Re: Origins of human thought - needinfo

10 Oct 1995 01:32:36 GMT

In article <459m37$ls8$>, scott collins <74563.100@CompuServe.COM> writes:
>I'm looking for some good references for an article I'm writing. My
>thesis is that the capacity for abstract thought only arose in humans
>along with the capacity for language. A sub-thesis is that both of
>these arose very late, only about 50,000 years ago or so, and that
>together they are what made anautomically modern humans so dominant,
>first over Neanderthals, and then eventually the entire globe. In
>other words, without language and abstract thought we would have
>remained nothing more than a pretty mundane hominid species.
>I fully realize that one can pick bones (no pun intended) with this
>thesis by, for example, redefining language to include Jane Goodall's
>apes. But, really, that sort of stuff bores me. I'm talking about the
>capacity for modern rapid, easily-spoken languages, which almost seem
>innate. As far as abstract thought -- I'm refeering to the capacity
>for metaphysical speculation , early religion, anatism, etc. I'm
>highly unimpressed with the material that says Neanderthals were
>really capable of this kind of thing.

I'm sorry that a research field making new discoveries every day bores you,
and it makes it hard to answer your question! Would you consider an
understanding of numbers abstract thought? What about self-awareness and
strategic planning? Chimps seem to have these. Chimps
have been demonstrated to have an understanding of many categories and
concepts . . . you should read the literature if you're seriously interested
in the language origin question. Many animals communicate rapidly and easily
with each other -- they have to in order to survive. Migrating male baboons,
for example, are always at a disadvantage at first when joining a new troop,
because they can't understand that troop's warning calls. Vervet monkeys,
also, have been shown to have specific calls to communicate specific things.
Humans, as primates, probably share this more general ability to communicate,
which they have elaborated on -- for one thing, bipedalism led to the drop
of the larnyx and the ability to make many more sounds -- especially
As far as abstract thought is concerned, I don't think it can
be easily demonstrated that language proceeded this capability. If you
read the linguistic literature on the innateness of language (like Chompsky
or Jackendoff) there is nothing to suggest that concepts did not precede
spoken language. Certainly preverbal children can understand more than they
can produce, and so, apparently, can apes. Also, there is good evidence
that early Homo (a species now classified as Homo habilis, for one) had a
Broca's area, so I wouldn't rule out the capacity for language in later
hominids like Neandertals. I would, however, agree with you that human
language ability is probably largely responsible (though not solely) for
our superior position -- our ability to exchange information certainly seems
unprecedented and that would lead to many advantages. The evidence is
really inconclusive as far as abstract thought goes, however. I would think
one would have to have the concepts first in order to invent words for them.
If you really want to write a well-rounded article, you should read
Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh on ape abilities. Dean Falk has written some
articles about early hominids, also. And, of course, look into the linguistic
theories of Chompsky, Jackendoff, and others.
I am interested in this subject myself, actually, as well as in
comparative cognition. If you want any more specific info, feel free to
e-mail me.