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A Discovery of New Words & Worlds: Language's Direct Impact on Evolution

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Hayley Reed

March 20th, 2007

A Discovery of New Words & Worlds:

Language’s Direct Impact on Evolution

 “Language is the source of misunderstandings.” -Antoine de Saint- Exupery   

Antoine de Saint- Exupery a French author wrote that language can often be misleading. There seems to be some truth to this statement whether it is translated in Chinese, French, or Spanish. Antoine astutely recognized that language can often be the source of problems. But, if the root of misunderstanding lies in the foundation of language then language can also be the source of understanding and solutions to problems. Human beings are unique in that they have the ability to clear up misunderstandings by using words in a new way to describe reality. Language may be confusing at times but it has the ability to clear up confusion. In addition, language is able to bring new ideas to light and bring an understanding of ideas to a greater level.  Specifically when studying the effect of language on evolution it becomes valuable to analyze biological nature and culture together. Culture can be used as a stepping stool to discover new things about nature and the diversity of creatures that roam the Earth. Language has a direct impact on evolution and studying this relationship can shed light on many puzzling aspects of evolution. Ultimately, the evolution story is significant because it extends into other realms that do not account for the diversity of life alone. The evolution story accounts for the fact that human beings are nothing more then meaningless products of a meaningless process of describing reality through words.

Evolution extends much farther beyond the context of biology. Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life is so appealing to readers because he recognizes this fact and has faith in a reader’s capability to apply knowledge about evolution to life in general. One of the wonderful things about Dennett is that he examines evolution through a cultural context as a way of analyzing the value of meaning to human beings. He begins his evaluation by observing that society gives meaning to the process of biological evolution. He then deduces that meaning is something relative to humans. The one thing that distinguishes human beings from all other species is our ability to utilize language as a means of communication.  He writes, “We are not like other animals; our minds set us of from them.” [1]It is this abundance of words that allows us to attribute meaning to different things in our surroundings.

All meaning is derived from the word but, if there was no word in the beginning of evolution what does this imply? If a process starts with out meaning can it generate meaning? In reality it is because of our origins in meaningless that allowed us to have meaning. How do we account for words? It appears that words are nothing more then the outcomes of the evolutionary process. What we experience through the use of words is consciousness. If we are able to have stories we can conceive of being someone else. Words give us the unique ability to try out new possibilities. In this sense, we do not have to wait around for evolution to try out things. The beauty of language is an individual can experiment with different possibilities and see the results almost immediately. This is not the case with evolution which is a much slower process that does not allow for new ideas to show up in nature immediately.

Ultimately, human beings have no way of knowing or predicting how the end of evolution will be. This view in strict opposition to finalism suggests that evolution is an unguided and unplanned process. Human beings are constantly interacting with members of the same species and other species as well. This means that the future of an organism depends not just on the past but, on other organisms as well. By no means does competition capture all of the interactions that occur in evolution. We all live in a highly interactive system. This can have daunting implications for many people when they realize that there is no external agent to prove their meaning in the world. If there is no standard set before hand then there is no purpose. Freud, a renowned psychologist would be the first to agree that evolution has no objective. For Freud, adults are simply the result of childhood contingencies.[2] Human beings are shaped out of certain childhood accidents. For instance, if an individual does not like their father they will be less likely to feel pity for someone who reminds them of their father. There is no set purpose assigned to our lives. Rather, we create our own purposeful lives by using language to describe reality as we see it. This implies that there is no one right way of describing the world because there are many different ways of seeing the world.  

Human beings can be extremely different from one another just as their descriptions of reality can vary. For Rorty, a postmodern philosopher, human beings do not have a substantial essential identity. Rather, the beliefs an individual has are the result of the language and descriptions they have been exposed to.[3] Essentially, an individual is the result of the descriptions in the world that have influenced them. A human being is nothing more then internalized language. It is important to note that an individual would have a different self if they were raised in a different culture. For example, the language and descriptions of reality I have been exposed to growing up in London are different then the language and descriptions of reality I would have been exposed to if I grew up in Bombay. The language humans are exposed to has extreme ramifications in the way they are raised and the way they ultimately turn out.

Language has the ability to determine how all of us turn out and it also has the ability to determine how individuals interact with other human beings. Rorty claims that human beings are sympathetic to some human beings but, not to all human beings.[4] My moral values have been shaped by descriptions of the world. For instance, it depends on an individual chooses to describe their victims that will determine how they treat them.  A slave will never be fully human if the master controls the descriptions the slave thinks in. If the slave wants to change he must change the descriptions he thinks in. If a slave wants to emancipate themselves all they have to do is choose not accept the master’s description of what is real. True creativity is choosing not to repeat the traditional descriptions of the world but, being able to describe reality in a different way that no one else has seen.

In analyzing evolution with language as a tool it becomes apparent that language has a much greater impact on our lives then we realize. In fact, someone does not have to be reproductively active in order to affect evolution. There are many ways someone can affect evolution by using language alone. For example, teachers can have an enormous impact on evolution by simply encouraging their students to use language in new ways.. Words are extremely powerful and should not be taken for granted. Human beings are the only species that have the ability to communicate through language and should take responsibility for the power they have.


[1] Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. (Pg. 371)

[2] Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Oxford: University Press, 1999.

[3] Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. [4] Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.