Density, Learning & Language

I am slowly getting through Kenneally’s “The First Word,” and I came across a very interesting tidbit about how primates have been observed to best learn new skills.  This particular example in the book was about a group of orangutans that learned how to use a tool that other orangutans have not learned, and, apparently, one of the key reasons why this group has been able to learn such a skill is because the population density of the group is much higher than usual, so that are more opportunities to learn from and interact with others than is common for orangutans.

I immediately made the connection between this story and how cities have been so beneficial to our ability to learn and be creative.  The fact that so many people live in such proximity provides ample opportunities for people to learn from each other and make connections that they probably never would have thought of otherwise.  Human minds grow in the presence of and interactions with others, and the more interactions are possible, the more possibilities open to our minds making more connections and growing smarter.

I never had considered before that perhaps language as we know it did not exist until we began to combine our families with other families and develop cooperative communities, either urban or rural.  Language is such a pivotal part of who we are and how we think that it seems almost impossible to imagine a time when we existed without it.  We likely had gestures and certain vocalizations that together made a variety of, I guess, proto-languages, but, as Kenneally points out, language develops in the midst of ambiguity, and ambiguity must have been rampant as tribes began to cooperate with other tribes and trade with each other.  Suddenly, a point of the finger and a grunt wasn’t enough.  Living in larger groups not only forced us to develop more complex languages, but it also provided us with the experiences necessary to do so.

So, if language is one of the seemingly miraculous and fundamental qualities that makes us who we are, what if our tendency toward living in denser and denser packs is even more basic?  What if humanity as we currently know it – the modern, rational, trading, and talking human – all developed in the labs of the first dense farming and urban trading settlements?  And what happens to humanity when we try to engineer density and cooperation out of our lives?  Does seeking to live in far-flung subdivisions where we purposely isolate ourselves from our neighbors make us less human?  And if not, then is it completely coincidental that doing so occurred at the same time as America has slowly pulled itself apart at the seams?

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