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The Language Spiral: How Society Evolved Language

The Language Spiral
How Society Evolved Language


Claire Ceriani
Spring, 2010

Senior Thesis
Adviser: Dr. Paul Grobstein
Bryn Mawr College


Table of Contents

I.    Introduction
II.   The Neurological Basis of Language
III.  Examining Social Evolution
IV.   Language as Created by Social Interactions
V.    An Example of Modern Language Development

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The Disappearance and Emergence of Cognitive Skills in Aphasia

Brain damage is generally considered in terms of the functions that are lost.  Damage to the motor cortex causes loss of motor function.  Damage to the visual cortex causes blindness.  We rarely think about the possibility of new functions emerging when old ones are lost.  There is an increasing amount of evidence, however, that suggests that the loss of one function may allow another one to emerge, and that the brain is capable of creating new functions to compensate for the loss of an old one.  The study of aphasia, which is usually associated with the loss of a function, provides insight into how new functions may emerge in the damaged brain.

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Aphasia

 Neural and Behavioral Sciences Senior Seminar

Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2010

Aphasia

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Redefining Success

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The Community of the Blogosphere

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Classes of Classics

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A Sea of Memory

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Commentary on Phantoms in the Brain

In Phantoms in the Brain, author V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., PH.D describes a number of case studies of neurological phenomena that demonstrate the human mind’s ability to reconstruct reality.  He explains, among many other phenomena, how amputees may develop phantom limbs so well-defined they can “reach out” and “grab” objects, and how the brain fills in images to compensate for blind spots.  Through explaining these unusual situations, Ramachandran also explains how the brains of most people work, filling in missing information and reconstructing reality.  Though he never uses the terms “I-function” or “story-teller,” these are the equivalent concepts discussed in class.

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The Mask of Wisdom

“Smart, funny, and attractive” are the standard trio of personal ads.  Having a good sense of humor is considered an admirable trait in human society.  But why is this trait so important to us?  It does not appear to have any real advantage, other than making someone “likeable,” so why would it ever evolve?  The most likely explanation is that humor was sexually selected for because it is an indicator of a creative and agile mind able to solve problems and to provide for a mate.

Humor is a form of creativity, because it requires a novel interpretation of information.  Creativity can be considered the ability to rearrange preexisting pieces of information to create a novel idea (1).  Creativity most likely evolved during a very short period of time known as the “creative explosion” of the Upper Paleolithic period due to the merging of several cognitive abilities.  Before this creative explosion, the stone tools used by Early Humans show very little change.  Then suddenly, many different types of tools developed, along with art and other aspects of culture.  This creative explosion most likely coincides with the development of modern language abilities (2).  Steven J. Mithen explains that language is necessary to express creative thoughts, because our minds are not meant to deal with unreality; creative ideas that break the laws of reality must be expressed and communicated in order to be understood.  One of the major differences between animal communication and human language is that language allows people to talk about what does not exist or is not present (3).  Humans can speculate, lie, and tell fantastical stories using creative language.  And they can also tell jokes.  But why do we tell jokes?  Did an Early Human with a witty sense of humor have an evolutionary advantage over a straight-man?  This may not seem likely, but a creative mind would have offered a survival advantage.

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A Rhapsody of Words

Language is the way we as humans interact with the world.  We use it to communicate with each other about the present, to speculate about the future, and to write down our past so it will not be forgotten.  No other species is able to do this.  Language is truly what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  But how did this incredible ability evolve, and why is it not observed in other creatures?  There are many theories about the development of language, but I believe that it is the chance product of a complex and tireless brain constantly searching for connections.

The theory currently held by most scientists is that of neo-Darwinism.  This is the belief that language evolved by natural selection, just as any other trait.  Though no other animal possesses true language as humans do, research has revealed that chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest relatives, share certain neural characteristics with humans related to language (1).  In humans, two areas in the left hemisphere are very involved in the production of speech: Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.  Both these areas are larger than the corresponding areas of the right hemisphere.  Though these areas do not control language in chimps and bonobos, the corresponding areas are larger in the left hemisphere than in the right, suggesting that a common ancestor had a brain with this asymmetry.  Many scientists take this to mean that this common ancestor’s brain developed language as it evolved into the modern human brain.  Chimps and bonobos still have these asymmetrical areas, but they never evolved into Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area as they did in humans.

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