has to be fleshed out from a few crumbs of apparently hard fact. ... evolution never meant to provide animals with a faithful video-replay mechanism for their lives. (116)

... too much detail leads to confusion. ...

Evolution thus equipped animals with a memory surface that was quick to weld similar impressions into a blurred general net of knowledge, and when we humans came along with out own reasons for wanting to recall particular moments from our pasts, we had to build on what evolution had provided. We had to learn to become detectives and to re-create experiences from the few scraps of detail and the tangled mess of background knowledge that were all our brains would store.

... It breaks down, however, when we start going into the sort of minor detail that does not etch a strong trace of its own but becomes woven into a blurred mass of similar memories. .. we have to paint in the background details with educated guesses ... we can no longer tell the dividing line between faithfully accurate memory and helpful imagination┘because both are basically the same." (117)

"Rereading an old diary or visiting a childhood town can make us realize how much of our lives is lost to us forever, buried under the blur of a lifetime's experiences." (118)

"The trace that is left by an experience, then, depends on whether it blurs into a general body of knowledge or has the uniqueness and power to etch its own pattern. Despite what we commonly believe about our memories, the trace that is left is not a complete and detailed record. The brain was shaped by the economics of evolution, so memory was designed to do its job with as few energy-wasting frills as possible┘and that job was to recognize the familiar and to create a general backdrop of knowledge about the world." (105)

"Conscious recall is not only far weaker than recognition, it also feels different. Recognition just happens to us; we see something and we recognize it. The work is all done behind the scenes by the natural workings of the brain. But recall involves an active scouring of the memory banks." (107-108)

"This detective work relies on an inner control that comes only with language. When searching out buried memories of school friends or dandelion pictures, we use an inner dialogue to create an imaginary context that will bring such memories naturally to mind. We then use language to fashion these awakened traces into a re-creation of events. We prod our memory banks with questions and fire our imagination with words.

The power of speech in our minds is obvious from the way a single word can strike a wealth of associations. ... A single word can lead us to a buried network of related ideas that then pour forth into consciousness as if we had turned on a tap." (109)

"Nerve pathways are forged as we grow up so that the noise "picnic" is registered in the part of the brain that hears, jangling messages are triggered which cross the brain to wake up the patches of cortex where picnic-type memories are stored.

In this way, words give us a second route to our warehouse of memories. In animals, only the bottom-upward stimulation of sensation can trigger stored memory traces. ... But with speech, humans have a second, top-down, route to memory. Because speech is a skill under our own control, we can steer our consciousness around our vast memory surface, exploring the past or wondering about the future." (110)

"Through the skillful use of words, we can trigger the right networks of nerves and re-create nets very similar to the ones that fired before." (120)

"Personal memories are formed almost by accident but factual memory is deliberately stamped into the minds of impressionable youngsters ..." ... it takes the skilled use of language and inner dialog, to jog buried personal memories and imaginings into life.

This must mean that until our hominid ancestors developed language, they would have been as much creatures of the present as the rest of the animal kingdom. Until man developed the habit of searching his own mind, he would have lived just for the moment, reacting to the shifting patterns of the world around him. He could not have browsed through childhood memories or daydreamed about the future in his idle moments. But once he learned the trick of controlled recall, he could create an inner world of memories. Humans could start making plans, building up personal life histories┘and even begin to be self-conscious." (120-121)

Maybe we don't remember our infancy because we didn't have words to remember with. For most of us, our earliest memories coincide with our acquisition of language and the consequent development of our self-awareness.

Perception and Language

... our extra ability to name what we see makes a big difference to human perception because of the control it gives us over this natural process."...

This word-sharpened perception is what allows humans to focus on and think about anything we sense--even something as slippery as our own thought processes. ... What an animal focuses on is dictated by the environment. It has no mechanism to decide for itself what it wants to concentrate its awareness on." (110-111)

Concentration and Language

"We use language to power the artificial ability called concentration, which is the learned skill of being able to force ourselves to keep returning to a task despite a natural tendency to get bored and distracted. Indeed, distractions should really be defined as the things that we find naturally interesting in life." (247)

"... language allows us to set ourselves long-term goals and to remember to keep returning to them." (247)

Imagination and Language

"Words are behind another of man's artificial abilities--imagination. ...

Once we have tagged a fragment of the world with a word, we are also able to shuffle perceptions around in our head. Using the words as place markers, we can assemble a mass of detail to create imaginary scenes." (111)

"Once we start using pure symbols to communicate with, we obviously no longer need to have objects in our presence to be able to talk about them. If a chimp wanted to tell you about a boat, it would have to drag you within sight of the vessel and start stabbing its finger at it. A human just has to say the word and the listener's mind provides the rest." (155)

Self-Awareness and Language

"... to be self-aware we need first to do something and then to be able to reflect on it an instant later. We cannot step outside our bodies to observe ourselves, so we have to create a metaphorical distance by stepping back in time." (126)

"We can see roughly the basic parts of our mind. There is the broad sweep of all life's sights and sounds dancing inside our skulls. Then alongside this ... is the private world of our rememberings and imaginings. And then ... are occasional sharp surges of emotion that well up from some dark depth into conscious experience. Finally, ... we can hear the constant chatter of an inner voice. ... It often surprises us with the forceful intelligence with which it speaks--although this inner voice often seems simply to echo the passing parade of life, like some rambling TV sports commentator offering opinion and analysis on the scenes our eyes witness." (10)

Logic and Language

"It is a great myth of modern man that we are inherently rational. ... formal logic is a very recent creation of modern man." (134)

"... mathematics deals only with symbols." (136)

"Despite the limitations of rational thinking, we value it because it gives us a framework with which to turn thoughts into public property. We can state the assumptions and logical steps that go into our arguments, which can then be shared and examined by those around us." (136)

"... being rational is really something that we do in public once we have cracked a problem in private. And we solve problems not with dry logic but by hitting on the right mental images. This metaphor-driven thought is in turn based on the sort of rich blurred nets of knowledge that all animals use to power thought. The difference is that humans have control over the process. We do not need both the question and the answer staring us in the face, like the chimp ... We can imagine problems in the privacy of our heads and then scour our memory banks for possible matches with other images." (138)

"Writing not only came to serve as a warehouse for knowledge but also led to more advanced forms of thought. The act of writing removed the emotional heat of face-to-face debate so thinkers could approach their work with cooler heads. Also, because a sentence had to be grammatical and complete to be understood by the reader, writers were forced to make explicit the assumptions of their arguments, and once their ideas were down in cold print, it was easier to go back and check for flaws of fact or logic." (207)

Language and Emotions

"Attempts to categorize higher emotions are doomed because the very act of labeling is tantamount to inventing new emotions." (213)

The Impact of Language on Mankind

1. Giving names to things made it easier to remember them. Language made it possible to name abstract ideas and generalizations as well as physical objects and specific acts. It even allowed us to name and talk about imaginary things--things that might have happened but didn't or spirits that might exist but don't or spirits that might exist and that we can believe do exist or speculations about what would happen if such and such were true or such and such were false.

2. Language increases the rate of communication by compacting ideas so that more ideas can be transmitted before saturating the listener's short-term memory.

"If we were working at early man's speed and could get words through working memory at the rate of about five every five seconds--five seconds being the average time between breaths--our understanding would be limited. The memory nets triggered by each word would be fading from consciousness too quickly for us to think about something complicated. As if we were using a cup with a hole in the bottom, the meaning of the sentence would drain away from our awareness as quickly as we tried to drink it in. We simply could not remember the beginning of a big sentence long enough to make sense of it. On the other hand, once we could routinely manage to speak twenty words or more in one comfortable-sized sentence, we had a tremendous increase in the power of language. We could start fitting in all the glue words that help make sentences flow--words like in, all, the, that--plus tenses, adjectives, and clauses that fine-tune what we say. Speech could become articulate and grammatical. Man was able to cram more words into his working memory and literally think bigger thoughts." (161-162)
3. Learning an oral language under volitional control gave man more control over his memory. He could relive the past by discussing it with friends and by using words to search his own memory.

4. He could even remember his conversations with others about the past and his own reveries about the past. He gained the ability to have a personal biography and a stronger sense of his own identity and uniqueness. His improved memory provided him with a greater sense of the continuity of his own life and the development of his own personality.

5. Language allowed men to develop an inner voice--thoughts that we express to ourselves in words silently. This inner voice becomes an essential part of our consciousness and it participates in our most deliberate acts. It may even be considered to be our consciousness of our own process of deliberation--our own transcription of our own decision-making process. We can even store memories of our own inner conversations and recall those memories in the future when we want to evaluate ourselves and our motives.

"... the original purpose of symbolic language was only to let early man communicate with others in his tribe. It was luck that speech turned out to be a method of communication that man could turn around and use to communicate with himself." (186)
6. Man's improved sense of identity and his improved memory allowed him to break free from living in the moment. He gained the ability to step back and consider his past actions and to judge his own behavior. This made it possible for him to develop a moral sense and a conscience and other "higher" emotions such as sympathy for others, altruism, patriotism, religion, and an esthetic sense.

7. Language gave man the words he needed so that he could speculate about what would be the consequences if such and such happened or if such and such were true. It gave him the ability to reason at the abstract level and to remember his reasoning process and to recheck it to see if his reasoning was sound and to communicate his reasoning to others so that they can understand it and check it and refine it, and improve it. No other creatures we know about have languages that allow them to reason at the level of conscious philosophy or to develop conscious moral principles or scientific principles or other abstract principles and to communicate those ideas and debate them publicly.

8. Human societies with oral languages gained the ability to pass on what they had learned to future generations through oral history. This made it easier for those societies to accumulate more knowledge. Each generation could benefit from the knowledge acquired by previous generations and passed on through oral traditions and it could add its own discoveries to this knowledge and pass more information to future generations. Progress became cultural and rapid instead of biological and slow.

9. Societies that developed written languages from their oral languages gained the possibility of recording and thereby remembering and passing on more of their scientific, historical, and cultural knowledge than could be preserved through oral history. This accelerated the accumulation of cultural knowledge. The invention of the printing press, which made it possible to disseminate knowledge to more people, accelerated the accumulation of cultural knowledge to unparalleled levels at unparalleled speed and gave those societies great technological advantages over other societies.

10. The inventions of written languages and printing presses made it possible for individuals in the linguistically less advanced societies to learn the more advanced languages and to catch up on hundreds of years of technological progress in a single lifetime.

11. Cultural evolution created high-level reason in individuals. Now individuals can use this to program themselves independently.

The Uniqueness of Man

"... children are born ready to learn language They have reflexes that cause them to try to take part in conversation long before they know anything about speech. They have the brain centers and vocal equipment to make rapid speech easy. And they have several years after birth when their brain centers can be molded to society's ways of talking. Given willing language teachers, such as parents and relatives, it is not surprising that babies pick up language so quickly." (165)

The things that separate man most significantly from all other animals are due to his unique ability to learn and use vocal language under volitional control. This ability is more significant than man's relatively higher intelligence because it is unique--it is a completely new ability rather than merely a relatively greater ability. Other species may well have enough intelligence to be moral agents. Their brains may be big enough and fast enough, but if they don't have a language that they can use to help them remember things and manipulate abstract principles they cannot voluntarily use moral principles to judge their past actions or to weigh their future plans. The most intelligent creatures that we know about are all social animals--birds and mammals--who feed, protect, and train their young. They use gestures and calls and, in some cases, facial expressions to communicate. But their calls and facial expressions are controlled by parts of their brains that are not under volitional control. They are not physically able to learn to speak a language.

Chimpanzees are the most intelligent creatures that we have studied. They are as smart as young children. But in addition to not having control over their vocalizations, chimps do not have the physical configuration of voice box relative to windpipe, tongue, nasal cavity, and other structures to produce the sounds for a complex language. This prevents them from achieving the level of intelligence that their frontal lopes might otherwise allow them to develop. They can be taught to use sign language, and the results indicate they have some ability to understand that hand signs can stand for generalizations rather than for unique physical objects. But the Broca area of their brains and the connections from it to other parts of the brain that are involved in human language is not preadapted for rapid translation of symbols to ideas and for automatic acquisition and application of language syntax. So even when they learn a few hand signs, they cannot use them fast enough or skillfully enough to gain the significant benefits of language that humans derive.

"Animals may be consciously aware, yet it seems a blank kind of awareness. If we were able to live briefly inside their heads, we would find the animal mind strangely uncluttered. There would not be the same churning of past thoughts and future plans that fill the human mind. There would not be the continuous chatter of our inner voice, nor the sudden breaks to reconsider our own actions as we switch from simple awareness to self-awareness." (88)

"... the environment is in control of what is happening in the cat's mind. When nothing exciting is happening, a cat will sit blankly. ... Life is lived in the present tense. Only memories connected with events of the moment become aroused enough to form part of the conscious plane." (88-89)

"Human minds, however, have broken free. We can think about the past, make plans for the future, and fantasize about imaginary events. The key advance humans have made is that we have a measure of inner control over the thoughts and visions that flicker through our awareness, while animal minds are shackled to the world around them." (89)

If the theory that it took a billion years for the brains of our alleged vertebrate ancestors to evolve into the reasonably intelligent primate brain is true, and if the human brain evolved from this to become self-aware and capable of human reasoning in only a couple million years, then the speed with which this feat was accomplished is best explained by the fortunate development of human language. There wasn't enough time, assuming biological evolution to be true, for the human brain to evolve to be so much branier than our closest relatives. There was only enough time for some adaptations to be made to our pre-existing brain structure. Even if our species evolved from another primate species, the impact of human language through cultural evolution offers a better explanation for our mental abilities than does our merely biological evolution.

I don't want to tie my argument for the importance of language to the theory of the origin of species through biological evolution. It makes no difference whether species evolved from other species. What matters is that humans are the only species that have volitional, oral languages (for whatever reason) and that this fact explains the most significant differences between humans and all other known species. I do accept as a fact that natural selection operates within a species and causes physical changes to occur over time in response to the environment in which the species lives. It is a tautology that the fittest survive and pass their genes and their inheritable traits on to future generations. As human language became more important, those people who were naturally better at it had an advantage over those who were less linguistically gifted. Consequently, the more linguistically gifted would tend to be more successful at passing their language abilities on to future generations. In this way it is possible to explain changes occurring in the human brain that eventually made us better adapted for communication through oral language than our species originally was. These differences are the result of cultural evolution and the adaptations to our brains that our species acquired.

There is ample scientific evidence to support the theory that natural selection operates within a species and promotes members with traits that are better adapted for survival in the current environment and weeds out members who possess traits that are less well adapted. The scientific evidence for new species evolving from older species through natural selection is much less convincing. In fact most of the physical evidence contradicts Darwin's theory. Regardless of how we got the brains we got, the kind of life that human live as a result of cultural evolution through language is more important than our brains in differentiating us from other species.

Contrary to modern opinion, cultural evolution is on more solid, scientific ground than biological evolution. Cultural evolution is a historic fact. Biological evolution, particularly the theory of origin of species, is more of a metaphor than a proven fact. The general tendency of natural selection works against the origin of new species. Genetic inheritance is conservative. It passes along what has worked in the past, and if it somehow goes wrong and creates a mutation, natural selection quickly kills it before it can propagate.

The Role of Monogamy

"Countless generations of chimpanzees have probably made similar first steps toward speech without their leading to anything, for young chimps do not repeat the close relationship they have with their mothers when they grow up and mix with other adult chimps; they do not pair off with a partner and thus have a chance to develop a more mature two-way form of conversation. Any private language that emerged would almost inevitably be lost with each generation ... But with early man it became possible for these first steps to be preserved because the stable adult partnerships needed to raise more children would have had the fortunate side effect of helping symbolic speech to take root." (158)

On the Other Hand

How can language be responsible for our ability to have abstract thoughts when it is clear that we must have the thought before we give it a name? Every day we have new thoughts that we struggle to put into words. We construct whole sentences to describe our new thoughts. We must have the idea in our mind before we try to put it into words. I know this is true when I try to write my opinions. I struggle to put them on paper. Then I read what I have written and I often decide that it is not a correct expression of my own opinion. It is not that my opinion has changed since I wrote it on paper. It is that I was unable to express my thought accurately. The thought in my head hasn't changed, but I can see that the words on the paper do not express it and I need to look for a better combination of words. So the thought exists in my head and I can recall it and use it even though I am so far unable to express it accurately in words.

Who is in control?

"Most people have only a very hazy feel for what drives their minds on to the next thought, image, or memory. Their minds seem to charge along of their own accord with no visible means of propulsion or steering. We assume that we are in control until we ask ourselves why we came up with this impulse or how we worked out that idea; then we can begin to feel like passengers being taken along for the ride. This puzzling momentum gives weight to the feeling that the mind is driven along by some subterranean force, like the Freudian unconscious." (93-94)

Year Read: 1999

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