Human ingenuity grants us boundless opportunity. Whether we apply it to the ongoing rise of our species, or fall, remains to be seen.
This week we explore the first wave of social innovation: human language. Understanding one another transformed us from fragile bands of naked apes to masters of nature.
The March of Human Progress
Our journey has been long, steady and slow. Only in very recent recorded history have our innovations accumulated to allow us to thrive.
Our progress carves a geometric curve in the sand. Exponential growth gives us the potential to make a better world, or—as Robert Oppenheimer paraphrased Hindu scripture at the birth of nuclear age—to become “the destroyer of worlds“.
The “hockey stick” growth curve shows up in all of our achievements, from population growth to literacy rates, body mass to transportation speeds.
Live Long & Prosper
Human lifespan hews to this curve. For all of our history, males at birth could expect to live approximately 35 years. We climbed the first hill in the two millennia of the empires of ancient China, and the Mediterranean civilizations from Athens to Alexandria. This meteoric rise to 44 years seems trivial now, but in real terms lifespans grew by a third!
The middle ages show their darkness in the slide back to prehistoric lifespans. But with the modern age mounting innovations propelled lifespans to double. And today’s technologies promise even greater achievement for our children’s children.
In my last post I previewed that we have risen on the wake of five waves of human innovation. Today we explore the first of these, that made all others possible.
Squabbling, screeching primates scrambled for daily food and survival. Then we began to communicate. By hand and tongue, sight and sound, we invented language. For the first time, we could hope to understand each other. We could share complex ideas. We could literally read each other’s minds.
A Thousand Words
The 30,000 year-old wall paintings of Chauvet Cave were discovered in the southern French region of Lescaux. Spelunkers literally stumbled into them in 1994 when a landslide exposed a vast cavern network.
The giant ox, or AUROCHS features prominently among the menagerie in these Paloeolithic murals. (The last of these massive beasts were devoured by poachers in Poland in the 17th century.)
Tens of thousands of years later the pictografic OX appeared in Sumeria (modern Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates), on the timeline below.
Pictures gave way to alphabet (vowel and consonant sound symbols) with the Phoenician letter form of the same Ox, known locally as the ALP (emanating from today’s Lebanon).
Language Takes Flight
Greeks formalized the ALPHA—shared into Arabic and Latin—the foundational letter form of today’s Mediterranean alphabets.
Ultimately the Greeks gave their language wings, sending news of the first Olympic games champion by carrier pigeon in 776 BCE.
Writing on the Wall
All signs of the earliest recorded languages appear first as pictografs. This first stable medium accumulated knowledge over generations. Cumulative knowledge, like any treasure, produces compound interest.
In this cast from the British museum, the Sumerian symbol for “beer” represents an upright jug with a pointed base. The Sumerians were alleged to have invented written language, as well as beer, conveyed in Gilgamesh.
The transition from stone to a more portable medium was only a matter of time. Velum, tanned animal hides, gave way to paper in China, with mass produced language first published by ink wood block, before the printing press liberated written language for the masses. Electronic media followed in a rapid succession of forms in the last 200 years.
Use Your Words
Language continues to bring us together. At it’s worst, it is used as a weapon to divide us. But without it we would have had no basis to understand one another. And no way to share the magic of the next wave of innovation, a second form of language, denominated in numbers rather than words.
As noted by Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
Use language to promote understanding. Live without limits.