Robert Sapolsky has been able to fix the floatation device on the toilet water tank the other day, which was a rare moment for him. As he called what he did a good day’s work, he smugly thought to himself, “There. It’s not just chimps who can use tools.”
We humans are unique in ways more than one, or rather, we used to be. Throughout time, we were the only species able to create tools, pass on culture, and kill each other. These traits which were identified to be unique to us have now been demonstrated by other species, so it seems that we’re not so unique after all. However, we still stand alone in some ways, and of these is “hugely important” — the capacity to think symbolically.
Metaphors, similes, parables, figures of speech—they exert enormous power over us. We kill for symbols, die for them. Yet symbols generate one of the most magnificent human inventions: art.
Symbols serve as a simplifying stand-in for something complex. (A rectangle of cloth with stars and stripes represents all of American history and values.) And this is very useful. To see why, start by considering basic language—communication without a lot of symbolic content. Suppose you are being menaced by something terrifying and so scream your head off. Someone listening can’t tell if the blood-curdling “Aiiiii!” means an approaching comet, right-wing death squad, or Komodo dragon. It just means that things are majorly not right, a generic scream where the message is the meaning. This present-tense emotionality is what communication by animals is mostly about.
Symbolic language brought huge evolutionary advantages. This can be seen even in the baby steps of symbolism of other species. When vervet monkeys, for instance, spot a predator, they don’t just generically scream. They use distinct vocalizations, different “proto-words,” where one means, “Aiiiiii!, predator on the ground, run up the tree,” and the other means, “Aiiiiii!, predator in the air, run down the tree.” It’s mighty useful to have evolved the cognitive capacity to make that distinction. Who would want to guess wrong and dash up to the top of a tree when the problem is a raptor swooping down?
Learn more about this over at Nautilus.
(Image Credit: qimono/ Pixabay)