Monday, November 14, 2005


I'm really excited by a chapter like this one, entitled "The Cro-Magnon's Tale", by the brilliant Richard Dawkins. I think language is important in the development of consciousness and, thus, art and literature, and since I have degrees in the arts, language arts, this piece of writing rings bells for me. Can this be when the brain reached a magnitude of wrinkle, or surface, so that a "meme" could find a hotel in the brain from which to visit and make sales pitches to other brains?

"ARCHAEOLOGY SUGGESTS that something very special began to happen to our species around 40,000 years ago. Anatomically, our ancestors who lived before this watershed date were the same as those who came later. Humans sampled earlier than the watershed would be no more different from us than they were from their own contemporaries in other parts of the world, or indeed than we are from our contemporaries. That's if you look at their anatomy. If you look at their culture, there is a huge difference. Of course there are also huge differences between the cultures of different peoples across the world today, and probably then too. But this wasn't true if we go back much more than 40,000 years. Something happened then—many archaeologists regard it as sudden enough to be called an 'event'. I like Jared Diamond's name for it, the Great Leap Forward.

"Earlier than the Great Leap Forward, man-made artifacts had hardly changed for a million years. The ones that survive for us are almost entirely stone tools and weapons, quite crudely shaped. Doubtless wood (or, in Asia, bamboo) was a more frequently worked material, but wooden relics don't easily survive. As far as we can tell, there were no paintings, no carvings, no figurines, no grave goods, no ornamentation. After the Leap, all these things suddenly appear in the archaeological record, together with musical instruments such as bone flutes, and it wasn't long before stunning creations like the Lascaux Cave murals were created by Cro-Magnon people. A disinterested observer taking the long view from another planet might see our modern culture, with its computers, supersonic planes and space exploration, as an afterthought to the Great Leap Forward. On the very long geological time scale, all our modern achievements, from the Sistine Chapel to Special Relativity, from the Goldberg Variations to the Goldbach Conjecture, could be seen as almost contemporaneous with the Venus of Willendorf and the Lascaux Caves, all part of the same cultural revolution, all part of the blooming cultural upsurge that succeeded the long Lower Paleolithic stagnation. Actually I'm not sure that our extra-planetary observer's uniformitarian view would stand up to much searching analysis, but it could be at least briefly defended.

"David Lewis-Williams's The Mind in the Cave considers the whole question of Upper Paleolithic cave art, and what it can tell us about the flowering of consciousness in Homo sapiens.

"Some authorities are so impressed by the Great Leap Forward that they think it coincided with the origin of language. What else, they ask, could account for such a sudden change? It is not as silly as it sounds to suggest that language arose suddenly. Nobody thinks writing goes back more than a few thousand years, and everyone agrees that brain anatomy didn't change to coincide with anything so recent as the invention of writing. In theory, speech could be another example of the same thing. Nevertheless, my hunch, supported by the authority of linguists such as Steven Pinker, is that language is older than the Leap. We'll come back to the point a million years further into the past, when our pilgrimage reaches Homo ergaster (erectus).

"If not language itself, perhaps the Great Leap Forward coincided with the sudden discovery of what we might call a new software technique: maybe a new trick of grammar, such as the conditional clause, which, at a stroke, would have enabled 'what if' imagination to flower. Or maybe early language, before the leap, could be used to talk only about things that were there, on the scene. Perhaps some forgotten genius realized the possibility of using words referentially as tokens of things that were not immediately present. It is the difference between 'That waterhole which we can both see' and 'Suppose there was a waterhole the other side of the hill' Or perhaps representational art, which is all but unknown in the archaeological record before the Leap, was the bridge to referential language. Perhaps people learned to draw bison, before they learned to talk about bison that were not immediately visible." —Richard Dawkins in THE ANCESTOR'S TALE, pp. 35-36
"There is no stronger bond of friendship than a mutual enemy." —Frankfort Moore (The more I consider this, the more I realize it's false, unless, of course, you're a conservative in the mold of the likes of Bush, Rove, Cheney and Perle. Moore must have been a conservative.)

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