Can We Talk? Language, Society and Consciousness

The story of human evolution does not end with the appearance of Homo sapiens in Africa 200,000 years ago, or with the subsequent migrations to Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. Our curiosity about our origins demands that we try to explain why it is this particular species that goes on to dominate the planet.

The answer, of course, is our particularly human form of consciousness, the development and use of language and the growth of complex social structures. The evidence suggests that these developments were intimately linked, driven by feedback loops. The FOXP2 gene may be responsible for literally wiring the brain for the capability of language, among other things. It encourages the growth of interconnections between neurons which, when combined with a larger frontal lobe and the anatomical changes necessary for vocalizing speech, make the human instinct for language inevitable.

British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar argues that language allowed us to socialize, to build relationships with each other through gossip, and one-to-many bonding through the telling of stories and jokes. As social interactions became more complex, neural capacities expanded in response.

The result is the Great Leap Forward, the transition to behavioural modernity and the emergence of modern humans, which is thought to have occurred about 50,000 years ago.