Language, if nothing else, is what fundamentally sets us apart from our oldest ancestors, apes. Homo sapiens shares with the chimpanzee almost 99 percent of genes. Yet it’s in this infinitesimal difference that “magic” happens: the emergence of a system of sounds that are not guttural anymore. Rather, they lead to the development of a complex language.
This language determined, in a significant way, a society that was not primal anymore, like the ones we find in groups of animals, built on consanguinity or interdependence. It contributed to lay the foundations for a complex society. And this society needed to communicate more nuanced concepts than the simple signals monkeys could express.
All of this comes into focus by recent research at the University of Vienna that revealed monkeys’ vocal cords would enable them to speak. It’s their brains that are not wired for it. It is fair to conclude, therefore, that it was circumstances, rather than biological makeup, that determined the more complex language of Homo sapiens.
But what caused the need for a such a developed communication system among the “most evolved primates”?
The strongest suspect is pragmatic need: the first primates that showed this kind of mutation distinguished themselves in their communities. They were better hunters or gatherers. As they were more successful among their peers, their survival possibilities increased. And so did the mating, allowing the heredity of the mutated genes.
There could also exist a correlation between their diet and language improvement. Chimpanzees and men share the same high neuron density, and hence have equal potential for evolution. Yet outer factors, such as the transition from frugivorous to omnivorous, may have required an expanded language, to outsmart other predators.
We have built civilizations, and unmade them, too. Man-made harm to the environment is not slowing. And we now know that evolution is happening at a much faster pace than initially thought. This surely does not mean that the Planet of the Apes is around the corner.
Yet it is fair to ask: what if monkeys evolved and bridged the gap of the few chromosomes that distance them from us? With a shrinking habitat around them, would their choices be different from ours?
Or would evolution condemn history to repeating itself?