People, Animals, Language, and Music Spring 2019
(People, Animals, Language, and Music Spring 2019)

Philosophers and scientists are still trying to find out how a young species, Homo sapiens, became thoroughly dominant in the world in such a short time (about 100,000 years). 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. And what about music? Is that ability unique to humans? In our course, we will start by examining the theory of evolution via natural selection and use it to explain the similarities between the minds of nonhuman and human animals. Next, we will explore a remarkable language experiment conducted over several decades with two species of great apes—chimpanzees and bonobos. Finally, we will focus on the questions of how human language and music originated. Readings include several passages from Darwin’s Descent of Man; the first two chapters of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari; most of Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin; The First Word: The Search for the Origin of Language, by Christine Kenneally; and the documentary film The Music Instinct with one or more related readings.