Andy Blunden 2018
Although information from palaeontology, archaeology, anthropology, zoology, genetic microbiology and neurology continues to advance at an impressive rate, we still do not have clear answers to most of the important questions about the origins of human language in general and speech in particular. Treatises on the topic are more often designed to confirm suspect philosophical prejudices than to bring incontrovertible premises to bear on the evidence. Here I shall mention some principles which can be substantiated on the basis of widely agreed science which may shed some light on what evidence exists.
All animals have a greater or lesser degree of voluntary control over aspects of their behaviour, with behaviour mediating between the animal’s biology and its environment. Environment, biology and behaviour co-evolve together, but at differing rates of change. The time scale within which voluntary behaviour can adapt in both ontogenetic and cultural development is qualitatively shorter than the time scale within which the anatomy of a species can evolve.
For instance, okapis, the surviving predecessors of giraffes, eat leaves from trees and bushes but giraffes gained an advantage by evolving a taller neck. It is hardly likely that this neck grew to enormous length and then one day a giraffe discovered it could nibble from tops of trees and changed its behaviour accordingly. Clearly it was its behaviour in nibbling whatever it could reach which created the selection pressure which after many generations led to the giraffe’s enormous neck. Animals are always pushing the boundaries of their biology and their environment.
The biology of the species evolves under selection pressures determined by the relationship between the organism’s behaviour and its environment. The behaviour of the species co-evolves with its environment, within the constraints of its biological make-up - constraints which very gradually evolve. Natural selection determines that the biology of the species will evolve so as to enhance the fitness of the species for a relevant behaviour in the given environment – the relation of the species to its environment. In other words:
Behaviour leads biology.
One qualified exception to this rule is exaptation, in which biological changes which have developed under selection pressure arising from one behaviour incidentally enhance another behaviour. So long as we take behaviour as a whole (rather than taking specific behaviours separately) this is consistent with the general rule.
It is widely agreed that the hominin group emerged about 6 million years ago, with about 20 different species having been identified by palaeontologists, all but one of which, homo sapiens sapiens, are now extinct. What uniquely characterises this entire group was bipedalism. That is, it was the adoption of the bipedal gait which set off the train of evolutionary changes which led to the modern human beings.
Hominin anatomy evolved so as to accommodate the bipedal behaviour.
I learn from Corballis (2002) that the dropping of the larynx, one of the anatomical preconditions for articulate speech, may have also arisen by exaptation from bipedalism. But while being necessary for articulate speech, the descended larynx was far from being a sufficient precondition for speech. Other anatomical changes are required around the tongue and lips as well as voluntary control of the larynx, which is absent in our evolutionary predecessors.
We don’t know what rudimentary bipedal behaviours and environmental pressures led to this departure. No-one knows, but like everyone else I will speculate:
Bipedalism enhanced the pre-existing behaviour of carrying things.
As Vygotsky (1930) pointed out, a behaviour which provides the motive force for the formation of a new species, must be present in rudimentary form in the predecessor species. If a given behaviour is entirely absent in a species, its development cannot be what drives the transition to a new species. Either the relevant behaviour existed in rudimentary form or the capacity for the rudimentary behaviour arises by exaptation as a result of adaptation from the behaviour which is driving the transition.
If we were to look for the essential characteristic of being human in some attribute which humans possessed by our evolutionary predecessors did not, then we would have to conclude that human beings are primates with ear lobes. This is obviously unsatisfactory. We must look not for what distinguishes us from chimps, but what we have in common with chimps, but which they have only in rudimentary form but which we humans have mastered.
Consequently, it is reasonable to deduce that carrying things was the behaviour which drove the move to bipedalism. Everything flowed from carrying things.
It has been widely suggested that the behaviour which drove the transition to our species was speech. All our surviving evolutionary cousins lack voluntary control over their vocalisation. Thus by implication the predecessors to homo sapiens, lacked voluntary control over their vocalisation, so it cannot be said that speech existed in even rudimentary form among earlier hominids. Primate vocalisations are immediate, involuntary emotional response to situations and are not intended to communicate, even if they do generate appropriate responses in other creatures. But unlike voluntary vocalisation, carrying things is a behaviour which does exist in rudimentary form in our surviving ancestor species.
Tool-making also existed in rudimentary form in our surviving predecessor species, so tool-making cannot be not ruled out of playing a role in human evolution. There is no reason, however, to suppose it played a part in the formation of bipedalism and it is bipedalism which marks out our whole evolutionary line from our nearest cousins and forebears. To say that bipedalism evolved so as to ‘free up the hands’ for tool making is unconvincing. More likely is that tool-making was an exaptation from the evolution of bipedalism and carrying things.
An efficient facility for carrying things brings considerable survival benefit for hunter-gatherers. It is a precondition for the establishment of fixed camps which can be supported by extended foraging and hunting, supporting intensive care for children, which can be extended for a longer period, and the accumulation of stocks of food and artefacts. Ursula Le Guin’s (2017) speculation that the carrier bag was the first tool has a lot going for it. Carrying things promotes cooperative living, and several behaviours associated with the emergence of homo sapiens, namely extended childhood, division of labour, production and use of artefacts, and the formation of large stable communities. Further, carrying things is found in rudimentary form in our predecessor species, and when carrying things, primates commonly adopt a bipedal gait. Therefore, to suppose that carrying things was the practice which drove the adoption of bipedalism, and therefore the development of the entire hominin evolutionary line, does not presuppose any dramatic anatomical leaps.
Carrying things implies important psychological adaptations which can develop in response to behaviour. There is another general rule here:
Behaviour leads conscious control,
and carrying things home opens lots of opportunities for learning.
In much the same way as we learn by doing, we are able to consciously control a given behaviour only after experiencing failure and success in relatively uncontrolled behaviour. A gymnast learns a particularly difficult manoeuvre only after repeatedly trying with inadequate control. Collecting food and bringing it back to camp confers survival value on the individual and groups practising it; being able to carry things also makes moving camp (including stocks of food and tools) easier and more efficient. So it is easy to see that the development of bipedalism frees up the hands for carrying things while walking long distances, and that the settled conditions it makes possible also provide for prolonged childrearing, improved tool making, cultural inheritance of tools, and cooperation. A number of psychological adaptations result, which are significant for the evolution of language and the intellect.
The first implication of carrying things is delayed gratification - the opening up of a gap between stimulus and response, so that behaviour is no longer governed by immediate relations of Stimulus→Response. This is crucial to the emergence of intellect. As Leonard Cohen said: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Delayed gratification must be present in a rudimentary degree before carrying things is possible. Further, improved capacity for delayed gratification enhances the survival benefits derived from carrying things. A capacity for delayed gratification is both a precondition for and a result of carrying things. Consequently, given that both exist in rudimentary form in the predecessor species, they will co-evolve once the behaviour of collecting food, etc., and bringing it back to camp develops as a part of the species’ way of life.
Delayed gratification is a psychological pre-condition for cooperative living. Indeed, without delayed gratification only immediate individual consumption of Nature is possible.
Delayed gratification is the gap through which conscious awareness enters.
Delayed gratification entails psychic representation of the activity associated with the item extracted from its natural setting and carried home with a view to sharing its consumption. These abstract representations are retained and shared in the shared use of the objects themselves in the absence of the situation from which the object is found in Nature. If an object is consumed immediately in its natural setting then no conscious representation of the object is needed. To find and recognise the object and its use but withhold from consuming it, and carry it back to camp for self or others to consume, requires a representation of the object to be formed - indeed it is a representation of the thing. Production and carrying creates a surplus which supports the whole community and strengthens social bonds. If Nature is consumed immediately, there can be no surplus. Carrying mediates the formation of community.
All that is required psychologically is awareness of the subject’s own behaviour. In other words, practical abstraction and ‘recursion’ (that is, the inclusion of one behaviour as an element of another behaviour) lays the basis for psychological abstraction and recursion, which can be embodied in language. Without delayed gratification, made possible by bipedalism, this abstraction and recursion, and therefore language, is impossible.
There is another general rule here:
Practical abstraction leads conscious abstraction.
For instance, the circulation of money, the operation of the market and the placing of price tags on everything makes us aware of the value of things. Likewise, extracting an object from its natural situation for later consumption allows us to form a psychological representation of the object in our hands, to make an abstraction of it. Practical abstraction can arise from within the logic of a system of behaviour without prior conscious awareness of that system. But once established, the abstracting behaviour can be mirrored in psychological abstraction.
The implications for the psychological impact of tool-making and tool-use are obvious in this context. The anatomical and psychological adaptations entailed in bipedalism and carrying incidentally enable better use of the hands in tool making and gesturing, both of which behaviours exist in rudimentary form in the evolutionary predecessors of hominins. Tool making could be said to be an exaptation from carrying things.
I do not place a great deal of weight on the observation that bipedalism ‘frees up’ the hands for tool-making and gesturing, though it is feasible that this was a contributing factor. It is the practical abstraction and practical recursion made possible by bipedalism which is most significant in behavioural and psychological terms, and in the formation of language.
I agree with Corballis (2002) that the first manifestation of language properly so-called must have been signed language – gesturing with the hands, face and body, miming, pointing and conventionalised hand-signs. The vocalisations of our predecessor species are direct emotional reactions not under voluntary control. Hand-use, on the other hand, is under voluntary control already amongst our primate forebears, and the more so if indeed carrying things has driven the evolution of bipedalism. So it is unlikely that, lacking the capacity for articulate, voluntary control of the larynx, hominin vocalisations could have constituted the rudimentary speech which would make the transition to spoken language properly so-called.
At this point a word on ‘conscious control’ is in order.
In general, complex forms of behaviour are composed of operations which adapt to conditions, such as walking, which requires the feet and the step to adapt to the form of the ground underfoot, etc. In general, even very primitive animal behaviour entails operations of this kind, which in themselves are not subject to conscious control. The adaption to conditions is an integral part of the operation itself.
Modern human beings also acquire conscious control of their own behaviour in childhood by taking over (internalising) the means by which their parents controlled the child’s behaviour – that is to say, the use of symbols, generally words (Vygotsky 1934), and these units of action are acquired in the form of operations. From being told what to do, children learn to command their own actions, and are thereby consciously aware of these actions. But the actions they have learnt to control with conscious awareness are later carried out as operations, without conscious awareness (and without vocalisation), directly in response to conditions (Leontyev 1978). But this kind of unconscious activity is different from preconscious or ‘automatic’ responses - if something upsets the course of learnt activity, it springs back into conscious awareness and is controlled. Unconscious activity in this sense is simply a part of conscious control which has been mastered.
It is neither here nor there whether animals other than humans have the capacity for this kind of culturally acquired conscious control, but there is no doubt at all that it is a most important feature of modern humans and that language is an important means of constructing it.
It is often argued that animals communicate symbolically: one chimp screams in fright, nearby another chimp runs for cover. Indeed almost all complex natural processes can be viewed as semiotic systems (See Colapietro 1988 on Peirce’s Semiotics). But this is not language. Language is the acquired use of a system of symbols with conscious awareness, or unconsciously in the specific sense described above. Language in this sense is not a natural process. It is used with an intention, not spontaneously, for its own sake.
The question before us - the origins of language - is the question of this kind of semiotic activity, qualitatively different from the normal kinds semiotic processes found in Nature. Language is consciously controlled, and is conversely the foundation for a specific kind of consciousness which can be called verbal intelligence as opposed to practical intelligence. Language is not just any semiotic process.
Further to this characterisation of modern human consciousness, it needs to be noted that the for human beings the perceptual field is structured by symbols; in infancy we learn to pick out objects and processes from their background through language interactions, and by the time we reach adulthood, our entire sensory field is structured by words and other symbols. Observations of chimpanzee problem-solving has shown that chimpanzees do not see the world like this. Not only gathering and carrying things, but also cooking food presupposed the extraction of objects from their environment and their transformation into symbolic, i.e., meaningful products.
Gesturing would have been accompanied by a pre-existing range of associated vocalisations which would not initially have been under voluntary control, in the same way that, conversely, modern day humans use facial gestures which are not under conscious control while communicating with speech. The anatomical and psychological preconditions for the adaptation of the hands for carrying things have been provided by bipedalism and associated behaviours. Foremost among these behaviours is living in collaborative relationships in relatively large bands with the demands for communicative action which this entails. It all began with simply carrying things back to camp for later consumption.
It is these large groups of rather aggressive animals, bound together in collaborative activity enabled by bipedalism, which is the principal behaviour driving further development of language creation and use. Maintaining peaceful cooperation in large groups of primates demands a great deal of effort to be expended in communicative action, whether scratching each others’ backs, mediating disputes or planning projects. The power of abstraction already vested in voluntary control of the hands is inevitably brought to bear in communicating abstractions, leaving vocalisation for immediate emotional responses.
So carrying things drives bipedalism and gesturing behaviour, while vocalisation remains simply unconscious emotional colouring for gestures. The result is the anatomical and neurological adaptations which mark the species and open the way for language use.
We know from our Deaf communities that signed languages are fully developed languages with the same pragmatic, syntactical and semantic capacities as spoken language, and that they develop spontaneously under equivalent cultural conditions as spoken languages. Should signing be the locally dominant mode of communication, children are driven by the same compulsion to acquire the signed language in their environment as compels children to acquire a spoken language in circumstances where this is possible.
The ‘language drive’ is directed at acquiring language, equally whether signed or spoken, and the evidence is quite clear that this drive is part of our biologically inherited make-up, even though which language and which mode we use is determined by cultural conditions. (See Blunden 2014).
The point is that:
Language must have evolved before the anatomical prerequisites for speech were in place.
Child-talk, creoles and home-signing aside, there is no such thing as a ‘primitive language’ in existence anywhere in the world today. There is no reason to suppose that the language used by the first homo sapiens sapiens was not already fully developed in the immediately preceding species, having arisen from a language based on gesture which had many hundreds of thousands of years of cultural development behind it.
Phonological analysis of the world’s languages has identified uniform tendencies corresponding to the most recent wave of homo sapiens migration from Africa, and suggests an origin time for spoken language coincident with the origins of homo sapiens 100,000-170,000 years ago (Corballis 2002, p. 133). Speech is therefore relatively recent on the evolutionary time-scale, as evidenced by this phonological analysis, but language itself must be relatively ancient, because comparative analysis of the brain cavity does not indicate significant development of language ability over this time span. The reason the language ability shows no signs of progressive development, while the phonology of language shows distinct patterns of development marking the spread of homo sapiens across the globe, is that speech began after language was already fully developed in the mediums of signs, gesture, facial expression and mime. Phonology is new, but language is ancient and was complete at the time homo sapiens evolved.
The alternative proposition – that a sophisticated anatomical and psychological apparatus enabling voluntary, articulate speech evolved but without being used, and then one day humans discovered they could speak – is absurd! It takes hundreds of thousands of years for such anatomical changes to evolve, during which time creatures have ample opportunity to explore their capabilities. Behaviour leads biology.
The ancestors of the homo species were already using language. Effective, controlled use of vocalisation gradually expanded while the gestural components gradually receded, even though gestures still continue as part of our normal speech to this day. This would be an instance of selection pressures based in behaviour driving the evolution of physiology and anatomy.
Again, I do not place any weight on the argument that speech ‘freed up’ the hands for labour, but it could feasibly have been a contributing factor in the gradual transition from signed language to spoken language. This change of behaviour unfolded in the context of collaborative social life, where selection pressure forced the biological change to better subject the vocal apparatus to conscious control, as gestures were already.
The above observations are suggestive of an explanation for the otherwise inexplicable fact that we language-using primates, humans, are also lovers and users of culturally transmitted music and dance. If our evolutionary forebears when through a protracted period of gesturing with accompanying vocalisations, but did not yet have the capacity for words, the idea that we sang and danced together seems very plausible. It was these singing, dancing and gesturing hominins who later learnt words to put to the music.
But all this is mere speculation and is aside from the central issue here. Nonetheless, I think Merlin Donald’s (1991) work on the possibility that apes can mime, and that the precursor of language is mime, has a lot going for it. (See Blunden 2006). According to Donald, apes have acquired a specific kind of consciousness which he calls ‘episodic culture’, and that this can develop via mimetic to mythic to theoretic culture. Forms of consciousness reflect the form of culture in which they exist.
Carrying things, facilitated by bipedalism, is, I would suggest, the first behaviour exhibiting practical abstraction and recursion, but the manufacture, sharing, instruction in and use of tools is the next. This development in behaviour had been prepared for by the development of controlled use of the hands and greatly improved communication, and incidentally, a growing facility in hands-free communication.
Tool-making and tool use is a particularly significant phase in the development of practical abstraction. The rendering of human powers into objective material objects continues to drive the development of language to this day, with new words flowing into the language from the latest products of technology and going on to be normalised in use remote from the institutional and technological context in which the words originated. For example, “interface” arose in the context of development of new electronic devices in the military industry, but nowadays commonly refers to interpersonal and institutional relations.
Hegel (18o4) said: “The word is the tool of Reason.” Tool-making and tool-use, in which a concept is given a specific material shape, constitutes abstraction in behaviour, the necessary condition for abstraction in thinking. Today’s tool is tomorrow’s word. The most impressive proof of this is the history of colour words, which shows that no matter how prevalent a colour may be in a community’s environment, historically, a word for the colour enters the language only when a community had learnt how to manufacture the colour.
Speech turns out to be a particularly effective mode of language and once it becomes dominant, drives the evolution of the necessary anatomical adaptations. Gesture can then gradually cede centre stage to speech.
Once speech was dominant, tool-making and social organisation co-evolved with speech.
Language communicates one’s intentions and feelings to others. Language also depends on the capacity of individuals to read their conversational partner’s readiness for action (their intentions and emotions), and to be able interpret their words in their real context, namely the speaker’s intentions. How do intention-expression and intention-reading get started on this co-evolution?
The basis for becoming conscious of one’s own intentions and to be able to perceive the intentions of others is actual, practical participation in collaborative projects. Prides of lions and bands of chimpanzees hunt in cooperative groups without conscious awareness, but relying on instinctual patterns of cooperation. Our hominin predecessors were surely capable of this kind of collaborative activity which already existed among their predecessors. A collaborative project is characterised by a shared object (such as the prey) and a diversity of individual goals which together bring about the success of the object. The participants operate with a kind of practical calculus of intentions before they are psychologically able to form conscious abstractions of the objects and goals of their actions and those of their fellows. But the shared intentional behaviour provides the material foundation for acquiring conscious awareness and control of the motives and goals.
Behaviour leads conscious awareness and control.
So there is no need to hypothesise ‘mirror neurons’ and other such weird and unprovable neurological entities. If they exist at all, they must be the evolutionary products of practical collaboration, not accidental products of a biological inheritance.
Chomsky’s supposed Language Acquisition Device is another unobservable, hypothetical neurological formation which appears to be the product not of biological evolution but of a miracle - it suddenly appeared in one individual who fortunately discovered her or his newfound capacity for language (despite having no-one to talk to or a vocal apparatus to talk with even if they wanted to, or a vocabulary or syntax prior to having any use for them) and the given individual somehow turns this gift to such evolutionary advantage as to ensure that their descendants take exclusive control of the human genome.
Writing is a completely different kettle of fish as compared to speech and gesture. The ability to read and write is a cultural achievement which even today is far from universally accomplished and there is no drive to learn to write apart from culturally imparted motivations. Self-evidently, the modern human type has always had the psychological and anatomical capacities to form hieroglyphics, letters or characters, but for hundreds of thousands of years they did not do so.
Writing was invented independently in Mesopotamia c. 3200 BCE, in China c. 1200 BCE, Phoenicia c. 1000 BCE and in Mesoamerica c. 700 BCE, and spread from there to other societies while some communities remain non-literate to this day, despite evidently having the same anatomical and psychological resources as the people in literate societies.
Writing was not invented in the context of interpersonal communication or the writing of epic poetry. It arose in the context of ancient bureaucratic regimes and their need to keep accounts of their wealth and its distribution. A specialised class of scribes was trained to keep these records. The scope of writing activity subsequently expanded indefinitely - and continues to do so as modern electronic machinery has to be programmed with written scripts no different in principle from the how-to manuals written for people to read.
The difficulty in writing which even fluent and compulsive speakers have to overcome, is that writing is a form of language action in which the writer’s conversational partner is not present. It cannot emerge spontaneously.
Speech is commonly carried on without conscious awareness, springing back into consciousness only when special attention to the words and their delivery is demanded for some reason. Generally we respond to circumstances and go straight from thought to word without thinking.
Writing on the other hand requires conscious control with the hands, without the aid of sound or the immediate presence of the reader. It is a completely new level of conscious control of psychological action. Thoughts first have to be silently formed into words and then the words inscribed one-by-one, holding back the mind so as not to get ahead of the hand.
The use of what Vygotsky called ‘psychological tools’ never arises spontaneously. Whereas all children learn to speak without any effort on the part of their parents or friends, and deaf children will acquire signed speech in the same way if their parents use signed language in the home, learning to write requires specific instruction.
Writing, and psychological tools in general - i.e., the use of maps and diagrams, telephones and emails, mathematical symbols, charts, etc. – develops off the back of the development of technology. As industry moves from earthenware and the production of fabric to mechanical devices like the printing press to electrical devices like the telegraph and telephone to electronic devices like computers, the array of psychological tools develops apace.
Technological development, not psychological development, drives the acquisition of psychological tools, but the development of psychological tools leads the development of psychology.
Cave paintings, jewellery and burial decorations are frequently cited as evidence of the ability to make abstractions. This makes sense. People who can communicate with gesture and speech, make and use tools, exercise delayed gratification and bring specific prey back to camp to share with others, can likely learn to manufacture paint and represent their life in cave art.
Someone who can paint evidently has the psychological and anatomical wherewithal to write. But they didn’t. Not until large, hierarchical class societies emerged. Cave art is evidently expressive, and perhaps instrumental, and not communicative. Writing is a social-historical accomplishment and there is no reason interpret cave art as rudimentary writing. On the other hand, the Australian aborigines marked the land with what were, in effect, sign-posts.
On the other hand, observations of present-day human communicative and cognitive activity tells us very little about the origins of language. Just that whatever capacities we observe in modern human beings must be plausible as outcomes of the phylogenesis of language that we propose. Equally, whatever we find about the origins of language has very little to tell us about modern human behaviour which could not be determined more reliably by observation of that behaviour.
Doubtless, we learn more about human behaviour by closely observing how children and young adults acquire language. But nonetheless, the origins of language remains one of the most fascinating and intractable problems of natural science, and we must await the progress of palaeontology, archaeology, genetic microbiology and neurology.
Blunden, A. (2014). The Invention of Nicaraguan Sign Language.
Blunden, A. (2015). Tool and Sign in Vygotsky’s Development.
Colapietro, V. M. (1988). Peirce's Approach to the Self: A Semiotic Perspective on Human Subjectivity, SUNY Press.
Corballis, M. C. (2002). From Hand to Mouth. The Origins of Language. Princeton U.P.
Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind. Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Harvard University Press.
Le Guin, U. (2017) The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Talk at Kunsthalle Zürich.
Leontyev, A. N. (1978). Activity, Consciousness and Personality.
Vygotsky, L. S. & Luria, A. R. (1930). Primitive Man and his Behaviour, Chapter 2 of Ape, Primitive Man, and Child: Essays in the History of Behaviour. Translated by Evelyn Rossiter, published by Paul M. Deutsch Inc.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). Thinking and Speech.
1. In this context, by “voluntary"” I mean to imply a natural will, not free will – minimally, the tendency of an organism to modify its behaviour if a habitual action fails, rather than endlessly repeating the same reaction.
2. Catastrophically rapid changes in the environment occur, bringing about extinctions and near-extinctions and thereby ‘punctuated evolution’. This does not contradict the fact that behavioural adaptation is faster than biological adaptation. Environmental change can be very fast indeed, but that does prevent us from claiming that ‘behaviour leads biology’.