what's a meme>>Origins of Language

Bill Benzon (bbenzon@mindspring.com)
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 08:23:34 -0500

Message-Id: <199706141219.IAA12260@brickbat8.mindspring.com>
Date: Sat, 14 Jun 1997 08:23:34 -0500
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: bbenzon@mindspring.com (Bill Benzon)
Subject: what's a meme>>Origins of Language

Chris Cleirigh asks:
>What I was getting at is how do we get from no language to
>language if language memes are identified with
>Rthe physical stuff out in the environmentS?
>Models of how we get from no life to life might look to molecular
>organisation of potential RgenomesS for a clue.
>Models of how we get from no language to language might look to
>brain organisation for a clue if language memes are associated
>in some way with brain activity.
>Where do we look if language memes are identified with
>Rthe physical stuff out in the environmentS?
>Looking to brain organisation for a clue is not parallel to the
>biochemical approach if brain organisation constitutes the
>phenotypic expression of memes.

This is a tricky tricky business and I don't know of any easy way to get
from where I more or less am to what you ask. Brain organization is
certainly important to language, but... The differences between human
brains and ape brains aren't all that dramatic, certainly not as drammatic
as the behavioral differences. So, to the extent that brain structure has
anything to do with it -- and if it isn't brain structure (plus some
peripheral control over breath & tongue), what could it possibly be? -- the
problem is to figure out how and ape brain can be such that a small change
here and there will yeild a drammatic change in processing power.

I happen to think that language is the critical difference between human
culture and animal culture (e.g. potato washing among macaques, termite
"fishing" among chimps, bird song in some species, etc.). I certainly don't
think language is all of culture but rather, once language happened, the
rest became possible. So what I want of language is that it change the way
homo sapiens processes information so that s/he becomes homo sapiens
sapiens. It is only when that has happened that we have a cultural world
in which the "collective brain" is the environment for an evolutionary
process. So, what I have been (tongue half-in-cheek) calling the orthodox
memetic position (memes in the brain, phenotypes in limbo) may well be just
how to talk about animal culture. But when the brains of certain very
clever apes changed just a little, we get a dramatic change in the dynamics
of culture so that in the new regime the "collective brain" comes into
existence and fosters cultural evolution.

Beyond this, the best I can do is quote some obscure remarks from a paper
Dave Hays and I wrote a number of years ago ("Principles and Development of
Natural Intelligence" --
http://www.newsavanna.com/wlb/CE/NatIntel/default.shtml). Alas, there is a
bit of jargon in here which is of our own making. While that jargon is
explained elsewhere in the paper, it will be obscure in this passage.


Of primates, Homo sapiens, of course, has the most sophisticated
cognitive system. The only peripheral elaboration which seems unique to
man is the existence of monosynaptic corticomotor neurons innervating
respiratory muscles, which would be necessary for breath control in speech
(Phillips & Porter, 1977). Otherwise, the elaborations are central,
Broca's and Wernicke's areas, hemisphere specialization. While we do have
an idea of how the linguistically specialized cortical areas might have
come about, we reserve that discussion for the next section, concerning
ontogeny. Our immediate objective is to provide a fairly standard type of
evolutionary sketch.

The final push in human evolution came about 30,000-50,000 years
ago during the late Pleistocene era, but it was preceded by a period in
which a variety of hominid forms emerged which show evidence of tool use
and upright walking (Pilbeam, 1972). In our view, tool use developed
during this period through the elaboration of a visuo-manipulative figural
system employing imitative learning (cf. Wright, 1978). If we attribute an
increase in social complexity to these precursors, as Vernon Reynolds
(1976; cf. Lovejoy, 1981) does, that might well have been subserved by an
auditory-vocal call system. The final step taken in the late Pleistocene
would be to use the auditory-vocal call system to index the
visuo-manipulative tool system. The initial development of these two
systems would have been subserved by hemisphere specialization and the
inter-relation facilitated by the emergence of vocal and auditory cortical
tissue specialized for language, permitting the creation of a separate
indexing space. The new behavioural mode is, of course, the linguistic
mode. It may seem strange to regard language as a mode, or perhaps as a
set of modes, but the cerebral blood flow evidence points in this direction
and reinforces our general sense that language involves humankind in an
essentially new type of relationship to self and to the world.


The genes must build the nervous system step by little step. Any serious
consideration of those mechanisms is certainly outside the scope of this
paper, for those processes are deep within the realmof biological control
systems, but we do want to make some remarks about the ontogeny of these
principles in man.

We can set the stage with Gerald Edelman's (1978) group selection
theory of cortical function. Edelman assumes that, when they mature,
cortical columns already prefer certain inputs over others. These
preferences need not be finely tuned to the environment, but there should
be a large repertoire of them so that columns will respond differentially
when exposed to external inputs. When exposed to an environment, different
sets of columns would be attracted to different stimuli, would come to
'store' the neural patterns set up by those stimuli (see also Spinelli,
1970). The repertoire of selective preferences for the early maturing
columns could be determined by embryological processes, while the
repertoires of later maturing columns could be guided by gradients set up
in the neural tissue by the interaction between the already mature areas of
the brain and the external world.

It is useful to remember that, while the cerebral cortex appears to
be a complex three-dimensional object, it is in fact a flat sheet which has
been crumpled up to fit into the skull. This sheet matures from the edge
to the centre, and, in humans, it matures post-natally (Milner, 1976), with
there being enough growth in the third decade that the sutures of the human
skull do not set until the late twenties (Gould, 1977). Consequently, much
of the basic 'wiring' of the cortex is under environmental guidance. ...

[snip snip]

Human brain maturation is not even, it occurs in stages (Luria,
1973); p. 87; Epstein, 1974). These growth stages correspond well to the
general stages Piaget has postulated (in, e.g., Piaget & Inhelder, 1969),
and we find it attractive to match these stages with the successive
maturation of the brain centres which implement each of the informatic
principles. ...

[snip snip]

First, let us note that human ontogenesis is not simply an
extrapolation of monkey or ape ontogenesis; it has a shape unique to man
(Lenneberg, 1967). As an adaptation to large brain size and the relatively
small pelvic girdle of bipedal mothers, the infant is born unusually early
in development so that approximately the first year of life is spent, in
effect, as an extra-uterine embryo (Campbell, 1966). At the other end of
development, the sutures in the human skull close well after sexual
maturity, whereas those in ape skulls close before sexual maturity (Gould,
1977). We want to suggest that the relatively early birth of humans makes
language possible and that language makes late closure of the skull

During the first year, the infant babbles with increasing
approximation to the sounds of the parental language. This is largely
under subcortical control, but it provides the gradients necessary for some
primary motor and auditory tissue eventually to become specialized for
language input and output (Broca's and Wernicke's areas). This early
availability of tissue diagonalized for the development of a vocal-auditory
channel is crucial if language is to become a major medium of

Apes do not have well-articulated cortical control over
vocalization (Myers, 1978), nor does vocalization have the central role in
ape communication that it has in human communication (Jolly, 1972). We
link this to a difference in the maturation of attachment, which is central
to primate social life (Bowlby, 1969, Rajecki, Lamb & Obmascher, 1978).
Among apes, attachment behaviour starts almost immediately after birth
(Bowlby, 1969). Comparable human behaviour is delayed about 6 months.
Thus, by the time a human infant is ready to begin a genuinely social life
the neural basis for a vocal-auditory communication channel has been laid;
there is nothing comparable in ape ontogeny.

It is thus natural for humans to incorporate speech into their
social life. It would be unnatural for infra-human primates to do so.
They do not have a vocal-auditory channel available to them when they begin
attachment, and once attachment has established the basis for social life
it is probably impossible to incorporate a genuinely new communication
channel into it; a critical period will have passed, the tissue is set.
Thus, a crucial step in the development of indexed cognition and
communication is early exposure to the world leading to the creation of a
linguistic channel before or concomitant with the origins of attachment

This suggests, as Stephen Jay Gould has argued informally (1979),
that the emergence of bipedal walking was the crucial seed driving human
evolution. Bipedalism necessitated early birth and early birth favoured
the development of a vocal-auditory interaction channel in the infant
before attachment began. The vocal-auditory system can then be used to
index the visual-manipulative tool system (recall 'Analysis: indexing',

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A bbenzon@mindspring.com
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA http://www.newsavanna.com/wlb/

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