People, Animals and Language - Dr. Caroline Meline
(People, Animals and Language (Fall 2017))

People, Animals and Language - Dr. Caroline Meline


Fall 2017 M/W 1-2:20 pm

Philosophers and scientists are still trying to find out how a young species, Homo sapiens, became thoroughly dominant in the world in such a (relatively) short time. What gave us our advantage? Was it basic consciousness? But we are not the only species to have this faculty. Was it self-consciousness? We are not unique in that regard either. Was it language? This could be the key, in that no other species has anything like our complex and open-ended linguistic ability, as far as we know.
Darwin upended human specialness by situating human beings wholly within a natural context, thereby depriving our species of divine intervention. That was a radical move that is still reverberating in the general understanding of human nature. Darwin said that humans are only different in degree, and not different in kind, from all other animals, and he was not talking solely about our biology. In The Descent of Man, Darwin showed that humans have descended from earlier animal beings psychologically, also. That is, not only our bodies but also our minds evolved. In that remarkable book, Darwin investigated the origin and function of language, albeit in a preliminary way, and others have continued the work. We will investigate the human/nonhuman animal connection with an emphasis on the evolution and importance of human language.
Readings: Charles Darwin, Descent of Man; Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind; Christine Kenneally, The First Word: The Search for the Origin of Language; Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind