“Language is a product of our kindness”

The DNA of humans and chimpanzees is rarely different from each other. However, our closest relatives, such as gorillas, bonobos and orangutans, are in danger of extinction, while Homo sapiens conquered the world with more than seven billion individuals (and the number is still growing). Will language make the difference?

This is language, not communication. Because all living things can communicate. Fungi send alarm signals to each other when danger is imminent, and even bacteria exchange information.

Chimpanzees communicate through a variety of sounds, facial expressions, and behaviours, all of which have distinct meanings. Several experiments show that they can also learn human sign language to a certain extent. But applying it grammatically correctly is very ambitious.

Some animal communication systems can be quite complex, but humans only master the perfect communication skills that can be described as language.

Roger Mars (1979) Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford and Principal Investigator at Radboud University Nijmegen. He studied psychology in Groningen and received his Ph.D. from Radboud University in 2006 with a thesis on the way the brain makes and executes decisions. His group is conducting comparative brain research at Oxford. With this, Mars is trying to map how the brains of humans and other animals differ from one another and what this means for their behaviour.

Is it plausible from an evolutionary point of view that people without language would not be human? And the animals that speak the language are not animals but a type of human being? In other words, did language make us human?

“Climate changes, among other things, meant that our ancestors had to help each other to get enough food together. In this way, a cultural being gradually emerged that could actively cooperate and pass knowledge from generation to generation and learn to communicate through spoken language.”

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“A series of changes in the brain made this possible. This was done in three areas: the cerebral cortex expanded, different parts of the brain became more integrated with each other and existing structures acquired new functions. Together, these changes in the brain gave rise to modern humans.”

Why do we stand head and shoulders above other animals when it comes to communication?

The arcuate bundles may transmit information entering the brain through the senses to other brain regions. There, this information is combined with knowledge from memory and motor knowledge. This explains not only our language skills, but also, among other things, our ability to use objects as tools, something you see to a lesser degree in great apes. In humans, the arcuate bundle is more advanced in development, with more synapses in its last segment. Herein lies a possible explanation for our complex language skills.”

“The fact that human language skills are unique, I think, therefore, is due to the organization of our brain. Our ancestors encountered the need to communicate; they may have had to solve certain problems in order to obtain food. This would have resulted in selection pressure in terms of brain organization.”

Which came first: man or language?

“It’s hard to say. Genetically speaking, we’re almost no different from chimpanzees. But they must hide in a dark corner of the rainforest and fear for their very existence, while we are responsible for this planet. So many things we can do, other primates can also do.” In fact we are not special. However, there must be something that makes us unique. But I do not think that this is language: we are not chimpanzees as well as language. There was something before that that distinguished us, not only from great apes, but also from Neanderthals and other human species”.

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“From the beginning we were highly social primates, we were more dependent on mutual cooperation. It was almost inevitable that the musical repertoire was created from primitive gestures, facial expressions, and sounds, and then the pressure of selection expanded the capacity of our brains and the development of our speech organs. From the point of view of Evolutionary, the emergence of language was a logical consequence.”

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