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Imagining the Future (In More Ways Than One)

August 3, 2015

I finished reading The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack yesterday. There’s not a lot more I can say about the science than what I did on Friday—the historiography and critique of the findings continues through Homo floresiensis to the present day—but there’s something that Tattersall said in his epilogue that I found interesting. I don’t have the book on me anymore, so I’m paraphrasing, but basically:

Something must have given H. sapiens a leg up over the Neanderthals, because both were highly intelligent, cooperative species. This was either a) symbolic thought, because Neanderthals don’t seem to have had much in the way of art or belief systems (and therefore, we assume, weren’t that good at imagining the future) or b) language, which is essentially vocalized symbolic thought.

I’m not sure I agree with that, since there seems to be some evidence that Neanderthals did have art, but it does have some interesting implications.

I can’t remember if I’ve outright said this here yet or not, but I have a linguistics degree. The short-term goal of linguists is to map the rules and mental structures governing sound changes, word order, meaning, conversation, and so on, in a specific context. The long-term goal of linguists is to find the simplest set of structures that explains everything about every language, in order to better understand the structure of the mind.

If we do manage to find that set of structures, that list of rules that explains all languages, and Tattersall’s prediction is true, then we won’t be looking at “how humans do language” so much as “how humans do human”. We’ll be able to make predictions and do science regarding art, dance, music, fiction, religion, and a whole range of psychological processes from mental illnesses to autism to ambition to imagination, because doesn’t it follow that we’re doing one kind of symbolic thought in multiple ways, rather than twenty plus kinds of symbolic thought, each arrived at independently?

For that matter, the studies being done about why we do art and music, how we daydream, and why some people are better at reading emotions than others, should also tell us something about language. I don’t know what, though. Better minds, with more training, could tell you.I am clearly a language nerd because this has me very excited right now, even though we’re a long way from that master set of linguistic rules.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    August 3, 2015 1:45 pm

    The German wikipedia has far more info than the English one, if that helps. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neandertaler

    • anassarhenisch permalink*
      August 3, 2015 2:08 pm

      Awesome! Thanks!

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