Since my late university years I am highly interested in languages, English and Polish in particular (and French at times).
The reason was on the one hand the wish for a contrast program for the pure technical subject-matters I was dealing with since several years.
On the other hand there was the general desire to get better with my overall conversation skills.
Polish has also some emotional significance because of my family roots. I studied Polish in my last engineering semester as an elective subject, and I completed it with an A-grade (one of my very few A-grades).
Currently I am a full-time language student, working daily through my exercise-books in an attempt to get better with my Slovak (which has together with Czech close connections to Polish as a West-Slavic language).
Learning a language from scratch requires tremendous effort when you are above a certain age, as most of you will acknowledge. Toddlers learn languages seemingly effortlessly purely due to exposure. Their brains are more elastic, and they are not afraid of making mistakes like an adult.
The purpose of the human ability to speak still appears in some way mysterious for scientists and evolutionary biologists.
It seems obvious that the purpose for language is to convey information. But is that the sole purpose? How about intelligence and language? Intelligence is the final product of an intricate evolutionary chain. Is language merely a byproduct of a bigger brain? What is genetically determined and hard-wired?
The Power of Parasites
One of the most fascinating popular science books I’ve read to date is “The Red Queen”, published in 1994.
The Red Queen is a character from Alice through the Looking-Glass, who made her appearance at the beginning of the book and describes the country Alice just entered through a mirror with the cryptic remark: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
The scientists utilized this fanciful logic from a 19th century novel as a paraphrase for the inherent principle of evolution, which fundamentals got more and more scrutinized and decoded at the end of the 20th century.
In the context of the human evolution it characterizes first and foremost the perpetual war against parasites, which incessantly evolve new sets of weapons to conquer the defense-systems inside the host (the biologists make use of a analogy here: protein key and lock).
That battle never ceases, and every side tries to be one step ahead in this close interaction, which not allows any short respite.
As it turned out, a very effective strategy in the history line of human evolution was the invention of sex and different genders. The sophisticated mixture of genes makes it a difficult task for the parasites to unlock the cellular locks with the aim to spawn themselves.
The described scenario shouldn’t be mistaken for a battle between hostile states however.
States deploy steadily improved weaponry for their warfare. There are change and progress. And it is usually foreseeable which side gets completely defeated sooner or later. The defeated enemy does not have necessarily a successor.
Parasite and host run the same evolutionary lap over and over again. They’re using techniques conceived 50 or 1000 generations ago. The enemy has probably forgotten how to answer this adequately. The pendulum swings back. And if one side gets completely defeated, another species adapt the niche.
It also doesn’t matter if the species has been existing since a thousand or a million years (this was one of the stunning research-results that led in consequence to the Red Queen Theory).
>Sex, according to the Red Queen theory, has nothing to do with adapting to the inanimate world – becoming bigger, or better camouflaged, or more tolerant of cold, or better at flying – but is all about combating the enemy that fights back – Chapter 3
Organisms who did not engage in this running-competition will be literally overrun, and become extinct. No matter how fast you run, you stay in the same place. If you run faster, your enemy will do the same.
A Red Queen race, where there is no winner.
>The struggle for existence never gets easier. Survival is a zero-sum game. Success only makes one species a more tempting target for another rival species – Chapter 3
This applies in different contexts, especially in human mating-strategies.
The Peacock’s Tale
There are a lot of analogies in evolutionary biology.
One compares the human brain with the peacock’s tail.
Male peacocks have to have more brilliant tails every generation, otherwise the female peacocks will ignore him. His genes become extinct.
A human brain is the peacock’s tail so to speak. Evolutionary pressure leads to intelligence as the competitive advantage. It raises since thousands of generations. Australopithecus afarensis had a brain volume of about 500 cubic centimeters. Homo sapiens has a brain volume of about 1400 cubic centimeters.
It is a Red Queen race, this time within the species.
>Red Queen theories holds that the world is competitive to the death – Chapter 3
But it is not necessarily an advantage to be an intelligent organism.
There are a lot of species on earth, who are very successful without being very intelligent (or even have a brain, like the jellyfishes).
Intelligence has its disadvantages. It requires a lot of energy. A great percentage of the absorbed calories is used to maintain the main-functions of the cerebrum.
Let’s go back to the starting point here. A comparatively large area in the human brain can be described as a language-acquisition device.
It evolved like the other parts of the brain for thousands of generations, but not as a kind of subsidiary device but as a highly specialized organ that is closely connected to the subconscious.
And the ability to learn a language is clearly hard-wired.
>The point is that nothing could be more ‘instinctive’ than the predisposition to learn a language. (…) The ability to learn a language, like almost all the other human brain functions, is an instinct for learning – Chapter 10
The great apes and humans live in collectives where social problems are predominant. A great deal of mental effort has to be spent on interpreting moods, motives, and actions of fellow apes or humans.
>Language (…) is a design imposed on neural circuitry as a response to evolutionary pressure – Chapter 10
The gorilla lives in a collective where he puts all his effort in dominating or submitting to other gorillas. He doesn’t use or fabricate any tools, he has no natural enemies, and there is no need to hunt since he devours simply the plants that are growing abundantly around him.
Deceiving and detecting deception is a large part of social interactions, and therefore the primary reason for intelligence and the language-device as an evolutionary milestone.
Language is deep-rooted in the social character of our species, with a close connection to the evolution of intelligence. It is a means to transport information, yes, but one primary purpose is also deceiving other individuals.
The reasons are manifold. Communication can serve as an instrument to gain a slight temporary advantage, to establish long-term alliances, or to build deeper bonds with relatives.
>Even the most mutually beneficial communication, like that between a mother and a baby, is pure manipulation, as every mother who has been woken in the night by a desperate sounding infant that merely wants company knows – Chapter 10
Matt Ridley – The Red Queen
Lewis Carroll – Alice through the Looking-Glass