The Venture of Language

How the development of abstract intelligence helped shape the evolution of human societies

Cover: My brother (left) and his classmate in the first grade with the Soviet version of an alphabet book used to teach children how to read and write.

“Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Language is the most advanced system of symbols developed by humans. The words with which the Gospel of John opens, “In the beginning was the Word…” are fundamentally true in relation to human life and our civilization.

It was the invention of language by our remote ancestors which helped to finally distinguish man from the other animals. Indeed, the ways in which human behavior differs from animal behavior are to an enormous extent conditioned by the fact that man has a conceptual language. Unlike humans, animals do not possess conceptual terms, and they are unable to describe classes of things or think in generalities.

One of the greatest German psychologists, Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967), provided a very interesting example of the effects of language on perceiving and manipulating reality. His apes, if a banana was hung out of their reach and a stick was set before them were perfectly capable of picking up the stick and knocking down the fruit. But if the banana was placed in front of the apes, and the stick was placed behind them, they couldn’t do it because they had to see both things at once.

Sultan, one of the brightest of the early chimpanzees used for psychological research, was tested by Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. Sultan is particularly recognized for his insight in solving numerous problems, including stacking or manipulating boxes to reach a reward and use of two sticks as a unit to rake food to a reachable distance.

We have a term banana and a term stick, and, therefore, we are capable of conceptualizing these two objects in our mind simultaneously, even when they are not simultaneously present to our senses. The ape, which lacks these symbolic concepts, cannot do this, and this extraordinarily intelligent animal is limited in this absurd way.

Human behavior is to a large extent consistent and continuous. We can go on pursuing a single goal for months or years because we have formulated ideas and principles. We have this pattern of language which acts as a sort of set of tracks along which we can run.

Your cat or dog can’t think successfully about the past or the future, or about events which are remote from them in space and in time. In this sense, an animal’s behavior is extraordinarily intermittent. It’s very curious, for example, to observe two cats fighting. They will first spar against one another and then suddenly stop. One cat will start licking itself, the other will scratch itself, and they will begin fighting again. Something that among human beings would be impossible.

William James (1842–1910), an American philosopher and psychologist, regarded language as an artificial way in which we imposed some kind of order upon the Universal chaos. Contemporary psychologists and neurologists would argue that the nervous system itself does a curious job of selection and abstraction long before language comes into play. If we look at the lowest species of animals, we find the most extraordinary abstraction going on.

What an animal is aware of is not the Universe as we know it. It’s not aware of the sky, the sea, the wind, and the trees. It is just aware of those particular objects which are either edible or dangerous to itself. Its nervous system is constructed to select from an infinite amount of data in the world — only those aspects which are biologically valuable or perilous. For example, the world in which the frog lives is profoundly unlike any world that we are aware of. Its eyes are optically very efficient, but it perceives only that which moves. When things stop moving, the frog doesn’t see them. This must be an extremely weird world to live in.

A frog’s visual system is specifically adapted to seeing little things that are moving across its field of vision — and not things that are sitting still. Considering how erratically flies move, it’s not surprising that the frog’s eating reflexes are very highly tuned to one particular kind of motion.

Humans have this inborn capacity on both neurological and the linguistic levels for abstracting and then turning things into symbols. We also enjoy manipulating symbols and putting them together into complex patterns and systems which give us the representation of reality.

Objects, Experiences, and Concepts

We communicate about the world around us on three basic levels: objects, experiences, and concepts. The higher we go on the levels of abstraction; the more ideas emerge and the less reality there is.

At the object level, we talk about tangible material things, many of which we can touch and pick up. The truth of an object is independent of people and exists whether we are there or not.

At the experience level, we talk about the experiences we have had. This has the abstraction of interpretation. However, it is still very real for us.

When two people talk about a common experience, they refer to the same objects but may have different feelings about them. This is a common source of conversations, interests and sometimes conflicts, as we often expect others to have similar experiences to ours.

At the conceptual level of communication, we talk about ideas and thoughts we have had. Concepts include our beliefs, values, dogmas, and schemas. These are internal constructions that are abstracted away from reality, although we often mistake them to be that reality they represent.

Words are effectively concepts; they are little packets of meaning by which we try to communicate. Concepts are transmitted from one person to another by means of verbal or symbolic communication: books, television, the Internet and so on. Concepts can be accepted or rejected, and the same word may be interpreted differently by different people.

When you listen to someone’s experience, you receive it as a concept, and your nervous system assimilates and deconstructs it. It then evaluates it, puts its own interpretation on it and tries to fit it into your framework of reality, which was developed to organize the incoming information. And this framework has been created by our genetic programs, our early imprints, subsequent conditioning, and learning. When we communicate, much of what we say is conceptual, which is one reason why communication is so difficult.

Abstract Intelligence

According to the Russian mathematician and philosopher Jacob Feldman, one of the basic functions of human cognition is the discovery of patterns and regularities in data. Expected patterns are the basis for the prediction of future trends, as well as for comprehension of past observations.

Feldman suggests that during its learning and development, a human’s intelligence is mastering more complex abstractions. As the child grows, so does the degree of abstraction in language and communication, and it gradually comes to understand how words can convey ideas beyond current experience.

First Level. A person is able to focus on one object. If a new object comes into focus, the old one is lost. A child usually operates on this level until it’s three years old. It begins recognizing objects and where they are located physically.

Second Level. A person is capable of maintaining a focus on multiple objects. This level allows you to understand the relationship between objects in space, as well as in time, and it allows you to combine items in your mind. Early humans began making the first hammerstones, stone cores, and sharp stone flakes around 2.6 million years ago because these tools helped them to protect themselves from predators and prepare food.

The first evidence of human life in the Olorgesailie Basin comes from about 1.2 million years ago. For hundreds of thousands of years, people living there made and used large stone-cutting tools called handaxes (left). According to three new studies, early humans in East Africa had — by about 320000 years ago — begun using color pigments and manufacturing more sophisticated tools (right) than those of the Early Stone Age handaxes, tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown in eastern Africa. The sophisticated tools (right) were carefully crafted and more specialized than the large, all-purpose handaxes (left). Many were points designed to be attached to a shaft and potentially used as projectile weapons while others were shaped as scrapers or awls.

Image: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Third Level. On this level, a person can memorize and reproduce a sequence of events leading to a particular goal, as well as conceptualize basic hierarchies. 200000 years ago, the pace of innovation in stone technology began to accelerate. Middle Stone Age toolkits included points, which could be hafted on to shafts to make spears. Our ancestors were able to construct a complex model of the world in their mind and envision that by throwing a pointy object at a particular angle which could hit a moving target from a greater distance with accuracy, making them effective and dangerous hunters.

Fourth Level. Comprehension of multiple sequences, independent processes, and complex hierarchies. On this level, a person is able to build an algorithm based on the established rules. He can properly classify objects and situations, understand which rules should be used and which should not. Homo sapiens ascended to this level when we developed complex language sometime between 100000 and 50000 years ago, which helped us evolve from hunter-gatherers to the first farming societies and domesticate the crops to depend on humans.

Fifth Level. Understanding of a potential variety of possibilities, as well as a capability to conceptualize something which does not yet exist. This is a creative level. At this level, a person accurately understands the limitations imposed by the rules. He is able to construct hypothetical scenarios, create new rules and roles. This level correlates to the emergence of art, prehistoric monoliths (Göbekli Tepe), religious beliefs and practices, the architecture of the ancient world.

There are substantial grounds to claim that the most significant archaeological discovery of the 21st century is the Göbekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill). It dates back to 12000 years ago. In other words, it is 4000 years older than the pyramids and 7000 years older than Stonehenge. Furthermore, it is even older than the human transition to settled life. Therefore, contrary to the widely held view, it proves the existence of religious beliefs prior to the establishment of the first cities.

Sixth Level. A person is able to understand complex systems and their fundamental components and processes. On this level, a person is capable of building systems and achieving system results. This level of thinking is crucial for engineering, financial, logistics industries and so forth. The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, a period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840 when agricultural societies became more industrialized and urban. The transcontinental railroad, the cotton gin, electricity, and other inventions permanently changed society.

Le Belge was a steam locomotive built in 1835 by the company founded by John Cockerill in Seraing, Belgium. It was serving the first main line on the European mainland, the Brussels-Mechelen line.

Seventh Level. A person begins to understand a context in which the systems exist, natural laws, science, and paradoxes. Medical and scientific discoveries of the 19th century were increasingly being made and redefining living expectations in this era (1850–1900) due to industrial developments and freedoms granted to people at this time. These many inventions improved the lives of many and paved the way for technology in our day. These include discoveries such as aspirin, germ theory, X-rays, vaccines, plastic, typewriter, bicycle, telephone and so forth.

William Coolidge invented what is considered the modern X-ray tube. He also developed an early portable X-ray machine which was used in military hospitals during World War I.

Image: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Eighth Level. Comprehension of clusters of systems and hyper systems. Wisdom and intuition. A person begins to wonder why something is done and hypothesize how the outcome will affect other systems. Understanding that solution to a challenge is not inside but rather outside, and it requires a focused study of the outside world in the most unexpected directions. This is the level of various scientific researchers and philosophers. This level brought us the development of electronic computers in the 1950s, Space exploration, the Psychedelic era, the development of modern psychology, the Human Genome Project and the Internet.

CSIRAC was Australia’s first programmable automatic digital computer and only the fourth computer in the world. It was built in the late 1940s by scientists Dr. Trevor Pearcey, Maston Beard, and Geoff Hill and filled a room the size of a double garage. It weighed 7000 kg and had a RAM of 768 words.