Revisiting language and brain expansion (Evolution)

by dhw, Sunday, February 02, 2020, 12:07 (462 days ago)

Switched from the Shapiro thread, as the subject suddenly changed!

dhw: Our human ancestors would certainly have communicated with simpler language structures than our own, and surprise, surprise, languages like our own have undergone enormous changes even in the last few hundred years as the human mind expands its experiences, knowledge, interests, inventions. The process is called evolution... And there are times when evolution moves slowly – even with periods of stasis – and times when it moves fast, depending on conditions and requirements. (1) Our ape ancestors can still make do with comparatively simple language, and there is no reason to suppose that our human ancestors did not find their own comparatively simple language perfectly adequate for their needs until eventually some inventive minds started producing more complex ideas, tools, methods of survival etc. which required an expansion of language. (2) Just like pre-whale legs, I propose that changes in language as well as in body and brain come about in response to new requirements.{David’s numbering and bolding]

DAVID: My usual simple answer: your answer skips neatly over the problem of rapid brain enlargement over 2-3 million years to 1,200 from 400 cc originally, which lays fallow until it doesn't as in your comment, "enormous changes even in the last few hundred years" occurs, and then as you agree, it has some small shrinkage. None of the bolded (1) could have happened if the brain wasn't just lying there waiting to be used. And in bolded (2) what 'requirements' made the brain so large in advance of all the uses you so clearly list appearing after lots of time. Your leg/flipper comparison does not fit the big brain story, does it?

You asked me specifically about language, and now you want to go back over the whole history of brain expansion, which we have covered time and again. Remember our discussion on the invention of the spear? Once again: I propose that instead of your all-powerful, all-knowing God – who can do whatever he wants any way he wants – for some unknown reason dabbling over and over again to expand the brain although all he wanted in the first place was a 1200 cc brain, I propose that our earliest ancestors came up with ideas or were faced with new conditions that required more brain capacity than they already had. We know for a fact (though you prefer to forget it) that implementation of new ideas leads to changes in the brain (the illiterate women, taxi drivers, musicians etc.). Way back when – to give you an example – let’s say some clever clogs got fed up with having to wrestle a bison in order to get some meat, and thought of putting together a sharp piece of stone, a stick, and one of his arms. But this idea required thoughts and deeds never done before, and just as muscles grow with exercise, so the brain expanded with the effort of planning and producing and throwing the first spear. Take it from there. The brain expands. And for a while, the expanded brain can cope with all the demands made on it…until someone else produces - or new conditions demand - new ideas it can no longer cope with. More expansion. But eventually the brain expands to a point at which further expansion would unbalance the whole structure, and that is when complexification takes over. So in answer to 1) No, the 1200cc brain wasn’t just lying there to be used. It was being used all the time, unless our ancestors were zombies, but when new ideas or new conditions came along, instead of expanding, it complexified (and eventually shrunk, presumably because complexification proved so efficient). 2) Unfortunately I wasn’t around at the time to know what new ideas or requirements led to each stage of expansion over 2-3 million years – which is nothing in geological time, but a helluva lot in terms of generations of organisms capable of making changes. But we do know from the way the brain works now that it does not change in advance of new ideas and/or requirements; it responds to them. To our knowledge, every adaptation that has ever happened has been in RESPONSE and not in anticipation. The whale story fits the brain story precisely: flippers replaced legs as a result of the pre-whale adapting itself to marine life, and not in advance of it entering the water: anatomical changes are a RESPONSE to new requirements and do not take place in anticipation of them.

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