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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip

Niches of the Mind; Language and the Brain

Becky Rich

As the story goes, creation is characterized by expansion and contraction, disorder and order, random change and selection. It is observed in evolution how random change and disorder have brought about, from the scraps floating in a puddle on early earth, the fantastic diversity and incomprehensible complexity of life. The counterpart to this is death, making space for the new and guiding changes in the old through selection. What can this story tell us about the evolution of humans, and our most distinguishing trait; our ability to tell stories?

The human intellect is widely understood to be that which distinguishes us from other animals. Mayr tells us that the rapid brain expansion that took place in Australopithecines and early Homo is correlated with two factors; a change in hominids niche, moving from the trees to bush savanna, and the development of speech. (p 252) This essay attempts to summarize some current explanations of the relationships between language and the brain in human evolution, and relate them to another characteristic of humans correlated with the human intellect- our social complexity.
Symbolic communication is by no means limited to humans, or, for that matter, to the most complex organisms. Most fairly social animals have a range of about fifteen to thirty-five physical displays or calls. "As far as we know, cuttlefish, related to squids, have about the same size repertoire size as non-human primates do." (class notes Ling. 101) The evolution of animal communication is thought to have occurred through "ritualization of previously existing behavior" (class notes Ling. 101) In most animals, communicative displays are innate, that is, genetically determined. This is not at all the case in humans; human language is learned. Yet a few of the main things that distinguish human language from other animal communication, namely grammar and syntax, are argued by some linguists to be instinctive. (Pinker)

In addition to the lack of syntax, grammar, and a large lexicon, other animals, including higher-order primates, lack a highly developed theory of mind; the ability to conceptualize others' "knowledge, beliefs, intentions and goals" (class notes Ling. 101) For a long time the increase in brain size was seen as being correlated with the increasing complexity of tool technology in Australopithecines and early Homo. This theory is loosing popularity due to the observance of widespread tool use in other primates, and is giving way to theories in which the main thrust is rising social complexity. (Lewin 198) " 'The role of language in communication first evolved as a side effect of its basic role in the construction of reality' argues Harry Johnson 'We can think of language as being an expression of another neural contribution to the construction of mental imagery...We need language more to tell stories than to direct actions.' {as in tool making}" (Lewin 198) So language evolved so that we could tell each other stories? And some how it was essential to these stories that the teller not only understand her story and simply send it out, but also understand that her listener now also internalized that story?

A few current theories of why the brain and language evolved postulate that they were both necessitated by increasing group size among hominids. The increasing social complexity and the need to keep track of all the individuals (through language?) are hypothesized to be correlated with increasing brain size. To find a reason for hominid's increasing group size, one might look back to Mayr's statement that the shift from tree savanna to bush savanna was "the most fundamental one in all of hominid history." (p245) Mayr claims that the new environmental threats Australopithecines faced in the bush savanna; predation by "lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs, all of whom could run faster than they" (p244), and the absence of trees for protection, created intense selective pressure for intelligence. This is as good an explanation as any for increased brain size, but as often is the case in large questions such as this it helps to combine it with others. "... primates in general exhibit two responses to increased predation: they grow physically bigger and the increase the size of their groups. Our ancestors have done both." (Dunbar, p110) An increase in body size would inevitably create a proportionate increase in brain size. Other theories explaining increase in brain size are that there was also a direct threat from other hominids, in the form of raiding, for example. Or it may stem from hominid populations becoming more and more nomadic, and in the face of not knowing where the groups next food resources would be coming from, developed alliances with other groups and thus group size increased by creating networks.

The main thrust of Dunbar,s "gossip" theory, however, is that as groups size increased, grooming, a major factor in maintaining social bonds among primates, was no longer sufficient. It simply took too much time. In a group of 150, for example, 40% of the day would be spent picking nits. (Ling. 101, class notes) Developing language, or gossiping, enabled our ancestors to maintain their social relationships and do other useful activities at the same time. Another theory on brain expansion dealing with social relationships proposed by Terrence Deacon in is that "hominid brains and human language have co-evolved over the pas two million years, driven by a 'reproductive problem that only symbols could solve: the imperative of representing a social contract," which in turn was required to take efficient advantage of the resources available via systematic hunting and scavenging for meat" (class notes Ling. 101) Social contracts would also be of use in mating patterns.

Perhaps the contraction/order/selection side of the creation coin, as we have discussed it so far, asks for one more explanation; co-operation. The random creation and expansion of prokaryotes was never curtailed, at least not completely, by selection, since prokaryotes still constitute the bulk of the earth's biomass. The cell, a new order made by many organisms contracting to form one, came about through a sort of "co-operation". The co-operating prokaryotes in question were of course by no means motivated by good will towards one another, but as the story goes they did combine, allocating certain functions to each participant and thereby making organelles. A very similar explanation can be made for the creation of multicellular organisms.

The same story of co-operation can be used to explain the origins of human language and the expansion of the human brain. Perhaps they came about through more individuals contracting and organizing in to groups. Ultimately the result of hominid brain expansion and the development of language is that human societies function in extremely complex units and networks of those units. Certainly conflict in and between groups exists, but groups do work together and allocate responsibilities in order to function and thrive.

As certain organisms bodies provide a niche for other organism, as creation begets creation, (P. Grobstein, class notes) the advancement of the human mind opens up an entirely new plane of existence; culture. It is a niche for our own creations of the imagination, for telling stories about ourselves and others at this moment, for the retelling of the past, and for the formulation of a future.


Dunbar, Robin. "Up through the Mists of Time", chapter 6 of Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Harvard University Press, 1996.

Lewin, Roger. Human Evolution. Mass., Blackwell Science, 1999.

Linguistics 101. University of Pennsylvania. Spring semester 2003, Professor Gene Buckley.

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York; Basic Books, 2001.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct; How the Mind Creates Language. New York; Harper Collins, 1994.

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