Chimpanzees kick ass. Travis, the chimp shot by police after ripping the face off of a Connecticut woman last year reportedly suffered from Lyme disease and was taking Xanax for behavioral problems. But chimps attack humans regularly, and with those big teeth and the strength of five men, there is no shortage of primate researchers with a shortage of digits. (Keep your fingers away from the cage, ladies and gentlemen…) But in the wild, chimps don’t face down humans. It’s flight, not fight.
Makes sense now, but back in caveman days, when all was tooth and claw, why was it that chimpanzees and gorillas only managed to hang on, while other hominids and great apes bit the dust as soon as our ancestors moved into the neighborhood?
So one-on-one, chimps win. But match a band of cavemen against a troupe of chimpanzees, and the chimps lose. Every time.
Sure, man the tool user, and if you’ve watched that iconic scene from 2001, then you know all it takes is the jawbone of an ass to kick some monkey ass, then watch as the slowly spinning bone turns into a space station, and here we are today, with a space station, currently out of reach, but hey, that’s what we call technology.
Mark Changizi, evolutionary neurobiologist up at Rensselaer, thinks there’s more to it than that. He posits a secret technology that’s been under our noses for millennia. You guessed it: language.
“In my new book, released this month, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, I make the case that language is a technology, not part of our nature at all. And I make the analogous case for music as well. Instead, language is a result of cultural selection, a kind of evolutionary process capable of ‘design’ that occurs at lightning speed compared to natural selection.”
Changizi believes that speech evolved to mimic the sounds of nature, and that human ears could hear them. But instinct wasn’t enough. It’s culture that did it, shared behaviors transmitted at the speed of learning instead of fornication, that took these innate traits, these instincts to create a revolutionary technology perfectly suited to our own ape-like minds.
In an interview with Daniel Lende, Changizi said that “speech and language rely upon culture, namely, cultural evolution having shaped speech to harness (‘nature-harness’) our brain and auditory system. In reality, it went both ways. Cultural transmission and evolution can happen without language, but probably gets more efficient in its ability to ‘design’ for the mind once language is part of the story. That is, surely there is a co-evolution between the culture and language.”
For Changizi, it boils down to the idea that the brain is fit for nature, for the real world, and then language is fit for the brain.
So language as an artifact, a technological ramjet that has propelled us out of the savannah to space station in the evolutionary blink of an eye, no moon-based alien artifacts required. Yet I can’t help but wonder, as the secret weapon of language spins us ever faster in a runaway cultural centrifuge, if our brains will keep up. Actually, I don’t wonder about that at all, since it’s already clear they can’t. At least in my case.