10 January 2012


Can we walk on four legs? We might try to do it, using our legs and arms, but even in that case, are we truly walking on four legs like horses or cats do? In fact, we are not. Our species has evolved towards bipedalism, and our whole body is designed for the upright position. When we try to walk on four legs we are merely imitating what other animals do. That's what it is: an imitation.

In some posts I've talked about the speech faculty and the origins of human language. As I said then, the fundamental change took place in the brain. Our capacity for symbolic thought gave us the grounds to develop our peculiar way of communicating, which makes us different from other known species. I used some examples from the animal world, especially the language used by bees. Now, can we communicate like bees? Can we go back to a stage where communication is not produced the way it is usually produced between humans? Can we communicate in a non-human way, i.e. expressing content without symbolic notions like 'imperative' or 'narrative'? Can we forget about ourselves and try to reach some kind of primeval or animalistic type of communication? The answer, in my opinion, is no. We can of course try to imitate 'animal' communication, as we can also imitate the way a tiger moves, but that's just an imitation. There's no way our brain can be told to work differently in terms of communication or logical thought. We are trapped inside our brains. It is indeed a beautiful cage, but that's what it is. We can only be human. But what does that exactly mean? Let's see.

If you take a look at the Task Manager in your computer, you'll probably notice that there is a program called explorer.exe. At the beginning I thought it was the Internet Explorer application, taking up a lot of my RAM memory, but then I discovered that it is actually an important component of Windows, responsible for controlling how the whole system works. I like this concept of permanent exploration, and I think it applies to the human mind too.

We are all born with a full set of physical features, including our brain, and an inborn impulse to explore the possibilities offered by these features. This exploration starts at birth, and continues to operate throughout our lives, like the explorer.exe file in our computers. There's no way we can exist without having some kind of curiosity about the possibilities that lie within ourselves. It is obvious that the exploratory instinct is more active during childhood, for obvious reasons. However, this exploration is always guided by the other people: our parents, our brothers or sisters, our teachers, and it is modelled to suit the social and communicative networks that we are born into, including language. There's no way to know how a child would develop its inner world without this human environment; in fact, a newborn baby would die in a matter of minutes without the help of other people, as happens to other mammals and other species. Our personal exploration is limited, guided, directed towards a socially efficient network that we necessarily have to belong to. There's no other way. There's no other possible model for us. With the end of childhood, our exploratory instinct falls into a secondary role that is progressively reduced as we get older. But it never really disappears. There's always something inside us that tries to keep on exploring. Some people are particularly keen on developing this inborn utility. They want to create beauty, they want to transcend our ordinary world in unexpected ways, they create art, they make things that are apparently useless, like poems, or a statue, and the incredible thing is that all of us tend to appreciate these exercises of creativity, we like it when an unexpetced connection is found between two words, or two ideas, or a given combination of colours. The concept of beauty itself, or art, shows that there's some part of us that goes beyond the usual codes by which our society is built. We are not just passive agents in a world of solid structures: we are active explorers in a world that must somehow transcend us, that's why we appreciate art, that's why we're so fond of beauty, that's why we cannot be human unless we continue the search or at least admire those whose exploratory efforts fill our own needs.

Human language is just a convenient social construct that uses a tiny percentage of the possibilities offered by our bodies and minds, a useful tool composed of a finite set of phonemes and lexical items, plus a set of syntactic relationships based on human logic. But there's much more in ourselves, as can be seen in music, in art, in literature, in many aspects of our everyday life. A typical question in books about prehistory is: 'When did art begin?' The answer is usually connected with the appearance of 'artistic' objects in the archaeological record. I see it differently: human art started as soon as a hominid was born with the chance of exploring a complex brain. Art is exploration. Art is the need for exploration.

Top: Triumph of Venus, Roman mosaic at Bulla Regia, Tunisia.
Bottom: detail from Ara Pacis, in Rome.


José Angel García Landa said...

Some people say that we are explorers all through our life cycle, albeit in a dimnished way, because of the role of neoteny in our development as a species. Our brain keeps on developing after birth, and it does that in a linguistic atmosphere; prior to the existence of fully-fledged language, it effected that development in an atmosphere of social communication. That must be one of the roots of language, and of the permanent creativity of the human mind and culture.

Jesús Sanchis said...

That's true, this 'liguistic atmosphere' is the only one we know of. There isn't a single human group without a spoken language, so it is impossible to know exactly what it would be like to be raised in world without words. But as I said in previous posts, some of the more relevant aspects of language, e.g. syntax, do not require any form of spoken language. The 'invention' of language is only an application of human thought and human communication. It's a very powerful one indeed, but if we look at it from the global perspective of the human mind, it isn't actually so relevant.

Yes, human societies are formed around language. Human groups favour language, as it is the perfect tool for social cohesion and structuring. But for humans as individuals the story is different: our experience of communication goes far beyond language, into the realms of gesture, music, poetry, and every other possible means of using our communicative abilities.

That's exactly what one of our anscestors did. One day, he or she came up with a brilliant game: using a new tool: a word. The game turned out to be quite useful, and it was further developed. As it was so obviously advantegous in many ways, and as it only required the use of a series of vocal abilities already present in most individuals, it was only a matter of time until it became what we now know as 'language'. Someone's creative exploration became a plus for human societies. Who would resist? Who would refuse giving it a try?

When did that happen? How many types of human 'language' got lost in the way? How many steps did that development take?... Nice, probably unanswerable questions.