Thursday, November 6, 2014

How "Urge to Merge" Led to Language


“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal…”                     The Declaration of Independence

The idea that the structure of language, its syntax, and underlying rules are built-in to the human brain, perhaps initially  triggered by a chance mutation, sometime around one hundred thousand years ago, that created within us a disposition to combine words, called “Merge”, is famously postulated by the MIT linguist, Noam Chomsky.  

The motivation for this theory comes from the astounding difference between human language and any other form of animal communication.  If the apes are the animals that we have the closest genetic relation to, how could such an incredible system as language have developed from ape communication?  There is a vast discontinuity here that is very hard to bridge with any Darwinian step by step explanation.

 Humans are a type of primate, but the only primate that talks.  Monkeys, apes, and many other animals vocalize.  These are stereotypical calls that are emotional responses to dangers, conflicts and potential mates.   Vocalizations are often, but not always involuntary.  They are conditioned responses to stimuli.  Laughing and crying are human vocalizations, and they follow the same pattern as in animals;  They are often but not always involuntary.

Apes can communicate with gestures, and gestures, unlike vocalizations are entirely voluntary. Speech could have come from vocalizations, but it’s more likely it first came from hand gestures and then shifted to voluntary vocalizations. This would explain why we still like to use our hands when we talk, especially when we are emphasizing a point.

 All the areas of speech specialization are in the cerebral cortex, the more conscious part of the brain that controls the voluntary muscle movements.   The number of throat and tongue muscles involved in speaking is mind boggling and the degree of coordination between groups of muscles that is needed to be able to speak rapidly, defies the imagination.  We must have had a lot of time to develop this, five or six million years maybe.
By the way, no attempt by humans to teach apes to talk has succeeded or will ever succeed, because they lack the fine motor coordination of the human vocal apparatus.  On the other hand, there has been some success teaching apes sign language.

It seems likely that language developed from some form of voluntary intentional communication.  This would suggest that language is less instinctual and more of a learned habit or skill which uses a fair bit of real estate in the more conscious and voluntary parts of the brain.  This is also supported by the evidence of  the plasticity of infant brains, the prolonged human infancy, and the prolonged period of learning that it takes to master a language.

In my view we have neglected the importance of agreement, and rule formation in the question of how language originated.  All languages have vocabularies of words used to refer to objects, actions,  mental states and ideas.  When words are combined to form complex descriptions, narratives, and declarations, they are combined according to set rules.  The body of these rules are known as syntax or more commonly as grammar.

 Where do rules come from?   Many rules  come from agreements.   The act of agreement is often signified nonverbally,  by a handshake,  sometimes even a nod of the head.

 As the American Philosopher John Searle has described in his book, The Construction of Social Reality,  In our everyday existence we find ourselves already embedded in a world of human values, a world created and maintained by successive  collective agreements.  These agreements can be present right now, as in a signing ceremony, or they can remain implicit, and hidden, and often forgotten.

Rules and agreements, in order to be sustained over generations, need the basis of a “level playing field”  We expect those who enter this “field”  to follow the rules and we watch for rule-breaking,  and  “out them” if they do break the rules.  

  Rules are agreed to because they apply to everyone equally.  Rules, such as - “Do unto others…” ,  and “you cannot have more than one wife” -  only  work if people believe in them and expect that others will follow them also.

 If we speak correctly others understand what we are saying, because both the speaker and listener are mutually following the rules.  The interesting thing about our mastery of language is that we take it so much for granted that it is hard to imagine not following the rules of grammar, etc.

We can look to evidence from brain damaged individuals showing various incapacities to speak or to understand.  Evidently these individuals have become incapable of following certain rules, not out of choice, but because the brain circuits that they used each time they followed those rules have now been destroyed.

Rules and agreements are each foundations for further rules and agreements.    So that over a million years it is conceivable that evolution could carve out new grooves in our cerebral cortex  for the use of learning these rules, and that as we did so the older rules would be more forgotten because a superstructure of rules has been laid down on top of them.

Imagine teaching apes rules.  It would  not  be easy,  especially if your intention was to get them to use the rules spontaneously or for them to teach the rules to their fellow apes.  But learning and teaching rules is an easy task for a six year old human child.  In my opinion, apes don’t take to rules because they live in societies with an alpha male.  

There is no level playing field with an alpha male.  There is no concept of rules applying equally, because there is only one rule: “MIght Makes Right.”   When a new alpha topples the old alpha he may have different expectations and preferences from the previous alpha, but these will just be changed again when he loses to a future alpha,  and so, the one rule rules them all.

Chimpanzees, our closest relatives and Gorillas, our more distant relatives have dominance hierarchies ruled by alpha males.  They don’t have language.  Humans have dominance hierarchies, but they are rule-governed and we have language.

An interesting exception is the bonobo, an even closer relative of chimpanzees.  Bonobos are smaller, but look similar.  And they have very different social behaviour  from that of chimps.
 In most ape societies, when an alpha is eliminated he is soon replaced with another alpha, but that doesn’t happen in bonobo groups.  Unlike male chimps, bonobo males are prevented from using their superior physical strength to dominate  females, because bonobo females always gang up on individual males before they can get away with their bullying.   But bonobos don’t live monogamously  and they don’t have language either.

Note the element of collective intentionality that’s always present in the elimination of the alpha.  Bonobo females act together to overpower males and have managed to maintain this system for possibly millions of years.   Bonobos prefigure humans because the females control male dominance collectively.  Even though they don’t have words they have some rudimentary concept of right and wrong because they punish or threaten to punish males for their behaviour.

Most of the great apes live in tropical forests, with enough fruit and nut trees in one area to support a group of about thirty.  There is a role for the alpha to help rally and bolster the troops over boundary disputes and defense of territory.  But hominins, the ancestors of humans, were walking greater distances together and the idea of defending  this as “territory” probably stretches the role of alpha too far.

Three million years ago hominins were pursuing a different niche strategy outside the forest, due to the contingencies of severe climate change, as a series of brutal ice ages descended over the earth.   In order to survive over time, they needed to be able to migrate during seasonal or prolonged droughts.

In my opinion, alpha males would have been a distinct liability for migrating hominins.  Their presence would have discouraged the kind of cooperation and functional cohesion that aids survival when a group is on the move.

Alpha males would have been always replaced by another alpha, unless a collective decision was made by everyone else in the group to eliminate the alpha and suppress any new candidates.  Female bonobos have done this without the use of language. It’s interesting that the most advanced case of language ability in an ape is the bonobo, born in captivity,  named “Kanzi”  

When an individual chimpanzee or a coalition overpowers an alpha, a new alpha comes to power.   Only eliminating the alpha by a collective decision makes it possible to create and maintain a system where humans bond in pairs, and dominance is separated from other forms of competition.

We know that agreements are possible without language because we can observe animals hunting in packs and then sharing the kill, usually according to hierarchical status.  Lions can agree to hunt together and share the kill, but they can’t seem to agree to share things equally.  This seems to be related to the presence of an alpha male based hierarchy.  

Certainly there are all too numerous examples of humans sharing unequally, but if we narrow our examination  to include only  nomadic hunting and gathering societies,  then, according to the findings of Anthropologist Christopher Boehm, described in his book, Hierarchy in the Forest,  nomadic hunter-gatherers from the far corners of the earth, universally distribute shares of meat from large kills in a roughly equal fashion to all families in their group.

Not coincidentally, as Boehm notes,   hunter-gatherers are often obsessed with  suppressing greediness, boasting, and anger, They use social control through ridicule, gossip, and shunning.  they create a “moral community” that actively promotes egalitarianism.

Eliminating and  suppressing alpha-male behaviour has enhanced the survivability of hunting and gathering societies. One reason for this is that hunters are not always lucky, and if successful hunters don’t share in good times,  they risk starving when they hit a dry spell.

 By eliminating the alpha male, then establishing pair-bonds, human communities were first able to collectively regulate behaviour by community-enforced “rules”, although, before language they were not rules as we know them today, but more feelings and emotions.   The feeling of what is fair and what is not, can be shared amongst a group, and the desire to be with one’s beloved  and to facilitate the same for others does not  necessarily require words.

Monogamy could have been inspired through emotions, perhaps even love, before language or any form of reason existed.  But the collective creation and maintenance of monogamy  created a level playing field   in which those who excel at things other than dominance,  can contribute to the whole  community,  rather than taking over everything, as the alpha does.

According to  Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, all living things are descended from a single ancestor.  What I am proposing, is that all human collective decisions, including those that were used to create  language, are descended from that first collective decision to eliminate the alpha male and replace him with monogamous pair-bonds.  

By this collective act, a level playing field was created,  the idea of equality was born, and from this beginning language as a rule bound way of sharing information became possible.

Even though language wasn’t asking to be spoken, we collectively created it  by  first calling into being the conditions of its possibility -  monogamy and equitable sharing.   It was in this collective act that we created ourselves as human beings.

As the Declaration of Independence states, humankind was created equally, and the concept of equality comes from the human ability to maintain equality through collective action.


  1. Interesting. I'm not so sure monogamy has much to do with it though.

  2. You have to realize that monogamy occurred against the background of something else, namely sexual promiscuity and the alpha male. This competitive situation inhibited the idea of agreeing to rules that everyone should follow equally. The fact is, that humans are largely monogamous but the great apes that we are closest relations to are not. The fact that they do not possess language is an association which I believe to be significant, because language is a rule governed system which will not work if everyone doesn't follow the rules. Monogamy created a situation where it became possible for everyone to follow the rules together, whereas the presence of an alpha male inhibited this possibility.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and making me think in turn.

    You argue that "we have neglected the importance of agreement, and rule formation in the question of how language originated" and that "rules come from agreement". You introduce a utopian hunter-gatherer "moral community" and propose that "all human collective decisions, including those that were used to create  language, are descended from that first collective decision to eliminate the alpha male and replace him with monogamous pair-bonds."

    Firstly, I think you are missing the point that language (transforming thoughts into strings and back) including "the urge to merge" is a powerful tool for thinking on its own; the rules used at this stage need not be shared and therefore not agreed. (I am most curious to know how various types of aphasia impair thinking.) It is only when communicating that we need shared rules in the form of protocols (grammar and vocabulary).

    Secondly, I think you are mixing up two different categories of "rules": protocols and value systems. A "protocol" may be just a convention or agreement that optimises interaction, such as how to use a telephone, when to send flowers, or indeed how to form a sentence. Some protocols do indeed regulate social interactions, but they are in fact quite simple and arbitrary conventions without any value attached to it; it's easy to imagine a phone where you dial before you pick up the handset, a society where you send flowers on birthdays but not funerals, or word order in hundreds of actual human languages, any variation just as efficient as the other. Social rules (morals and ethics) is a superset of the former "protocols" needed for communication.

    Thirdly, rules are effective because they are accepted and not because of how they were formed; they are equally accepted whether formed by agreement or dictated and enforced.

    I can see the allure in ascribing our wonderful linguistic abilities to "good" social values such as equality and monogamy. The main challenge in theorising about the evolution of something unique is that we have no basis for comparison. This is when we need to be the most critical of our own biases.

    1. Interesting points you are raising Andreas. Yes, there is a difference between moral rules and conventions, in that if moral rules are broken they incur exclusion and punishment, whereas breaking conventional rules does not necessarily incur these except in some traditional cultures.

      I disagree with your statement that rules are equally accepted whether formed by agreement or dictated or enforced. If someone forces me to do something I don't accept it, although I might acquiesce in order to save my life. There must be much more energy and organization put into dictating and enforcing rules that people don't agree to or obey unwillingly.

      The beauty of morality and language is that we all follow the same rules even when we are only thinking or acting on our own. Rules are guides to conduct that allow for increased cooperation and productivity.

      The difference between domestic and wild animals is that domestic animals are more amenable to following rules because they were originally bred that way. We didn't get where we are by sitting around and thinking our own thoughts. We got here by doing things together, which requires us to agree to follow the same rules.

      Hunting and gathering is not a Utopia. Small groups of hunter-gatherers was all there was for millions of years, because of primitive state of technology and the successive ice ages. This was before domestication, so larger groups were not possible. Anthropological evidence shows that the existing nomadic hunter-gatherers are egalitarian and mostly but not always adhere to monogamy. A group of thirty people does not need a strong leader, except in the midst of warfare, and this can be a temporary delegation. My belief is that nomadic hunter-gatherers cannot survive unless they are egalitarian. It's not an ideal it's a condition of survival. This is obviously not true in modern and or agrarian societies. But for the two million years before domestication egalitarianism was the only way we survived droughts, famine, and natural disasters.

      If we look at the way humans use language and other systems of rules, probably the main reason it all works is because we expect the rules to apply to everyone equally. This is a vestige of that primordial egalitarianism.

  4. Thanks for your comment Andreas. Rules are social, and thinking on it's own is really parasitical on social agreements. I do think that there is a strong connection between rules and social agreements because rules almost always limit social behaviour. At some point, our acceptance and commitment to these rules must fall back on an original agreement to make and follow them. We already live in a world where these rules are previously laid down, in most cases we had nothing to do with their ancient origins.
    But the fact is: we voluntarily follow rules, and animals don't. If an animal does, it is probably domesticated, which means that way back in history, we messed with these animals purposefully in order to get them to do what we wanted them to do. It seems obvious to me that what makes us different from animals is that we voluntarily make and commit to agreements that universalize rules of conduct. Even our closest relatives, the great apes don't do this, and that means that we got this way because at some point in our past we made a collective choice that no group of apes did.

    I emphasize both the voluntary and the social nature of rule following, because this is what sets it apart from animals. Note that animal communication is more involuntary, and the specialized parts of the human cerebral cortex that deal with language are closely connected to the parts of the motor cortex involved in voluntary control. I would recommend that you familiarize yourself with Wittgenstein's private language argument, for a more extended take on why rules are irreducibly social. See also: The Social Origins of Language, Dor, et al, eds. a fascinating collection of articles on this very subject, which, I confess, I had not read previous to writing the above essay.