Love Before Language

There are varying and competing theories about the origins of human language. Since language predates recorded history, we have no empirical evidence as to its beginnings. Scientists are perpetually plagued by the question of how and when we evolved from animal vocalizations to the complexity of human language. Prevailing ideas range from the continuity theory (language evolved from our primate ancestors) to the discontinuity theory (language appeared suddenly and uniquely among humans). And there’s still no consensus about whether our linguistic faculties are innate or environmental; is it nature or nurture? In short, the entire language piece of our ancestral puzzle remains a mystery. Evolutionist Carl Zimmer summed it up by stating, “No one knows the exact chronology of this evolution, because language leaves precious few traces on the human skeleton. The voice box is a flimsy piece of cartilage that rots away.”

But we can draw interesting parallels between the homo sapiens in our developmental infancy and individual infants and their own acquisition of language. Babies are not born with the capacity to employ language but they are born with one very specific innate gift, the ability to recognize faces. Despite the poor vision and physiological immaturity of young babies, they are capable of face processing. They are able to discriminate among faces and studies show that they are more responsive (via head and eye movements) to facial movements than to other motions. They have a keen eye specifically for faces and the more exposure they get, the better they are at registering different faces. This is extraordinarily important when analyzing how pre-linguistic humans made connections.

Whether we are talking about ancient history or early infancy, the face is among the most important social identifiers. Before we know each other’s names or even had names, our brains contained a special section of the temporal lobe devoted entirely to facial recognition.

Without language, how did our ancestors effectively communicate and identify one another? It was the face and our innate ability to distinguish the nuances between them that proved our most valuable tool for social bonding and creating necessary ties for survival.

Above: Clark Gable and Carole Lombard   Below: Bonnie and Clyde and Newlyweds from the New York Times Wedding section

 

 

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