In the Stanley Kubrick classic, 2001 a Space Odyssey, the monkeys at the beginning of the movie are all fundamentally changed when the jet black obelisk is found. The general interpretation of this is that it is at that moment that intelligence is triggered within their minds which leads to the use of tools.
While the movie creates an interesting premise for the unknown origin of intelligence it also brings up the fact that, like intelligence, there is no conclusive evidence that shows when or how language began.
There are many different leading concepts regarding the origin of language: Was there one initial language that branched off or were there many languages which spread and interacted with one another. But, as with the case of intelligence, evidence to make a conclusion towards any of these premises is lacking.
Although this may be the case, one thing we can say certain is that language would never have existed without humans developing a theory of mind.
In its essence, a Theory of Mind is the personal recognition that other people have different thoughts, ideas and feelings than our own. It is a fundamental necessity in the ability to empathize and interpret other’s actions, intentions and behaviors. Without a theory of mind you would never have the desire to share information or ask questions as you would never come to the conclusion that others around you have different information than you do.
And it is this last fact that spurs the need for language.
In children a theory of mind is not developed until after a theory of self has been developed which comes into play between 18-24 months. The theory of self allows for the infant to understand themselves as a separate entity of which their mind is in control. It is after this understanding that the child can start to develop their theory of mind which occurs between the ages of 2-5 which is also the same age when language development increases substantially.
While there are a number of other major developments for children around the ages of 2-4, the correlation between language development and the theory of mind is uncanny.
Animals on the other hand have shown, in very select cases, to have a theory of mind. In most cases animals do not exemplify any traits of having a theory of mind but they have been able to develop it as is shown by the Bonobo Kanzi. Kanzi was the first bonobo to use elements of language and has learned more than 200 words. Ravens have also shown some evidence of having a theory of mind as they infer when they are being seen by others which would require a theory of mind.
What if it is not language coming from intelligence but rather both language and intelligence coming from the development of a theory of mind? This development would have allowed for early humans to have the desire to ask questions of one another and share information. It would have led to the ability to work together and build shared ideas.
2001 a Space Odyssey’s black obelisk could have been perceived as a symbol for intelligence but it may be more accurately depicted as the moment early humans developed a Theory of mind which led to the need for language and in the use of language came an intelligent species.
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