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Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech

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But note well that none of this had to happen. Chance brought it about. No necessity forced some apes to come out of the trees five million years ago. Necessity did not force some of their descendants to evolve into apemen and humans. Chance, not necessity, determined that some of population happened to look at the world and each other a little differently and act differently.

But even with differences enough to evolve into various human species, the whole hominid line remains very similar in one way to the ancestral strain. From chimpanzees to the girl next door, we primates communicate, we live socially. Good thing, too. The infant anthropoid ape is helpless and needs maternal care for many months. How long does a human infant and child remain dependent? We haven’t really determined yet how much and what kind of care for how long one needs to become fully human.

Whether we are communicating as well as we should with our children, communication is as necessary for social life as oxygen is for physical life. And ever since there were social species, chance has had plenty of scope to select the kind of communication that social species need. In some species, chemical signs are produced and interpreted. Scent continues to keep many social mammals identified and connected. Virtually all social animals, including those that may be prey or predator, also interpret sounds and what they see others doing. Above all, literally, are the songs and calls that birds make and hear and interpret.

And then there is language, the uniquely human system—which some will tell you is special and exempt from the necessity and chance governing the rest of life. If you believe that, I have a little invention here I’d like to sell you. A few drops of it in your car’s tank and you’ll never have to fill up with gas again.

Of course, chance and necessity rule a language. Democritus was speaking of the whole universe and everything in it, no exemptions, no exceptions. Let’s look again at the evolutionary trail. Our hands and apes’ hands are homologues, but ours are differently proportioned; we have more nerves and more freedom in several joints—actually all the way from shoulders to fingertips. We can do many, many different kinds of things with our hands. Some of these things apes have no reason to do, but others they can’t possibly do because their anatomy has not evolved as human anatomy has.

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