The First Word

The First Word February 10, 2009

I just finished reading The First Word by Christine Kenneally, which was a birthday present last month (thanks, Cynthia!). It’s an excellent summary of the state of knowledge and the on-going debates in the study of language evolution, a relatively new field where most of the work has been done in the past 15 years or so. If you’re interested in the subject, I highly recommend you read it yourself. I also recommend The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker and Evolving God by Barbara King (though King’s book is mixed – her use of primates as proxies for our pre-human ancestors is excellent, but her religious conclusions are weak).

All three books show that the differences between humans and other animals (especially our closest relatives: chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates) are smaller than most of us like to think. We see compassionate, empathetic, and moral behavior in animals. We see communication. We see some examples of abstract thinking.

We don’t know when humans spoke the first word – as the linguists like to say, language leaves no fossils. One theory is that it occurred about 200,000 years ago, when we became the creatures we are today. The other theory is that we developed it later, about 50-60,000 years ago when the human population exploded and began the second major migration out of Africa.

But religious behavior clearly pre-dates both of these points. We have found burials with grave goods among the species that preceded homo sapiens. And in the animal world, we see the beginnings of social and moral behavior, as well as responses to death (grieving, consoling, even burials).

You don’t need language to experience the great mysteries of life.

But language changed us irreversibly. One theory says that humans and language co-evolved – our brains evolved to the point that we could speak, but then the demands of language drove even more changes to our brains.

Language is essentially the use of arbitrary sounds to form symbols (words) with shared meaning so that we can communicate with others. These symbols now pervade our thinking – we can’t not think symbolically. Our theologies are products of homo sapiens thinking – it took symbolic language to conceive of gods, goddesses, spirits. That doesn’t mean we made them up (as fundamentalist atheists and Christians alike insist), just that we couldn’t comprehend non-material beings without the symbolic thinking that language gave us.

For all our language and intellect, though, we still occasionally have experiences of wonder, awe or unity that render us “speechless.” The experience of God / Goddess is truly ineffable – that which cannot be spoken. When we attempt to understand or explain it using words (the only way our language-based thinking can) we always come up short.

Good religion needs to be experiential, not just intellectual.

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