I am all but certain that, somewhere lying around in the minds of certain scientists today, is an hypothesis that accurately describes the origins of language. That is, I’m nearly sure the origins have already been largely figured out by now.
I am also all but certain that, unless we invent time travel, or the gods both exist and decide to reveal their knowledge of its origins, or a genius quite improbably comes up with a mathematical proof of its origins, or — most likely these days — a FOX News personality stumbles across its origins while searching for ancient dirt on Barrack Obama’s alleged War on Adam and Eve, it will never be much more than an astute guess whether the correct hypothesis of language’s origins is truly correct.
Yet, despite the improbability of actually discovering the origins of language, various things about the fundamental nature of language and its uses suggest to insightful and very learned guess-a-tators such as myself that language might — or might not — have evolved from mating calls, that it might — or might not — have been preceded by singing, that it might — or might not — have evolved faster in women than in men, that it might — or might not — have had multiple causes for its development from mating calls (such as its use in promoting group cohesion and cooperation), and that it surely, certainly, and absolutely was used almost from “the very moment it was invented” to tell lies.
There are a variety of reasons to tentatively think that particular use for language developed early on. Of all those various reasons, the only ones that interest me here are these two: Humans lie with ease and great frequency, and they begin playing around with telling lies at tender ages. If lying didn’t develop early on, then why is it so behaviorally advanced in us? Why are we so good at it?
It seems obvious to me that our brains are more advanced at lying than they are at many other things — such as doing math or science, for nearly everyone of us lies with ease when he or she wants to, but so many of us struggle with critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.
It also seems obvious to me that our brains are even less developed for wisdom than they are for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking. There are whole, vast areas of life in which, at most, only about one in ten or one in twenty of us frequently behave in ways that consistently show great wisdom. That is, I’ve observed that even the village idiot now and then acts wisely, but I’ve also observed that the large majority of us have blind spots — whole areas of our lives — in which we are inconsistently wise, or even frequently fools.
Human relationships are usually a person’s most easily noticed blind spot. Indeed, relationships are an area of life in which even those folks who most consistently behave towards others with great wisdom often stumble or fall, and if someone has learned to dance among us like a sage, you can be sure it took her an age of clumsy mistakes to learn her grace.
It seems likely that many people believe on some level that popularity is a sure sign of wisdom in dealing with others, and — if that were indeed the case — there would be a lot more people in this world who are wise about relationships than there really are, for there are certainly a lot of popular people. Indeed, I myself can believe there is some small link between wisdom in relationships and popularity, but I cannot believe that link is more than a small one, if only because I’ve known too many fools who were popular, and too many comparably wise people who were not.
So I think the human brain is least of all evolved for wisdom, somewhat more evolved for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking, and most of all of these evolved for lying. And, likewise, it seems to me that language is best suited to lying, less suited to the sort of precision and exactness that one so often needs to communicate critical, mathematical, or scientific ideas, and least of all suited to communicate wisdom. In fact, I’m pretty certain wisdom is not merely difficult, but extraordinarily difficult, to communicate, if it can be communicated at all.
For instance, this morning I came across a meme post to a website that stated, “It’s better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship”. The first thing I thought was, “That’s true for a number of reasons”, and the second thing I thought was, “Among those reasons, it is better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship because, ironically, we are more likely to suffer from intense loneliness when we are in a bad or abusive relationship than when we are by ourselves and alone.” But the third thing I thought was, “If one does not already know the truth of these things, then one is unlikely to learn the truth from either the meme or from any other words spoken about it. How often have I seen people plunge themselves into bad or abusive relationships, or refuse to leave one, primarily out of fear of being lonely? At least a third or half of the people I’ve known well in life have had at least one story of getting into a bad or abusive relationship and then delaying or even failing to leave it largely out of fear of being lonely. Yet, nearly everyone who actually left such a relationship has looked back and said to me, ‘I only wish I left sooner, or not gotten into that relationship at all.’ Not a single person has yet told me that being alone has turned out to be lonelier than was being in the relationship.”
Now, I have heard people say that wisdom is “subjective” because there are no objective means for determining what is “right or wrong”. But I think that might be a half-truth, and perhaps only a quarter-truth. In many cases, all we need for wisdom to become objective is pick a goal. Once we have picked a goal, it so often becomes possible to know with a fair amount of assurance which actions will bring us to our goal, which actions will not, and even which actions will be more efficient or effective than others in doing so.
For instance, if our goal is to avoid for ourselves the worst of loneliness, then it is obvious that choosing to get into a bad or abusive relationship is not the wisest decision we can make, while remaining alone or getting into a healthy relationship is a wiser choice. Of course, this assumes that it is true for us, even if for no one else, that we will feel lonelier in a bad or abusive relationship than we’d otherwise feel. But that question can be answered objectively.
The choice of goal is ultimately subjective (but that should not distract us from the fact that we can many times objectively determine the wisest means to that goal). And yet, it is only ultimately subjective, for goals themselves can be arranged in hierarchies so that a higher goal might determine whether or not one expresses or attempts to actualize a lower goal.
In this blog post, I have been using the word “wisdom” as nearly synonymous with the phrase “most effective”. Which, if I am being logically consistent, means that I harbor the somewhat dismal notion that our species of super-sized chimpanzees relatively excel at lying; perform mediocre at critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking; and suck the big potato at assessing the comparative effectiveness of various relevant behaviors, and then acting in accordance with those assessments, in order to bring about the most desired outcome. If all of that is substantially true, then it naturally raises the question: Why is it that we’re better liars than “thinkers” or sages?