Cyrano and Scheherazade

A classic symptom of paranoid schizophrenia is the belief that alien beings sometimes transmit their thoughts to us through invisible waves that influence our behavior. But every professor of linguistics knows that all ordinary people routinely transmit their thoughts to us through invisible waves that influence our behavior. The linguistics professors sound even more paranoid than the schizophrenics, but they simply have a greater respect for language. Most schizophrenics, like most other people, take language for granted, whereas language researchers recognize it as a signaling system of almost miraculous power and efficiency.

To other animals, we must seem a species endowed with telepathic powers. Consider things from a mammoth's perspective, a hundred thousand years ago. You are peacefully browsing somewhere in Eurasia when you spot a previously unknown type of two-legged primate. The creature watches you for a few minutes, then runs off. A few hours later you see a few of the creatures loping toward your vicinity, carrying pointy little tree-branches. How would a bunch of them suddenly know you were here? Must be a coincidence. Anyway, they don't look big enough to hurt you, since you stand ten feet at the shoulder and weigh about 14,000 pounds. But one of the creatures suddenly makes some strange squeaky sounds, and instantly all of the horrid little things start trying to stab you with their pointy branches. How annoying! You lumber away from them, but they make more squeaks, and a few seconds later another band of them springs up from a hiding place in front of you. Another coincidence? The ones in front have somehow set the grass on fire, not in one place the way lightning would, but all at once, creating an impassable wall of crackling heat. You must turn back. Yet the creatures behind you are still there, looking more confident, like the pack-hunting carnivores you feared as a youngster. Time to deploy your defense against pack-hunters: charge one until it's injured, then another, until selfish fear breaks down their coordination. Your tusks manage to injure a few, but every time you charge one, the others try to stick their pointy branches into you, all at once. Their coordination just will not break, and they continue that infernal squeaking as your stab wounds accumulate. Worse, as you weaken, one of them points to your head and squeaks loudly, and then all of the pointy branches are being aimed at your eyes. Within minutes you are blind, and charging blindly, but the stab wounds come more quickly now. New, higher-pitched voices are now audible: perhaps their females and young already calling for your meat to be pulled from your bones. Your last thought before you bleed to death is: I am extinguished by a bunch of little bodies that weave themselves, through that odd squeaking, into one great body with dozens of eyes, dozens of arms, and one lethal will.

This Pleistocene fantasy could be criticized on many counts. It may overestimate the awareness of mammoths, though I doubt it, since their brains were five times the size of ours. It may over-estimate the hunting ability of our recent ancestors, though I doubt that too, since there is fairly good evidence that they hunted many species of mammoths, mastodons, and elephants to extinction in the last hundred thousand years. The real problem with most fantasies like this is that they show the telepathy-like power of language being used only in the struggle for survival. Doubtless language was useful in coordinating hunting, as it was in many survival activities. But language was also sure to be useful in courtship. In this chapter I shall put survival selection to one side, and consider how our ancestors developed the ability to fall in love by talking to each other.

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