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"


The British psychologist Robin Dunbar believes that originally the function of language was not to communicate information, but to cement society.  From the point of view of information, language brings more benefits to the listener than to the talker. If that were the main purpose of language, it would have caused the evolution of a race of listeners, not of talkers, and far less of gossipers.

All primates live in groups. The size of a primate's neocortex, as compared to the body mass, is directly proportionate to the size of the average social group for that primate. Humans tend to live in the larger societies of primates, and human brains are correspondingly much larger.

Dunbar studied how brain size determines social size and why. Every species has a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one individual can maintain stable relationships. That number for humans is about 150. Generally speaking, the bigger the brain (the neocortex) the higher the number of relationships among objects that the brain can handle. Each species has a natural limit to how much its brain can "correlate".

As humans transitioned from the forest to the savanna, they needed to band together in order to survive the increased danger of being killed by predators. Language helped keep large groups together. Thus humans who spoke had an evolutionary advantage (the group) over humans who did not develop that skill. Dunbar believes that human speech is simply a more efficient way of "grooming": apes cement social bonds by grooming the members of their group. Humans "gossiped" instead of grooming each other. Later, and only later, humans began to use language also to communicate information.

Dunbar believes that dialects developed for a similar reason: to rapidly identify members of the same group (it is notoriously difficult to imitate a dialect).

Language and societies evolved together: society stimulated the invention of language, and language enabled larger societies, that stimulated even more sophisticated languages, that enabled even larger societies, etc.

Brain size is also part of the equation, though.  Basically, in order to avoid being eaten by predators, humans needed to band together, and that required bigger brains.

Similarly, the Dutch ethologist Frans DeWaal thinks that empathy (e.g. in the form of grooming) is the original form of language that only later became sounds, words and sentences.

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