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Knowledge Loss from Changing Language

Language and why are humans so successful

We are not the only intelligent animals, so what is the key factor that has allowed humans to be productive and innovative? For me, the crucial distinction between us and other creatures is our ability to use a sophisticated language. Without it, we might have remained a successful pack animal, such as monkeys or wolves. In many ways we are still pack animals. We still need support from the rest of the group to hunt, to raise young, and to pass on skills by example. We have spread around the world into different climate zones, but so have many other creatures. Some, such as the wolf packs in Yellowstone, actually thrive in the harsh winter conditions.

Other animals can also use tools, with monkeys and crows as very different but classic examples. They also have the ability to plan a sequence of events to provide later gratification in terms of food. Their skill limits are set by their structure (e.g. beaks are not as convenient as hands) rather than intelligence. Other primates have good manual skills, but somehow we humans have achieved much more.

Intelligence, and communication by sound, is not rare; many animals, both on land or in the sea, convey quite precise information. For example, meerkats have calls that say which types of predators are threatening them. Parallel examples exist for marine creatures such as dolphins, whales, and octopi. Despite this, in terms of language, our level of complexity and sophistication is unique.

A further advantage for us is that we benefit from a lengthy immature stage where the young are dependent on the older members of the tribe. These formative years have nurtured the use of language as well as learning practical skills from several generations. Language, not brain size or intelligence, has defined our break away from the limitations of other species. This is not speculation, as during the last century explorers have found isolated tribal societies that appear to us to be effectively still at the level of the Stone Age, but despite their lack of technology, they have detailed structured languages.

Language and a relatively long lifetime have allowed experimentation to manufacture tools that helped us in hunting and survival. Since we lack strength, claws, or jaws to catch and kill our prey, the production of flint-tipped arrows and knives was front-line technology that had a dramatic impact on long-range hunting in safety. This must have felt like real progress for those early people, and it was 100 per cent positive. Reality was of course very different when viewed over a wider picture, as successful hunting progressed to sow the seeds to hunt larger animals. For the animals, this was a disaster, as in many cases it was the downward path to their extinction. Some, such as mammoths, may already have been struggling with a changing climate, but others, particularly large species with a long life and low reproduction rate, were rapidly doomed by our hunger, greed, and sense of survival.

The final step in our success story has been not just to maintain knowledge by speech, but to devise ways to write and transmit our thoughts from one generation to another across the globe.

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