The Pivotal Role Of Language

Language is central to our historical understanding of the cultural, social, and ecological developments of the past 50,000 years. The capacity for speech, progressively enhanced only relatively recently, produced a huge change in the behavior of our species. With language, it took only a few seconds to communicate a big game hunter's message: "Turn sharp right at the fourth tree and drive the male antelope, moa, or mastodon toward the reddish boulder, where I'll hide to spear it." Without language, that message could not be communicated at all. Without language, two protohumans would be incapable of brainstorming together about how to devise better tools, or about what a cave painting might mean. Without the enhanced representational repertory of language, people would have difficulty thinking for themselves how to devise a better tool. The "Great Leap Forward" in the cultural evolution of human species took place as soon as the mutations for altered tongue and larynx (and pharynx) anatomy arose.76 And, as Jared Diamond adds, "it must have taken humans thousands of years to perfect the structure of word order and case endings and tenses and to develop vocabulary."77

The evolutionary expansion of human communication capacities is intricately interwoven with the eventual global spread and terrestrial colonization of the planet. Humanity was fully modern in anatomy, behavior, and language by 40,000 years ago.78 Until then, human culture had developed at a snail's pace for millions of years. That pace was dictated by the slow nature of genetic change. In the last 40,000 years, however, there has been far more cultural evolution than in the millions of years before.

Language is the key to understanding human history and our species' capacities. Language enabled people to store precise representations of the world in their minds, allowing them to encode and process information far more sufficiently than can any other animal. Without language, human beings would never have undertaken the great leap forward in cultural development and global terrestrial expansion.79 Our capacity for language provided the foundation for both social reflexivity and our transformative capacities in social organization. As linguist Derek Bickerton notes, no other species has ever revolutionized its social organization in the midst of its evolutionary journey. The role of language was crucial.80

To be sure, humans are animals and everything we do is both constrained and enabled in some sense by our biology. However, culture enormously expanded the range of these possibilities. As philosopher Stephen Toulmin states, "culture has the power to impose itself on nature from within."81 People are in a sense both part of nature and apart from nature. This paradox underlies the history of our civilization and our dreams of progress and protection of the planet. Human societies change most drastically by cultural evolution, not merely as a result of biological alteration. For example, there is no evidence for biological change in brain size or structure since Homo sapiens appeared in the fossil record more than 50,000 years ago.

Human cultural evolution is the greatest transformative force that our planet has experienced since its crust solidified nearly 4 billion years ago. Biological evolution continues in our species, but, compared with cultural evolution, it is incomparably slow and its impact upon the history of Homo sapiens has been small.82 Cultural evolution can proceed so quickly because it operates not by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, but through learning. Whatever one generation learns, it can pass to the next through writing, instruction, inculcation, ritual, tradition, and a host of methods that humans have developed to assure cultural continuity. Biological evolution, on the other hand, is an indirect process: genetic variation must first be available to construct an advantageous feature, and natural selection must then preserve it. Since genetic variation arises at random, the biological process works slowly. Cultural evolution is not only rapid, it is also readily reversible because its products are not coded in our genes.83

Hence, culture and language have enormously expanded the range of human possibilities. By means of our uniquely expanded biological capacity for culture, Homo sapiens acquired the awesome power to impose itself on nature from within. But this power is a double-edged sword: it both creates and destroys. Ecocide constitutes the destructive dimension of cultural evolution.

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