I had the pleasure of attending scifoo-11. I met some terribly interesting folks, and got to talk a bit about my theory of illusions, and do a session on Harnessed.
One thing led to another, and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek got hold of my book, “read it with fascination,” and gave it a review at Edge.
Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics, MIT; Recipient, Nobel Prize in Physics, 2004; Author, The Lightness of Being
Mark Changizi re-imagined the transition from ape to human. Physical aspects of that transition are documented in the fossil record, and in our DNA, but what about the mental aspects? How, specifically, did the abilities most characteristically “human”—speech, writing, music—get any traction? Here we face an evolutionary conundrum, for those abilities appear useless until they are fully developed (or even after, in the case of music), while evolution by natural selection must proceed by small steps, each contributing to fitness. Darwin himself worried, on similar grounds, over the emergence of sophisticated eyes; the linguists’ postulated organ of language poses, if anything, a knottier puzzle. Changizi proposes that human speech, writing, and music are grounded in much simpler natural abilities. His proposals are impressively specific: basic speech sounds derive from the sounds of impacts among solid bodies; the basic symbols of writing derive from recurring features of natural scenes; the basic elements of music are abstracted from the natural sounds accompanying human (or ape) movements. Biologically useful abilities to discriminate and interpret those features of the natural world evolved, through relatively small steps of abstraction, into our human toolbox. I took Changizi’s Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man — a freebie at Scifoo! — home, and read it with fascination. It describes many oddball facts about language and music that his ideas make sense of. I’d be amazed if everything he says is right; but at this point I’d be even more surprised if his main ideas, which crack open riddles that have annoyed me for years, aren’t on the right track.
Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of
Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man and The Vision Revolution.