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What Makes us Human?
Cognition and Language are the Key
Although Neanderthals left behind a record of their existence, their lives were too far removed from modern times to strike a chord with today's humans. Cro-Magnon was the first hominid in Europe with which modern humans can relate.
More than 30,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon was creating cave art and keeping records with notations of lunar calendars on husks of bone. Homo sapiens burial sites depict a species that explored an array of human experiences, including elaborate methods of body decoration. The dead were buried with ornaments.
Modern human cognition is a recently acquired feature, specialists told a AAAS audience, during a 10 October lecture organization by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. (See main story.)
For the most part, hominids throughout history can best be characterized as doing what their predecessors had done, said Dr. J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen of the Princeton Theological Seminary. But, with the arrival of Homo sapiens, a new type of human came on the scene.
During the AAAS presentation, van Huyssteen offered the following explanation for the emergence of this form of cognition:
"A painting by van Gogh hangs on the wall of someone's living room. Their toddler learns to recognize the colors and to name them. When the child grows older, fields of flowers emerge in the picture. As a young adult, the value and worth of the artwork give the painting a new meaning. There are different levels of insight to all symbols that point to a more profound reality and better understanding of the world."
According to Dr. Ian Tattersall, a specialist in human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, one artifact found at a Cro-Magnon site depicts a horse carved of bone. It is not a reproduction of a particular horse, but an abstraction of the graceful essence of all horses. Cro-Magnon created wonderful works of art. Evidence has also been found that people made music with bone flutes, and most certainly sang and danced like modern humans do, Tattersall noted.
"Darwin was convinced that human cognition could be perfectly explained with natural selection. But his colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, turned to spiritualism for the answer. "It's not a matter that in each generation we got a little bit smarter until we became the perfect specimen we are today. We emerged ready for some reason that has nothing to do with our current lifestyle," Tattersall said.
According to Darwin, legions of organisms evolve over time into a new species. It's a fine-tuning process, guided by natural selection, in which the individuals best adapted to their environment reproduce and pass on their characteristics, with each generation improving upon its predecessor.
"The evolutionary process isn't always a progressive thing leading to improvement. Natural selection only occurs with opportunities that arise at random with respect to ecological forces," Tattersall said.
We tend to think of evolution in terms of characteristics, rather than species, he added. The reality is that natural selection is a blind mechanism, and species succeed or fail as the sum of their parts, not because of a particular characteristic, according to Tattersall.
"What is successful in nature is simply 'what works,'" he said. "So, you've got this complex brain that evidently has the capacity to do other jobs than what is required at the time when it emerged. Modern human cognition emerged whole. Neanderthals are a great example of how far you can go with purely intuitive processes. For some reason, or perhaps for no reason at all, a capacity for cognition was acquired, but that capacity still had to be discovered. Homo sapiens have extraordinary inventiveness. Neanderthals did not display that creativity."
Tattersall believes that language had to be invented for cognition to be discovered.
"We have concepts and rarely ever have the perfect manner to convey what we see in the darkness of our mind. Language has its limitations. You can have a concept that is not abstract and fairly easy to communicate, but we don't always have the tools to communicate the abstract thought," said Tattersall.
"Non-linguistic gestures did not 'lead' to language," agreed van Huyssteen. "There is no primitive form of language that predates ours. Only the human brain could develop language. No other species had the capacity to create language."
Gestural communication is present in primates and precedes language, Tattersall pointed out. Even today, gestural communication is still an important component of our language. Humans have a two-layered thought process, he saidone that is "intuitive and another that is "almost digital." Only Cro-Magnon shared these abilities with us, said Tattersall.
Neanderthals did have beautiful tools. Each tool was standardized, but without evidence of any individual creativity. Stone toolmaking requires a high degree of skill, which could have been passed on by demonstration without language.
"Generations of Neanderthals copied themselves very effectively," Tattersall said. "But Neanderthals did not have the apparatus to pass on abstract concepts. How language emerged just boggles my mind. Language may have been developed by children in the context of play. I mean, who did the first linguistic creature communicate with?"
15 October 2002