October 21, 2007

From George Dawson:

Re: Study: Neandertals had “language gene” (Oct. 18): The distinction between articulation and language needs to be emphasized. Language, or the use of symbols to communicate within a species, is fairly common. Although other species have far fewer symbols (sounds, posturing) than we, they still have language. Even deaf mutes have language, though they can not articulate well verbally.

I propose that language proceeded verbalization altogether, and is far more ancient than primates. Dogs know that. They can learn to understand us, and we can distinguish differing meanings in the sounds they make. This is communication. It is language. Dogs do not have a lot to work with compared with humans, obviously. But to say they do not possess language is to diminish the meaning of the word language.

The higher brain works by associating symbols with memories, emotions, and actions. This trait is common to mammals, birds, and some of the aquatic species. We humans have a lot more capacity for memory and thought. But what separates us from the other animals is this combined with the ability to articulate.

That said scientists would believe that “language” could be turned on or off with one gene is highly disappointing. That one gene could be responsible for a human’s inability to articulate is believable. But supposing that this one gene would perform the same function in a Neanderthal as it does in a human is, well, presumptuous. And this is where science differs from reporting.

Thanks for the great articles.


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