Composite evidence from several disciplines suggests that the human ability to use language started only about one hundred and fifty thousand years ago. Whatever it was that stimulated this, one amazing feature followed. Looking for an effective way to handle language the brain laid neural channels for speech along side those already well established for vision (rather like laying cable television networks along side telephone, gas or electricity services). The long-term impact of this has been significant. Although we talk in words we actually tend to think in pictures. It’s why a picture is said to be worth a thousand words. It’s why identity parades and photographs can convey more meaning than verbal descriptions. It’s why lovers often find it hard to describe the colour of their partner’s eyes, and it is why television has a broader appeal for many than radio. It is why we remember stories, more than theories – and why we so often find formal lectures and technical reports so very boring. (It is why this Paper is especially written to combine theory with anecdote… to hold people’s interest for longer than would normally be the case). Any parent accustomed to reading a favourite nursery story to their children of an evening will readily recall how, thinking their child already asleep, they will cut out a few words or sentences to speed things up. Instantly the child becomes fully alert, and issues a sharp rebuke. How, the parent wonders, can a very young child do this?
Fortunately for the evolutionary psychologists there are still just a few hunter / gatherer societies in existence in remote parts of the world that help explain such behaviours. Observing such people it is immediately obvious that story telling is an absolutely critical part of such societies’ existence. Night after night, year after year, the elders tell and retell the stories of their tribe. Woe betide any child whose attention wanders, for an otherwise kindly relative will so cuff the child that any thought of sleep disappears. Once the adult story teller has completed his tale one of the children will be required to tell another tale… an exact repetition of a story the child would have heard weeks beforehand. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our ancestors have been memorising stories since we first started talking. It is why cognitive scientists are beginning to note that not only are humans natural learners, we are natural teachers as well. It was the children who retold stories accurately who not only survived, but probably established a prestige that enabled them to mate more often than the less successful storytellers. (That is a thought to meditate on!). Learning a complicated story through constant repetition would drive many an adult crazy, but to a young child to learn through constant repetition is easy and even fun. When you were rebuked for missing out a few sentences from that favourite bedtime story you have to wonder at the power of all that evolutionary experience in your child’s brain.
Observing how the children of one of the last hunter / gatherer societies play is like seeing back into the nurseries of prehistoric times. The Hadza tribe in Tanzania now number less than a thousand people. They are thought to be a relict culture still functioning at a Stone Age level, most likely to have been typical of cultures forty to sixty thousand years ago. Not only is story telling a ritual practiced around the campfires each night, so also is the making of music. The Hadza sing a lot and make a kind of wind box by cupping hands together with intricate finger movements. While research on music making is still scanty, it appears probable that an ability to express emotions through music is even older than our ability to construct language, and almost as old as our empathic skills.
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Then take the issue of play. Play it seems is extremely important. Anthropologists suggest that the more complex are the cognitive processes of the species, the greater the importance of playfulness. Without play we don’t go beyond the normal and the predictable. Play is about experimenting in a moderately safe environment. Psychologists define it as “a state of optimal creative capacity.” It is about imagining alternative possibilities – as Einstein shrewdly noted, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” The word “school” comes from the Greek word “skhole” meaning both leisure and a lecture place; in other words a time and place where the exuberance of doing exactly what you enjoy meets the challenge of working logically – or, at least that is what school should do. Play is about learning how to correct mistakes so that, as an older person finding themselves between a rock and a hard place, the individual is not intimidated by risk. The ability to play appears to be yet another critical adaptation. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, chimed fifteenth century know-alls in the years before Roger Ascham.
The ancestral environment, the savannah on which the human race grew up, was fraught with risks. To observe Hadza men encouraging their sons to make perfect arrows was to see the best pedagogic skills ever legislated for under a government educational reform programme naturally practiced by “unschooled” men who knew that quality learning was about survival. The adult inspired the child, but never overawed it with the depth of its own knowledge. The adult never failed to praise; but it didn’t over praise. The adult constantly urged the child to experiment, to test the flight path of different kinds of arrows, and then to evaluate the results. That is how we humans were learning probably forty thousand years ago.
Those tribesmen taught their sons and daughters to read the natural signs around them with a sophistication that a reader of this Paper might expect to apply to a particularly interesting newspaper editorial. Those “stone age” people used many more of their innate senses every day than do those of us whose intellectual skills are measured in terms of the computer programmes we use, but whose computers we could never actually make. Those stone age tribesmen sniff, they sense temperature differences in a way we can’t, and they make fine distinctions between shades of colour that we don’t even notice. The youngest children create play-worlds of their own – where the adults live entirely in straw-covered huts hastily erected over small branches of wood the young girls make miniature toy “huts” of their own, and lift the occasional ember from the adult’s fire for their own “hearth.” The youngest boys endlessly experiment with their bows and arrows, occasionally wounding some of the chickens.
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Of the greatest importance to such early people was the progression of their dependent child to that of autonomous adult. This was a process that had to be completed sufficiently early to ensure that the young adult would be able to take on whatever were the responsibilities of the earlier generation before they died. While there is much evidence about the care and attention given by such people to the very young (as can easily be noted to this day in remote areas of Africa or elsewhere) there was absolutely nothing soft or sentimental about this. Amongst the nomads of the Zagros mountains of southern Iran, until very recently, adults spent much time and energy equipping every four-year-old to look after the chickens, the six-year-olds the goats, the eight and nine-year-olds the sheep, the ten-year-olds the asses and twelve-year-olds the donkeys – leaving only the bad tempered camels as needing actual adult attention! When the tribe moved everyone had a task to complete. As the child grew older so the tasks they were allocated became harder. Everyone was engaged, even if work frequently felt like play they all shared in the sense of achievement.
Such small-scale, self-contained communities depend upon the good will of their members to ensure cohesion, but such cohesion would have come at too high a cost if youthfulness lasted too long , and there was any undue delay in reaching adulthood. The adaptation that had earlier enabled the young to learn easily in their earliest years through intense emotional connection with older people, had to be balanced by an internal mechanism that prevented the children from becoming mere clones of their parents. In other words unless those close bonds which had characterized the earliest years were ruptured (forcibly if necessary) the young would not grow to be adaptable to new situations. Adolescence, it is now becoming clearer, is that deep-seated biological adaptation that makes it essential for the young to go off, either to war, to hunt, to explore, to colonize, or to make love – in other words to prove themselves – so as to start a life of their own. As such the biology of adolescence aims to stop children being merely clones of their parents. It is probably a time-limited predisposition, in other words if the adolescent is prevented (by over careful parents or a too rigid system of formal schooling) from experimenting and working things out for itself, it will lose the motivation to be innovative or to take responsibility for itself when it becomes adult.
We know that the Greeks and the Romans were systematic in forcing their young (for whom they would have had deep familial love) into proving their manhood under the harshest conditions. The initiation ceremonies of native Americans and Africans served a vital task; they showed which of the boys were tough enough to take on adult roles. Those that could not brought shame to their families. Former apprentices in seventeenth and eighteenth century England were forced out of the master’s workshop and had to prove, as journeymen, that they could earn their own living, and only then were they admitted to the trade guild, and allowed to charge a professional fee. Mary and Joseph’s bewildered response to their twelve-year-old son engaging the law makers in Jerusalem in a three-day discussion of the Hebrew law, would have resonated with sixteenth century London merchants who often found it more congenial to swap their sons or daughters with those of a friend for a few years! Often, it seems, parents are not well-placed to deal with truculent adolescents. Maybe there is too much of their repressed selves in the parent for them to easily accept the questioning of their own children’s adolescence.
What we do know, and what our ancestors have known for millennia, is that there is something going on in the brain of the adolescent, apparently involuntarily, that is forcing apart the child/parent relationship. Professor Lahn of Chicago has recently argued that humans “evolve their cognitive abilities not during a few sporadic and accidental mutations, but rather from an enormous number of mutations in a short period of time, acquired through an intense selection process favouring complex cognitive abilities” (The Guardian 30/12/04). Adolescence is a most obvious period of such complex, cognitive change. Neurologists are seeking explanations for such behaviour that go beyond simply the hormones associated with adolescent sexual development. What they are discovering challenges the conventional belief held until only a year of so ago, that brain formation is largely completed by the age of twelve. Whatever happened after that, it was assumed, was due either to hormones or bad experience.