Language Was Our Evolutionary Advantage. It May Be Our Downfall

If there is anything that truly distinguishes humans from other animals — apart from our impressive capacity for mass destruction—it is our ability to speak. When and how our language faculty evolved is still subject to a lot of scientific debate and uncertainty. There is little doubt, however, that our ability to speak has given us an evolutionary advantage over pretty much all other species.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information,

“[l]anguage is the most important evolutionary invention of the last few million years. It was an adaptation that helped our species to exchange information, make plans, express new ideas and totally change the appearance of the planet.”

Sounds good. But is it?

I’m not really interested in debating just how evolutionary intelligent the alterations we have done to the planet or how brilliant some of our new and not-so-new ideas have been. The basis for all these presumed benefits is the idea that language helps humans communicate better. This is what I would like to examine a little closer.

Of course, there is no doubt that speaking someone’s language can make things easier. As universal as English may be, once you enter another universe — the Brazilian Amazon let’s say — you realize that being able to clearly express a “No, thank you, I’m a vegetarian” in Portuguese may save you from considerable trauma.

And having learned a few foreign languages over my long life has taught me that you truly begin to understand, feel, and connect with people only when you understand their humor.

So, there is that.

I used to live a very physical life. My work and life mostly happened in the real world. I didn’t have a cell phone for a very long time, never been on social media, and my private and professional communication was mostly in person. Only after I moved to Portugal and began to work predominantly remotely, did I notice just how much communication has changed.

Blah Blah Blah

Worldwide, we send an average of 23 and 27 billion messages per day. That’s a lot of chatter. And yet, we seem to understand less and less of each other. Part of the problem may be that communication requires two elements: sending of information. And receiving. (Oops.)

And again, I won’t bother writing more about that. There are tons of articles, tweets, Facebook posts, expert interviews and what have you alerting us to LISTEN. So go ahead and listen.

What I am beginning to wonder, though, is whether maybe, in all our pride and affection for language, we have forgotten that communication is not limited to words. We place so much value on words that we have forgotten what else is out there. Facial expression, body language, smelling, seeing, feeling the other person. And breathing their energy beyond any of our known senses. Context, you know.

Language is overrated. Enjoying somebody's company in silence is true bliss.

No words. Photo by Gary Barnes

Hard to do on Twitter I know. But worrying nonetheless.

We have come to hide behind our screens, we have become two- or even one-dimensional. Reduced to black ink on a white screen. Raw, blank, anonymous. A mere canvas for our projections. We believe we are so superior with our words that we have lost all connection to the essence of humanity. There is a reason we have a body after all.

What Communication Feels Like

The most beautiful, intense, rewarding moments I have had with people were in silence. Digging a ditch in the sand together. Cooking dinner with a friend. Walking through the forest. Receiving a massage. Holding my child. Riding on the train. Lying on the floor after a hard rolling session, waiting for my breath to calm down, knowing all these other bodies are spread out around me, breathing, cooling down. No need for words. Total connection.

These are the moments that fill me with so much gratitude for humanity. For being human amongst humans. This is when I feel like I belong. No mask, no pretense, no need for validation, no need for confirmation. I see you, I breathe you, I feel you, we are together.

I train Jiu-Jitsu with a small, tight group of people. Most of them, I know, have political perspectives and worldviews that are very far from my own. Engaging in a “discussion” with them would probably be a disaster. Scratch that. It would definitely be a disaster. On the mat, they are my best friends. And I believe that the respect and the care they show when they roll with me hold much more truth than any declaration of their sociopolitical opinion. Or mine.

I’m probably not the only parent who wishes she could get $1 for every time she tells her children to do a certain thing. Yet, I’ve learned that when I really want to teach one of my daughters how something is done, I better shut my mouth. Just say “Watch me” and then do it. Slowly, deliberately. Once, twice. Then let them do it. They usually get it the first time.

Language is overrated

Maybe it’s time we realize that more often than not, words separate us. Alienate us. How often do we use language to exclude, to separate, to attribute arbitrary values to humans, to establish hierarchies that only serve to divide, to argue over whose pain is the more legitimate?

Our ideas, our lives, and our relationships have become abstract concepts that break at the first contact with reality. Millions of word snippets and an endless fight over their meaning have replaced true connections. We express so many ideas that we no longer see the human behind them.

We are all in pain. And we’re constantly hollering about it. Maybe it’s time we shut up.

Maybe our remarkable ability, our evolutionary advantage, the brilliance of our logical mind are a tiny bit overrated. Perhaps, if we want to find peace, for ourselves, in our relationships, and in the world, we should remember that love cannot be printed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *