The Evolution of the "Humanities"

John Merck

Remember the Great Leap Forward

Approximately 40,000 years ago. Human artifacts are revolutionized. We directly see:

We can indirectly infer:


In a way art seems most uniquely human.

There is at least some evidence of an asthetic sense among non-modern hominids, including this acheulian hand axe that incorporates a fossil sea urchin.

In the age of photography it has progressed from the utilitarian and representational.....

to purely abstract. Indeed, none of the following would seem out of place in a contemporary gallery.

The artist.

The artist.

The artist.

The artist.

All of this makes us wonder about how widespread things like "art" and "culture" - broadly defined - are among non-humans.

The satin bowerbird constructs a "bachelor pad" (mating enclosure) that figures prominently in his courtship display, and decorates it with blue objects.

Other species construct more elaborately decorated display arenas. Apparantly, there are regional "traditions" of bower construction and juvenile males learn the skill by observing adults.

The plainer the male, the more elaborate the bower.

The great thing is that the birds, both male and female, act as if they are appreciating a learned sense of artistic aesthetics, just as humans do when they visit a concert or dance, even if the primary point of the visit is to pair up with a mate.


For language, we can say much less. Indeed, it seems plausible that the behavioral differences between pre and post Great Leap behavior is due to the acquiaition or fine tuning of language. [Class activity emphasizing utility of language. Audio resource]

So, what can we say about "primitive" human language? Not much directly, as no such thing currently exists. We can circumscribe it by looking at non-linguistic communication in non-humans and in humans.

Before we start, consider the checkered history of studies of animal intelligence.

Recognizibility of language: Reductionists are right about one thing: It's difficult to know if you are observing a communication system if the system is not one you understand.

This much we know: The call-systems of some animals can be quite sophisticated. Diamond discusses the call-system used by vervet monkeys that is capable of making fine discriminations and that young vervets must learn to use properly.

Pioneers in animal articulation: We just don't know how much information is conveyed in the call-systems of creatures like gorillas, chimpanzees, orcas, and dolphins; or whether these systems incorporate elements of symbolic language. In the laboratory, however, some non-humans have mastered some (parrots) or all (apes) elements of symbolic language. Some famous articulate non-humans include:

But watch out! Animal communication experiments can yield insights about what goes on in critters' minds, but are subject to human weakness. If experiments aren't rigorously designed, we end up measuring an effect that is basically non-linguistic or indulging in wishful thinking. E.G.:

A look at the grammar of Nim's most ambitious utterance, "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you," indicates the cause of Terrace's concern. Nim's failure cast doubt on the achievements of Washoe, Koko, Michael, and Kanzi. Were they examples of the Clever Hans Phenomenon? Terrace's detractors noted:

The debates still rages, however Terrace's concerns stimulated more rigorous studies that avoided ASL's interpretational pitfalls:

So what do we actually know based on human development, animal language experiments, etc.?

All of these animals are social, tropical, long-lived, long-distance foragers that need to be aware of the locations and timing of intermittant food sources like fruiting trees in a complex three-dimensional environment. Perhaps these factors provide an evolutionary incentive for the evolution of "proto-language" and heirarchical thinking. Indeed, this could be an instance of pleiotropy. Who can say which skill initially conferred the major advantage, strung-together utterances or the ability to catagorize.