Yesterday’s post (available here) began a three part series about just what it is that evolved when we developed speech. It noted that although everybody agrees speech is used to communicate, it is a mistake to think that the technical idea of communications as a form of control has anything to do with the human communication of thoughts, feelings, and whimsy. So if language is not about communication/control, what is it about?
It is very rare for a species to use some complicated, novel organ or behavior for a completely unprecedented purpose. Even the euglena’s flagellum, so beloved by the Intelligent Design crowd, serves a quite ordinary purpose, locomotion. So, although it is not completely impossible, it is likely that language serves a function that already has some role in the biological world.
One critical function that developmental psychologists began to consider about thirty years ago is joint attention, the cooperative, mutually-aware participation in an event by two or more individuals. This blog considers speech to be the most elaborate and powerful example of joint attention found in nature.
(For a survey of ideas about joint attention check here. For a metaphysical, non-empirical, analysis of joint attention see here. Since many theorizers assume joint attention means joint-looking a Danish psychologist provides an important corrective with a paper about joint attention and the congenitally blind; here.)
Attention itself is a deep mystery of perception, one that humans share with many other animals. It is the ability to focus one's senses on some part of environment to the exclusion of other parts. A person in a cocktail party is able to follow a conversation, yet a recording of the party finds only a cacophony. Somehow animal perception is able to select and focus on part of the sensory input so that an experience is not just a continuum of sensations. Understanding the evolution of attention would make a great story, but it is not our story and, because attention is so much older than humanity, we can take it for granted in our search to understand speech's origins. Joint attention begins with two or more individuals paying attention to the same thing, although there is more to it than that.
Attention is typically an isolating event. I am with somebody who is suddenly distracted by I-don't-know-what. That person's attention shifts and, in terms of consciousness, separates from me. But mutual awareness works in the opposite direction. Instead of attention being an isolating phenomenon, mutual awareness changes the attentive participants from individuals into a unit. A simple example of that transformation can be seen in a movie theater. A lone ticketholder takes a seat. The movie begins and turns out to be a comedy. The ticketholder, along with others in the theater, starts laughing and the lone theatergoer becomes aware of himself as part of a laughing audience. That kind of transformation from me to us is critical to joint attention, although there is more to it than that.
The mutual awareness of a laughing audience is too subjective to be the whole story of anything concerning biological evolution, which after all is an objective phenomenon. This blog takes subjective experience very seriously and assumes that subjective experiences can have objective consequences; however, the consequences of feeling oneself part of an audience may be too subtle to provide clear objective effects. If somebody wants to doubt that members of a laughing audience feel a transformation from me to us, it will be difficult to prove the skeptic wrong. This skepticism is especially relevant when considering evolution because so many people are hesitant to ascribe awareness and emotion to animals. Consider this scene: a group of chimpanzees are howling at an invading leopard. One observer posits that the chimpanzees are aware of both the leopard and their membership in a group of howling fellows. Another observer doubts that awareness of fellowship. What could the first observer point to that might persuade the skeptic? It is hard to find an unambiguous answer.
Joint attention, as a biological phenomenon with an evolutionary history, has an objective, functional role. It supports cooperation. Naturally, not all cooperation rests on joint attention. Social insects are capable of working together without any attention or mutual awareness. They respond to specific stimuli (usually chemical stimuli) and the result is useful, specialized work. We can call this illusory cooperation because the behavior looks like teamwork but none of the ants perceive the larger picture.
Some mammals do, apparently, see more than their own roles in a scene. Social predators provide some of the most striking examples. I have personally seen lions preparing to hunt buffalo on the shores of Lake Manyara in Tanzania. They were drifting in one at a time, coming into an open area near the buffalo. Tall grass between the lions and the buffalo hid the two species from one another, but there was an opening in the grass where one of the lions lay, gazing toward the buffalo side of the meadow. After a while a second lion came over and joined the first at that vantage point. A few minutes later buffalo began browsing in the region of the meadow where the lions were looking. Both lionesses sank into the grass, making themselves harder to see.
There is no need to speculate on what the lions did or did not know about buffalo minds. It can all be understood perceptually: the second lion followed the focus of the first one’s attention and when the two of them saw buffalo they made themselves harder to see. It was perceptual behavior, not an intellectual pastime.
At this point a skeptic is sure to doubt that the lions were aware of themselves and each other as participants in a hunt, and I don’t insist on that point. What I do stress is that we can see in animals well removed from our own history that directed attention and teamwork is much older than humans or even apes. Social mammals have been improving on these two features for scores of millions of years. You can see the results by watching a herd of wildebeest and then a group of baboons. You can come across wildebeest herds many thousands of members rich, but as you drive by they swirl out of your way without forming any little wildebeest groupings. Now drive by baboons. They get out of the way too, but they do form small groups that face you together. If you linger, you will see the baboons do things together. Often it is a mother and young working together, but not always. You don’t see that with the wildebeest. They are not complete isolates. A kind of short moo burps through the herd, suggesting some kind of social contact, but nothing of the mutual cooperation visible over with the baboons. And when you get to our closest living relations — chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas — mutual attention and joint action are a commonplace.
Many primate calls are also in the shadowland between control and cooperation. Chimpanzees will call out when, say, an eagle appears overhead and other chimpanzees will look up and try to avoid the danger from above. This kind of basic social cooperation based on a mutual awareness of one another’s behavior strikes most people as too trivial to spend much time pondering, unless they have ever tried to set up a network of computers that have to work together. Then they realize what a mystery the perception of a whole set of changing circumstances is.
“The network is down again!” That’s a cry heard in many an office. Generally, what happened is that some circumstance arose that had not been anticipated by the network architects. How weird it would be if, from time to time, chimpanzee society broke down and the only thing to do would be reboot them all.
Joint attention in humans is richer than anything seen in the animal world and speech is the most elaborate form of joint attention we know. Thus, it should not be surprising that chimpanzees do not seem capable of joint attention on a human level. Yet, joint attention does have a long evolutionary history, and, viewed in this context, speech is a fruit that was eons in the building.