In The Beginning Was The Word…

language“When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled” – Charles Darwin

In the beginning was the word. No, not that word. The spoken word. If those first words were heard today, they would not even be recognizable as words. However, those first audible grunts with specific meaning that were emitted by our common ancestors were an important development in the evolution of our species. But there are many other animals that can communicate using grunts and even gestures. I remember one specific monkey I saw as a child in the Bronx Zoo that was especially adept at using gestures, but when I emulated the monkey’s gestures I vividly remember my parents being less than amused. Then again, my parents were not fond of flinging poo, either.

I think they just didn’t like monkeys…

Nevertheless, other animals do, indeed, communicate and many do so by stringing sounds and gestures together in the exchange of information. So, while the spoken word had meaning, and the ability to string words together was extremely important, it was not what set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The single most important aspect of communication that set us apart from all the other animals was, and still is, the ability to question. The ability to ask ‘why’ is what set us at light-speed on an evolutionary ride to becoming what we know as an intelligent, reasoning civilization. Well, a civilization, nonetheless. Reason is not always our strong point, and there are many of us who are rather uncivilized. In fact, reason and civility seem to take a lot of time off together. But that’s another point, altogether.

The development of human language is actually a fascinating subject. However, it is an area of science that I am decidedly unqualified to write about. It is a complex discipline that involves words that I don’t believe my larynx has evolved enough to pronounce. Somewhere along the way we developed the ability to learn by a process of experimentation that didn’t always involve getting killed in the process. Of course, there are areas in the United States where this still happens, and these incidents usually involve firearms, a pickup truck, alcoholic beverages, and are generally predicated by phrases such as, “Hey, watch this!”

Never Argue With The Data…

But in all seriousness, current scientific data states that a major step in the evolution of language from primitive to when we started using aspects of speech, such as grammar and syntax, likely occurred between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, somewhere in East Africa. This is thought to have been the result of a biological mutation to the brain. There seems to be significant changes in the fossil records during this time that suggests a radical change in the way we communicated. What we can be certain of is the ability of our forbearers to convey ideas that symbolized a complex series of events through language communication, to be able to repair broken communication (what we like to call a misunderstanding) and make inquiries as to what comes next. This was significant in the evolution of our species from nomadic hunter-gatherers to agricultural based communities.

The written word did not even begin to develop until roughly nine thousand years ago, and that was more of a proto-writing in the form of symbols and hieroglyphs. Actual writing emerged during the Bronze Age, about 3500 or so years ago. So it took a while for us to figure out how to write stuff down.

But the spoken word is important because of its immediacy and its finality. A judge can look at something that is written and decide whether or not to admit it into evidence, and nobody on the jury would ever be the wiser. But that same judge who asks a jury to disregard an outburst by an unruly (or very wise) attorney cannot hope to actually have his request adhered to. It is virtually impossible to un-hear something, although my wife would disagree, particularly after my arrival home from running to the grocery store, at which time I can attest to the value of the written word.

You Gonna Carry That Weight…

Words are influential, whether spoken, written or even pixellated. They carry weight, influence action and force you to make choices, even if your choice is not to choose. Words are capable of eliciting the most compassionate expressions of human kindness, as well as the most horrific actions that a mind is capable of rendering. No matter what the modus operandi may be, in its purest form, the ability to string together coherent thought is how we best communicate.

Our desire to connect with each other is a concept that is universally understood by those we share our space with. The genesis of our communication with one another is our ability to reason, which is a concept unique to humans. We are able to form thoughts, to conceptualize and to form notions. We are a species of ideas, hunches, guesses (both educated and otherwise) and hypotheses. Ideas are wonderful things. They should be played with, twisted, folded, taken apart, stretched, turned inside out and investigated, then put back together ten ways to Sunday, always in search of that better mousetrap. This is the concept behind the scientific method of discovery and insight.

The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows for the perpetual possibility of improvement upon an idea through the constant search for new information via experimentation. It is the fuel that keeps the engines of invention and ingenuity sufficiently stoked. We ask a question, we take a guess, we get an idea. If it is a good idea, then it is subjected to unlimited reason, logic and experimentation. Then it becomes a hypothesis and the fun really starts, because when a hypothesis has been though the scientific ringer and still survives, it is bestowed with a new title, and one much loftier. It becomes a scientific theory. Occasionally, it makes it all the way to a law, but that is another topic, altogether.

I’ll stop at theory for now, because that word is the catalyst for a great deal of misunderstanding. For the benefit of those readers who are unaware, the scientific community has a completely different definition for the word ‘theory’ than the vernacular ‘hunch’ or ‘guess’ that is used by the general population. I will endeavor to provide you with the best explanation available:

As used in science, a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning that has been tested and confirmed. It is based on a careful and rational examination of the facts.  A theory is an explanation that correlates facts, and a fact is something that is supported by unmistakable evidence.”

As words are to language, language is to communication and communication is to conjecture as conjecture is to a guess. Guess to idea to hypothesis to theory. A good idea should be given life, and allowed to progress all the way to its logical, reasonable and scientific conclusion. A bad idea should be where the process stops. It’s a good idea to kill a bad idea and killing bad ideas is a common process in the scientific method. But some bad ideas stubbornly hang on for dear life.

From a time long ago, humans had no idea why certain things happened. However, our evolutionary thirst for an explanation was trumped by our lack of knowledge, so we did what comes naturally. We guessed, and sometimes we were not too far off. Other times, not so much. Best we could come up with was that sometimes things were really bad and sometimes things were really good, and you did the best you could to avoid the bad and prolong the good.

But something was causing these things to happen and we didn’t know anyone that was personally capable of throwing lightning bolts across the sky or covering everything we could see in all directions with water. We had many questions; such as what could cause an impossibly massive kill of animals, birds or insects. We wondered where the hell that really bright light in the sky went for a while and why the dim one took its place. We wanted to know why sometimes we got rather unceremoniously eaten, which was usually our last question. When we did not understand why something happened in the natural world, which is the world we can see, touch, taste, hear and feel; we quite naturally guessed that the cause was something different or powerful enough not to be destroyed by the very thing it was causing.

Common Ideas…

For a long time all the locals agreed on the same guesses. Hence, they became common ideas. After a while, all the locals agreed that these were perfectly good ideas. So good, in fact, that in the Bronze Age, when we learned how to write things down, these ideas were amongst the first things that hit the page. Consequently, they are some of the oldest and most often copied ideas we have, and because rain, thunder, lighting, massive kills and being eaten were pretty much common everywhere, each band of locals had very similar ideas. But, being a more primitive species back then, we were also afraid of whatever might be causing these things to happen.

They seemed so random sometimes and we really didn’t know how to make them stop. Of course, we didn’t know anything about weather patterns, animal behavior and natural poisons that regularly kill hundreds of thousands of animals, birds or insects at once. I won’t get into the anthropomorphism of ideas at this time, but suffice to say, at some point we attached human characterizations to the forces we perceived to be responsible for the otherwise inexplicably disastrous or fortunate occurrences. Thus were borne our gods.

ideaWe became quite attached to our god-ideas, but we were also quite afraid of them. In fact, the ritual of sacrifice was birthed out of the idea that if we shared our stuff with our gods, perhaps they would quit behaving like petulant children. Sometimes it seemed to work, sometimes it didn’t. I would imagine they had the same accuracy rate as our local weather forecasters. But because we feared our god-ideas so much, we never questioned them. They were never given that opportunity to be scrutinized, to be subjected to reason, logic and experimentation so that they might be made better. They were simply gathered together like gravestones, never to be moved, but only revered for what they once were. It is then that they ceased to be ideas and became dogma.

But over the last five hundred years, more so in the last century and explosively in the last couple of decades, these dogmas have been resurrected and put under the microscope, so to speak. Our god-ideas have been given thousands of years to take root in our minds and most people are so used to them being there and have become so accustomed to them and have spent so many years relying on them as solutions that they don’t take too kindly to having them questioned. As a species, we’ve become very attached to our ideas, ideals, and ideologies. They all have the same basic etymology.


Believer or unbeliever, as thinking beings we owe it to ourselves and to society to consistently re-examine these ideas. They should be scrutinized, rationalized, investigated and played with until they are either validated or invalidated. If validated, then keep playing, wash, rinse and repeat.

If they are invalidated for any reason, then they deserve a proper burial.

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  6 comments for “In The Beginning Was The Word…

  1. July 23, 2012 at 10:14 am

    This is awesome. Thank you for writing it.

  2. July 23, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Al, this is amazing…and you really made me sit up and go “Aha!” with

    The single most important aspect of communication that set us apart from all the other animals was, and still is, the ability to question.

    I always thought (and heard others) it was the ability to communicate with the spoken (and later written) word, but I think you’ve zeroed in on the real difference. Wow, aha indeed. And no wonder atheists and skeptics threaten religion so much.

  3. krgrace
    July 23, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Ah, that word “Theory.” A college prof. once defined it in a way that has worked quite well for me since.

    “A scientific theory provides explanation, prediction and control.”

  4. kennypo65
    July 23, 2012 at 11:04 am

    “All of it will be instigated by the religious.” Truer words have never been spoken.

  5. busterggi
    July 24, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Damn but now I’ve got to read the book!

  6. September 28, 2012 at 5:31 am

    brunton jones

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