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The solution to many of these riddles comes from an unlikely source.. the study of single neurons in the brains of monkeys. I suggest that the questions become less puzzling when you consider Giaccamo Rizzollati's recent discovery of "mirror neurons' in the ventral premotor area of monkeys. This cluster of neurons, I argue, holds the key to understanding many enigmatic aspects of human evolution. Rizzollati and Arbib have already pointed out the relevance of their discovery to language evolution . But I believe the significance of their findings for understanding other equally important aspects of human evolution has been largely overlooked. This, in my view, is the most important unreported "story" in the last decade.


Unlike many other human traits such as humor, art, dancing or music the survival value of language is obvious — it helps us communicate our thoughts and intentions. But the question of how such an extraordinary ability might have actually evolved has puzzled biologists, psychologists and philosophers at least since the time of Charles Darwin. The problem is that the human vocal apparatus is vastly more sophisticated than that of any ape but without the correspondingly sophisticated language areas in the brain the vocal equipment alone would be useless. So how did these two mechanisms with so many sophisticated interlocking parts evolve in tandem? Following Darwin's lead I suggest that our vocal equipment and our remarkable ability to modulate voice evolved mainly for producing emotional calls and musical sounds during courtship ("croonin a toon."). Once that evolved then the brain — especially the left hemisphere — could evolve language.

But a bigger puzzle remains. Is language mediated by a sophisticated and highly specialized "language organ" that is unique to humans and emerged completely out of the blue as suggested by Chomsky? Or was there a more primitive gestural communication system already in place that provided a scaffolding for the emergence of vocal language?

Rizzolatti's discovery can help us solve this age-old puzzle. He recorded from the ventral premotor area of the frontal lobes of monkeys and found that certain cells will fire when a monkey performs a single, highly specific action with its hand: pulling, pushing, tugging, grasping, picking up and putting a peanut in the mouth etc. different neurons fire in response to different actions. One might be tempted to think that these are motor "command" neurons, making muscles do certain things; however, the astonishing truth is that any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action, e.g. tasting a peanut! With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: "mind reading" empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to "read" and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds." (I suggest, also, that a loss of these mirror neurons may explain autism — a cruel disease that afflicts children. Without these neurons the child can no longer understand or empathize with other people emotionally and therefore completely withdraws from the world socially.)

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