Art Predated Language

As a species, homo sapiens sang, fashioned crude tools and drew before we talked, wrote, did sums, or created designs. I’m lead to believe this is true. We were artists, in a very practical sense, long before we were anything else.

It was through art that we developed abstractions, hence grammar, hence higher consciousness. 

Had it not been for our pictorial representations of animals, our hands and the stuff of life, applied to the walls of caves, we’d have never had the intellectual organisation to represent thoughts as utterances, which others code decode and respond to. It was through sharing meaning pictorially that we gradually developed the ability to convey ideas of significance to others, in richer, more elaborate ways.

The ability to express thought, in an understandable way, leads to the ability to have thoughts that simply weren’t thinkable, in the absence of an organising grammar. Organising thought, in order to communicate it, leads to new thoughts, insights and categorisations. Humanity is so remarkable, it invented a multiplicity of grammars; many quite different to each other and some, undoubtedly, long extinct.

The development of grammar leads to higher abstractions, like writing, reading, mathematics, architecture, engineering, programming languages, automated cloud orchestration, serverless computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer aided tomography, and augmented reality. Each abstraction uses earlier abstractions as its foundation. 

Our highest intellectual achievements, like poetry, symphonies and code, all rely on imaginative structures, which are self-similar to the structures they rely on. Intelligence is somewhat fractal in nature, since each layer of abstraction bears similarity to earlier, more primitive abstractions. Similar, but different.

The problem with artificial intelligence (AI) is that it doesn’t sing to its children, or draw pictures to communicate. There’s no love or care for other AI entities expressed. AI lacks a motivating reason to create better abstractions, other than the impatience of investors expecting profits.

AI doesn’t go back to first principles, because AI researchers are in a hurry to leapfrog what humans had to learn through millennia of thought evolution. Why do we think shortcuts are possible or wise? Do we lose anything, if AI doesn’t first learn to sing and draw? Nobody knows. I doubt it’s a question that is even addressed, in the AI programming cubicles of universities and corporations. 

We think we know what we’re doing, because we’re arguing from the highest levels of abstraction possible, for human thought, but isn’t there great value in examining all of the layers of abstraction beneath, very carefully? Ignoring those structures of ideas and what lead to their existence could be extremely foolhardy. But nobody really knows. It’s not a question often asked.

Ultimately, we owe all of our intellectual development and accomplishments to coloured mud our ancient ancestors applied to stone walls, in an attempt to communicate what they were thinking.

Art could do this again. Art could be used to raise the quality of our human thoughts and abstractions, beyond being the obedient, manipulable pawns of capitalism. Art is an excellent means for creating new abstractions and building upon them, infinitely. It might be more powerful than software.

Just a thought.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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6 Responses to Art Predated Language

  1. Emma Cownie says:

    And the earliest art seemed to be lots of hands or animals. Its very powerful to see these things thousands of years later. Just this morning, I was listening to this short radio programme on the lion/man figure from 40,000 years ago.

  2. Helen says:

    I’ve often wondered if we would communicate better if humans hadn’t developed language !

    • I think language is an important development of our capacity for thinking in abstractions, but I also think we should remain mindful of the potency of using our original means of visual communication. Sometimes, going back to first principles is a powerful thing to do. Thank you very much for commenting.

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