Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I heard something awesome on NPR while driving today. I didn't have the radio on for long, and I can't remember which program it was on WHYY, but the conversation had something to do with education. One of the guests, arguing that children learn better through demonstrations and oral communication, said something like, "The overwhelming majority of human beings who ever lived have never read a single word." It sounded strange at first, as I had never thought about it in those terms before. But then I thought about it: the earliest Homo sapiens we're aware of lived at least 200,000 - maybe 400,000 - years ago; the first written language (or proto-writing) we know of is from about 7,000 years ago.

The guest on the radio show was making a point about how the human brain has evolved and what that means for how our species has historically (and prehistorically) absorbed information and learned new skills. This topic has some interesting implications for education, specifically. But I want to throw a few thoughts out there about the role that writing and reading have played throughout the existence of humankind.

(I realize there are probably plenty of studies out there that address my curiosities better than I'm about to. Oh well. Let me think out loud for a minute.)

It seems that written language was the catalyst for civilization as we know it. Without suggesting any causal relationship, it is important to note that both agriculture and the earliest forms of proto-writing appeared within 2 or 3 thousand years of each other, possibly closer. Writing facilitated trade, technology, government - it helped to speed up all of the other innovations of our species. As Dr. John Searle, UC Berkeley professor of Philosophy of Mind and Language, writes

So, the bottom line of this is that the big step between us and animals is in the language. But the big step between civilization and more primitive forms of human society is written language. Once you have written language, you have the capacity not just for creating a civilization, but getting these accretions, where the elements of civilization then build on earlier elements of civilization, and those build on yet earlier elements of civilization, until you get where we are today.

Think about that for a minute. Our species spent somewhere between 150,000 and 190,000+ years just talking (maybe just grunting and clicking for a big chunk of that time), hunting, gathering, talking, hunting, and gathering... and then all of a sudden we've got writing, farming, more complex forms of government and religion, better tools, institutionalized education, stringed instruments, explosives, advanced weaponry, electricity. We've got people up in space now. Especially after reading Searle's quote above, I can't help but think that written language played perhaps the most important role in the acceleration of cultural evolution and technological advancement. Think about Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century: before the printing press, how many people were literate? Monks writing on scrolls made up the majority of written materials (I think), until J-Gut comes along and makes it possible to print things faster. Education gets a boost, religion starts to get democratized, news spreads in a more consistent fashion, and - get this - people eventually start reading for fun! Can you believe that?

Since I've mentioned religion, and since that's the current "Weekly What?" topic, I want to close with a connection between spirituality and the written word. As I mentioned in our discussion yesterday, I've been wondering lately how much influence music had on the evolution of a spiritual consciousness in humankind. Neuroscience has shown that music activates several different areas of the brain, and I suggested that the activity or communication between these cerebral regions may have been one of Homo sapiens' earliest religious experiences. But what about reading? It certainly engages the brain on several different levels: vision, language, storytelling or reasoning, the tactile sensations associated with holding a book or turning a page. So it makes sense that written language triggered a dramatic change in consciousness, or in how we interpret and represent the world around us.

I perceive a sort of mystique about reading in our society. People like to "curl up with a good book," take a bestseller to the beach for the day, make a routine out of reading with the family. Libraries used to be highly valued places in many areas around the world, but of course that has changed with the internet - the most purchased items online are books. I suspect that many religions have "holy books," not because they needed to compile and preserve their oral traditions and sages' teachings, but because there was a sense among peoples of the past that books contain or convey some kind of esoteric wisdom. Even if people could read, they didn't have access to books like we do today, so the few scriptures that were preserved by religious leaders may have, in a sense, provided those leaders with a great deal of influence over others. Imagine only having seen a handful of symbols throughout your life, all written on walls or sacred sites. They grab your attention in a way that nothing else does, because they represent sounds and ideas, and they make sense only as your brain makes several connections. Now imagine that an important person in your community has a book with thousands of pages of these symbols, preserving ideas to be told word-for-word, unlike the oral traditions you may be more familiar with. Keep imagining.

So what's my point? My point is that written language has played such an important role in cultural evolution, and it all culminates right here, in this blog, benthropology. Stay tuned as the climax of human language unfolds before your eyes...


  1. How does a baby become aware of his/her world. Step 1. En-active: Everything seen must be touched, tasted, or smelled. (0 to 2 yres.)

    Step 2. What is seen is categorize via visual pictures. A picture of a dog is related to the word dogie as told to him/her via an adult. (2 to 5 yrs.)
    Step 3. Symbolic. All object seen or encountered are given a name. Relating symbolic objects in speech is the basis of language. (5 yrs onward.)

  2. Thanks, Brother John! I actually studied early childhood education for a year, and worked in childcare for 4 years, so I'm glad you brought this up. We were taught and encouraged to introduce print in our classrooms (especially on the walls) even for children under 2 years of age. Even before a child's mind has connected in all of the ways necessary in order to read and write, it seems to take notice of symbols, gradually learning to associate them with important objects or events in a daily routine. Likewise, even before our species began representing language in any sort of sophisticated written form, we went through a long process of creating and interpreting symbols in a variety of ways.