It’s all about words. Words that came to us by chance. And in the virile pride of our cognitive superiority, now we breed words.
The archaic Sapiens that came before us inhabited East Africa 150,000 years ago and began efforts to overrun planet earth with the mission to drive the other human species to extinction. Researchers have reasons to believe that in the very first recorded encounter between the Sapiens and the Neanderthals, the latter won. Our forefathers lost, perhaps, due to inclement weather, lack of immunity to local parasites or just hostile natives.
But then, beginning around 70,000 years ago, the Homo sapiens made a second attempt and this time they successfully drove out the Neanderthals and all other human species from the face of the earth.
What had changed?
Words were born.
The most commonly believed theory argues that an accidental genetic mutation programmed the Homo Sapiens brain enabling it to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using language. Better communication gave way to cooperation, teamwork and basic scheming; effective enough to wipe out a subspecies from the face of the earth over a period of time. Imagine that it could have been the Neanderthal DNA that mutated and not the Sapiens’!
So, as far as we can tell it was all a matter of sheer chance that we exist today, partly because of words.
Ours wasn’t the first language; insects and animals communicated in sophisticated ways informing one another about the location of food and predators. Even a parrot can mimic a sound so what advantage do we have over the parrot, what’s special about the words we use?
It’s the amazing flexibility of the word. We can intertwine a limited number of sounds and signs and produce infinite sentences. Thereby ingest, store and disseminate an enormous amount of information.
And we gossip. “Baat nikalegi to dur talak jaayegi….”
So, while a polar bear’s deep growls are warnings to other bears in defense of a food source; a modern human tourist with a pair of binoculars on an Alaskan cruise ship will broadcast her excitement about the bear sighting to hundreds of people on Facebook in a matter of seconds. She will present pictures and dramatize the scene with amazing ease; someone will pick up the story and make an award-winning climate change documentary about effects of climate change on polar bear’s depleting food sources. A celebrity will endorse the cause and take a trip to the Arctic. A tabloid will go on to pursue a romantic angle between the celebrity and a member of the documentary crew.
Come to think of it, this ability to gossip effectively is what enabled us to evolve our language and over a period of time, take over this planet from the Neanderthals and Sapiens that probably had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs! Gossip seems to be a necessary evil I tell you!
Most likely the role of gossiping in Homo Sapiens evolution is valid, yet, the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transfer that information, rather its ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.
Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens- A brief history of mankind writes that “the ability to speak about fiction is the most unique feature of sapiens language. Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things but to do so collectively.” Mythology, for instance, has birthed religions; each of which connects millions of strangers around the world.
The cognitive ability of the human brain can make a documentary about effect of climate change on polar bear population leading to a juicy tabloid story simply by sighting a growling polar bear on an Alaskan vacation while its imaginative ability might conclude that the mighty and powerful polar bear is the presiding deity of the hungry and underfed, worthy of being enshrined.
It’s all about words.
Words that came to us by chance.
And in the virile pride of our cognitive superiority, now we breed words.
The infinite weave of the written word.
The white noise of the spoken word.
The aching assumption of the unspoken.
Words bleed yet they heal.
(And this time around, lets try not to take out an entire species!)