Death and the Evolution of Language

Berta, Luca
December 2010
Human Studies;Dec2010, Vol. 33 Issue 4, p425
Academic Journal
My hypothesis is that the cognitive challenge posed by death might have had a co-evolutionary role in the development of linguistic faculties. First, I claim that mirror neurons, which enable us to understand others' actions and emotions, not only activate when we directly observe someone, but can also be triggered by language: words make us feel bodily sensations. Second, I argue that the death of another individual cannot be understood by virtue of the mirror neuron mechanism, since the dead provide no neural pattern for mirroring: this cognitive task requires symbolic thought, which in turn involves emotions. Third, I describe the symbolic leap of the human species as a cognitive detachment from the here and now, allowing displaced reference: through symbols the human mind can refer to what is absent, possible, or even impossible (like the presence of a dead person). Such a detachment has had a huge adaptive impact: adopting a coevolutionary standpoint can help explain why language is as effective as environmental inputs in order to stimulate our bodily experience. In the end I suggest a further coevolutionary 'reversal': if language is necessary to understand the death of the other, it might also be true that the peculiar cognitive problem posed by the death of the other (the corpse is present, but the other is absent) has contributed to the crucial transition from an indexical sign system to the symbolic level, i.e., the 'cognitive detachment'. Death and language, as Heidegger claimed, have an essential relation for humans, both from an evolutionary and a phenomenological perspective: they have shaped the symbolic consciousness that make us conceive of them.


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