Language Stages a Coup d'Etat

Language, the last of the major mental modules, was armed, and fully operational by about 40,000 years ago. And while it opened up all sorts of opportunities, it also created a new problem, just as the expanding brain had caused problems. The three primary older mental modules (visual/spatial, social, and natural history) each handled completely distinct problems; there was no overlap in their function. But the language mental module overlapped all the other modules. In order for language to address concepts used in the other mental modules, its tentacles had to reach deep inside those other modules. Language tapped into concepts already in place in the other modules, established its own word for each of these concepts, and then used those words to build utterances. The language module arose as a small chunk of brain tissue, recruited from some other function (probably auditory), but it did not simply grow larger to augment function. Instead, it grew more like a cancer, making connections with all of the existing components of the brain, until it had infiltrated most of the higher brain.

To better explain this crucial development, I’ll use an extended analogy. Imagine three departments in a corporation: say, Human Relations, Accounts Receivable, and Facilities. Let’s assume that these three departments have little or nothing to do with each other; each one tackles a problem that is completely outside the purview of the others. Indeed, although they all work inside the same large room, they are ignorant of each other, as they simply have no contact with each other. These three departments correspond to the three major mental modules.

Now suppose that one day, the corporation brings in an auditor whose task is to explain to outside investors the functioning of all the people in all of the departments. The auditor visits each person and asks, “What do you do?” After the interview, he opens up a file folder on that person, and assigns a label representing that person’s function. Once the interviewing task is complete, the auditor attempts to organize all those file folders into some reasonable structure. He quickly discovers a variety of problems, but it’s not his task to change anything, but merely to understand and explain to others. Our auditor is vaguely analogous to the language mental module, and each file folder is analogous to a word.

The day comes when he must meet with the investors and answer their questions. Their first question is simple enough, but the answer involves elements from all three of the departments in question. So the auditor rustles through all of his file folders and combines the results into a single-sentence answer. The investors are satisfied with his answer, but their second question triggers the same frantic search. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth... some of the questions that the investors ask can’t be answered by looking at any single department in isolation – our auditor must combine results from many departments to give a complete answer.

Now suppose that this happens every day for the rest of the corporation’s life. Suppose that our poor auditor spends every day rustling through piles of notes, interviewing employees in more detail, and integrating their answers into complete answers for the investors. Given enough time, things will change dramatically in the corporation.

First, the auditor will have to develop some independent means of judging the statements of the employees. There will surely be times when different employees contradict each other, and the auditor can’t treat that difference of opinion as an academic matter; he has to give a straight answer to the investors, so he develops his own sense of how things work. That sense or perception is an independent point of view that encompasses the entire corporation. Sometimes the auditor will have to ignore the statements of one employee and pay sole attention to another employee; sometimes the auditor will split the difference between two contradicting employees. Through all of this, the auditor develops a sense of something bigger than the individual departments: he gets a feeling for the corporation as a whole. His perception of the corporation is unlike that of any other employee, because only he has communicated with every employee in every department. Thus, he learns to speak for the corporation as a whole, listening to the inputs from the different departments and applying his own judgment to them. That’s the first grand result of language: it unifies the various mental modules, smoothing over their disagreements and making overall decisions for the person as a whole.

Second, our auditor notices the inconsistencies and redundancies in the organization and complains about them to the department heads. Egged on by his complaints, the departments start to take notice of each other and make some effort to reconcile their worst inconsistencies. In much the same way, language has encouraged the mental modules to
interact with each other, with some surprising results.

Third, the auditor ends up thinking that he has taken charge of the entire operation. After all, he’s the only one that the outside world sees, so it’s easy for him to conclude that he is the most important person in the company. He doesn’t have any real authority, of course; the departments run autonomously. But his position seeing the big picture gives him a sense of power. In the same way, the language module tends to dominate our thinking, even though it is only one part. Indeed, the language module is responsible for consciousness and the sense of self, and it was only too easy to arrogate all the sense of self for itself.

The upshot of this was a very different kind of mind. Before language, the human mind was what we might call “mindless”. It was an impressive piece of machinery that had a solution for just about every problem. No matter what the environment threw at it, its mental modules were ready and would provide instant and usually effective response. Every environmental challenge constituted a kind of pattern; that pattern was evaluated by each of the mental modules. All but one of the mental modules would fail to recognize the pattern and generate no response, but one of the mental modules would always find a fit, recognize the pattern, and generate a response. But language mixed everything up. Because it spanned all the modules, problems got smeared all over the brain, yielding complex and often contradictory results. Humans were cast out of an Eden-like life of clarity and simplicity, forced to make decisions between competing interests for the first time in their experience, and it wasn’t easy. No other animal makes decisions; they simply act, but we hesitate, because we have to reconcile the internal yammerings of multiple decision-making modules.

We’ve known about this problem from the very beginning. We all know about the many voices in our heads that urge us in different directions. Sometimes we express this in cartoon form as the little angel and the little devil sitting on our shoulders, urging us one way or the other. Sometimes we simply cannot decide which voice to heed, and we are consumed with indecision. This is a uniquely human problem.

It’s true that animals sometimes hesitate, but they do so only when confronted by inputs that they simply aren’t prepared for. The best example of this is the deer in the headlights. Deer have gone through millions of years of evolution without ever encountering headlights in the middle of the night. Only in the last century has this new input pattern appeared, and they have absolutely no basis for their pattern-recognizing nets to fathom it. To them, headlights in the dark are like a Rorschach ink blot that doesn’t look like anything at all. So they just stare at it, waiting for further information to resolve the pattern. Other mammals have similar problems with strange inputs, usually the result of human technology.

Now, we have the same problem; if you stare at a Rorschach ink blot that doesn’t look like anything at all, you too will hesitate while you try to divine some sort of pattern in it. But we humans have an additional source of hesitation on top of that: the cacophony of different mental modules that results from a complex input pattern. For example, suppose that you are confronted by a strange person who demands, “My mom wants to borrow a cup of flour from your wife!” Suppose further that this confrontation takes place in a dark alley. You’ll have all sorts of reactions going on inside your brain. One section is trying to figure out if this person presents a threat. Quick, analyze his facial expression and body language. Another section is examining the dark alley; is there anything else odd about this place? A third is trying to understand the demand in terms of social reasoning: should I fight, flee, or make nice? Is this person insane, malevolent, or has he mistaken me for somebody else? With all these calculations going on inside your brain, it’s no wonder that you hesitate. You’ve got a bunch of mental modules trying to fit the input to a bunch of different templates, and none of them are leaping forward confidently shouting, “I’ve got the answer!” So you just stand there, stunned. Decision-making is our strength and our curse, and the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge was language.

Our next exciting episode:
The Mental Modules Interact!
For further information on these concepts:
The Prehistory of the Mind by Steven Mithen

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