1.11 linguistic consciousness

There must have been a moment in history when acting from instinct became less dominant than acting from deliberation and consulting. No two captains on the ship of your thinking! With the advent of fire control, our ancestors demonstrated that unlike normal animals, they were no longer acting purely by instinctive reaction to sensory impulses.

Thinking? Animals? Of course animals do think. Most kinds of mammals and birds make scenarios in their brains: they weigh the different possibilities of what can happen or be done, in order to choose what is best. Intelligence is widely spread! We are used to seeing some kinds of animals or birds as more intelligent than other kinds, but every species exhibits its highest level of intelligence in its own special niche. The tortoise is the most intelligent animal in the tortoise niche. And where instinct is concerned: only ‘lower’ kinds of animals act exclusively by instinctive reactions. Group animals act largely by learning, example and intelligent trial and error. The animals we use to label as ‘most intelligent’, are nearly always group birds or mammals. But intelligence is also a personal quality: as far as intelligence is concerned, not all dogs are created equal.

But consciousness is unique to humans, isn’t it?
It depends on how we define ‘consciousness’. If you mean: being aware of one’s environment, then this applies to animals as well. Every mammal does continually process environment information, unless it has been knocked out.
Do you mean: self-conscious? Apes, elephants and dolphins evidently display self-consciousness. As proven in several experiments[1], they are able to look in a mirror and be aware that they see themselves.

What then is unique to humans?
The main difference is not that we, as all mammals, are thinking beings, but that we on top of this animal thinking have names for the things. And disposing of names for the things does 5 things with an animal, remember.

Animal thinking is the manipulating of things with representations (mental images of the things) in the brain.
In our human thinking, these representations have names (sort of mental labels, ‘handles’, ‘grips’) that enable us to ‘grasp’ things.
So we are able to handle things better: not just when communicating about them, but also for easier and more inventive thinking.
If we define creativity as the ability to combine things, then our names for the things make it easier to make new combinations, and therefore to think in a creative way.

So when we speak about a concept of ‘human consciousness’, we really ought to name this linguistic consciousness.
Consciousness is not unique to humans, but linguistic consciousness is.

  1. G. G. Gallup (1970) Chimpanzees: Self-recognition and after him many others on other animals in addition to elephants and dolphins.

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Used abbreviations

GHs: gatherers/hunters (the phase from 2 million years ago to 10.000 years ago)

AGRs: agriculturers (the phase from 10.000 years ago till now)

NT(s)Neanderthal people

MSA(s): Middle Stone Age people (African NTs)

AMH(s): Anatomical Modern Humans (H sapiens people), like we are

(m)ya: (million) years ago

ANBOs: Ancestor Bonobos (ape-men), our earliest human ancestors

Paleos: all scientists that are important for our story.