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The Birth of Language

In response to:

On Ancestor Apes in Europe from the November 19, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

Steven Mithen remarks that what distinguishes us from other apes is our possession of language [“On Ancestor Apes in Europe,” NYR, November, 19]. He says: “Language was the vehicle for a new type of thought that provided Homo sapiens with their competitive edge over all other species as they dispersed from Africa 70,000 years ago. The use of language created a new dynamic of culture change.”

It is not that I disagree with this, but we should note how unexplanatory it is. First, what was that “new type of thought” exactly, and why did language make it possible? How does language (sounds, signs) make any type of thought possible that was not already possible? What about the communicative aspects of language?

Second, how did language itself arise? Agreed, once language arises it makes many things possible, but why did we alone among the apes develop a complex kind of language? This is the question we need to answer, and it is very difficult; you might as well say that we diverged from our ape brethren because we were just so much cleverer. Yes, but how and why did we become so much cleverer? In order to originate language the human mind had to have a massive amount of cognitive machinery already in place; the problem is explaining how this came to be. Mithen has named a problem, not solved one.

Colin McGinn
Miami, Florida

Steven Mithen replies:

I completely agree with Colin. My humble attempts at answering the profound questions he raises are in my 1996 book The Prehistory of the Mind and my 2005 book The Singing Neanderthals. Good luck to Colin and any others in their own attempts to address what are perhaps the most important and challenging questions we have about human evolution and what it means to be human today.