The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Linguistic Darwinism

According to Chomsky's classical theory, language is an innate skill: we come pre-wired for language, and simply "tune" that skill to the language that is spoken around us. In Chomsky’s view language is biology, not culture.  This implies that the language skill is a fantastic byproduct of evolution.  Syntax must be regarded as any other organ acquired via natural selection.  How did such a skill develop, since that skill is not present elsewhere in nature? Where did it come from? Language appears to be far too complex a skill to have been acquired via step-by-step refinement of the Darwinian kind, especially since we are not aware of any intermediary steps (e.g., species that use a grammar only to some extent).

The British linguist Derek Bickerton advanced a theory that attempted to bridge Darwin and Chomsky. Bickerton argued that language was the key to the success of the human species, the one feature that made us so much more powerful than all other species. Everything else, from memory to consciousness, seems to be secondary to it. We cannot recall any event before we learned language. We can remember thoughts only after we learned language. Language seems to be a precondition to all the other features that we rank as unique to humans.

First of all, human language cannot just be due to the evolution of primitive, emotion-laden "call systems". We still cry, scream, laugh, swear, etc. Language has not fully replaced that system of communication. The primitive system of communication continues to thrive alongside language. Language did not replace it, and probably did not evolve from it. Language is something altogether different.

He emphasized the difference (not the similarity) between human and animal communication. Animal communication is holistic: it communicates the whole situation. Human language deals with the components of the situation. Furthermore, animal communication is pretty much limited to what is evolutionarily relevant to the species. Humans, on the other hand, can communicate about things that have no relevance at all for our survival. In fact, we could adapt our language to describe a new world that we have never encountered before. The combinatorial power of human language is what makes it unique. Bickerton thinks that human and animal communication are completely different phenomena.

In fact, Bickerton believes that human language is not primarily a means to communicate but a means to represent the world. Human language did not evolve from animal communication but from older representation systems. First, some cells (the sensory cells) were born whose only task was to respond to the environment. As sensory cells evolved and their inputs became more complex, a new kind of cells appeared that was in charge of mediating between these cells and motor cells. These mediating cells eventually evolved categories that were relevant to their survival. Animals evolved that were equipped with such "primary" representational systems. At some point, humans evolved who were equipped with syntax and were capable of representing representations (of models of models). Human language was so advantageous that it drove a phenomenal growth in brain size (not the other way around).

Two aspects of language, in particular, set it apart from the primitive call system of most animals: the symbolic and the syntactic aspects. A word stands for something (such as an object, a concept, an action). And words can be combined to mean more than their sum ("I walk home" means more than just the concepts of "i", "walking" and "home").  Bickerton believes that syntax is what makes our species unique: other species can also "symbolize", but none has showed a hint of grammar.

The philosopher Nicholas Humphrey once advocated that language was born out of the need to socialize.  On the contrary, Bickerton believes that Humphrey's "social intelligence" had little to do with the birth of proto-language. Socialization as a selective pressure would not have been unique to humans, and therefore language would have developed as well in other primates.  Syntax, instead, developed only in humans, which means that a selective pressure unique to humans must have caused it.  Bickerton travels back to the origins of hominids, to the hostile savannas where hominids were easy targets for predators and had precious little food sources. Other primates had a much easier life in the forests.  The ecology of early hominids created completely different selective pressures than the ones faced by other primates.  In his quest for the very first utterances, Bickerton speculates that language was born to label things, then evolved to qualify those labels in the present situation: "leopard footprints" and "danger" somehow needed to be combined to yield the meaning "when you see leopard footprints, be careful".

Bickerton shows how this kind of "social calculus", coupled with Baldwin effects, could trigger and successfully lead to the emergence of syntax.  Social intelligence was therefore important for the emergence of syntax, even if it was not important for the emergence of proto-language.

Bickerton points out that the emergence of language requires the ability to model other minds. I am motivated to communicate information only if I can articulate this simple scenario in my mind: I know something that you don't know and I would gain something if you knew it. Otherwise, the whole point of language disappears.

Bickerton thinks that consciousness and the self were enabled by language: language liberated humans from the constraints of animal life and enabled off-line thinking. The emergence of language even created the brain regions that are essential to conscious life. Basically, he thinks that language created the human species and the world that humans see.

To summarize, Bickerton believes that: language is a form of representation, not just of communication, a fact that sets it apart from animal communication; language evolved from primordial representational systems; language has shaped the cognitive life of the human species.


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