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Ever since Darwin came up with the whole idea of
evolution, there's been one dominant picture of the
moment we truly became human. It's that cartoon
sequence: You see a hairy ape man with a heavy
brow hunched in profile. Then, bit by bit, his back
uncurls and straightens until all of a sudden there is he, upright, truly a man. Recently I've been thinking about this image, because
I've decided that we somehow ended up with the
wrong one -- that there's something much more
fundamental to being human than our ability to stand
upright. Think, for a minute, about the beginning of your day.
If the beginning of your day is anything like mine, it
goes something like this: 1. About two hours before you'd actually like to be
conscious the numbers on your alarm clock hit that
magical combination, 6:15, and suddenly your room
is filled with a sound indicating that you are doing
something terribly, terribly wrong. 2. You make the alarm stop and head to the shower
where you listen to the news -- talking heads who fill
your brain with different pictures from faraway
places. 3. Then comes the problem of trying to dress yourself
for work. You leaf through the hangers in your closet
in search of something that might suggest
competence, professionalism, a sense of purpose.
You go through a lot of hangers. 4. Finally you find something, but as you're zipping
yourself up your 3-year-old comes in and decides
that the closet is not in fact a closet, but a train
headed for a distant locale. "We're going to ASIA!" he
screams over and over as he opens and closes the
closet doors about 2,000 times. 5. You head to the coffee shop for a cup of joe, give
the nice woman behind the counter $2, and stumble
out the door to work. You have been awake for approximately two hours
and almost every moment in your day has been
predicated not on your ability to stand upright, but on
something else entirely -- your completely
underrated, chronically overlooked capacity for
symbolic thought. Thinking symbolically is the foundation of everything
we do -- we live in a symbolic world. Symbols: Shorthand For Ideas I know what you're thinking: Just what is symbolic
thought? If you're fuzzy on this, don't feel bad. A couple of
weeks ago I took a tape recorder around NPR to see
if anyone could cough up a decent definition, and
basically what I got for my trouble was a tape full of
"umms," and the sound of people staring at the
ceiling. So then I posed another question: Name five symbols. This was much easier. In fact, an intern named
Connor Donevan reeled off close to half a dozen in
under two minutes. The Christian cross, the American
flag, a wedding ring, a designer label. When we think about symbols, these are the sort of
things that come to mind -- signs that act as a stand-in
or shorthand for a whole set of ideas. But in fact
symbols play a much larger role in our lives. Let's return to one of the most basic parts of your
day. Getting dressed. Every piece of clothing you place on your body is a
symbol. That leather motorcycle jacket or button-
down polo communicates to the world who you are,
what you believe in, and where you sit on the social
ladder, and it does that instantly. Alison Brooks, an anthropology professor at George
Washington University, points out that her school is
located only 30 feet away from the office of the
World Bank, so students and bankers are constantly
walking the same streets. But, she says, you can tell
in a second which ones are the students and which are the bankers. "Because the students dress like
students and the world bankers dress like bankers.
The [bankers] all wear suits or very formal clothing.
Each of those different populations gets up in the
morning and puts on symbols of their status." Symbols In Everyday Life Now let's consider the next moment in your day: Your
3-year-old has declared that he and the closet are
going to Asia. Asia, like America, is a concept that depends on our
ability to think symbolically. America exists only
because a group of people got together more than
200 years ago and decided that this great mass of
land directly to the south of Canada should bear that
name. California wasn't America, and then it was. It became
America because a group of people decided -- more
or less out of thin air -- that it was. And then they
fought a bunch of other people to turn this abstraction
into reality. The money you passed to the lady at the coffee shop
-- a symbol of the gold in Fort Knox, which it itself, is
symbolic of something else: power. And finally there's the stuff you heard coming out of
the radio during your shower: language. In order to
have language, any language, you need to be able to
think symbolically. Think of the word "cat." Even though the written word C-A-T looks nothing like
a cat, and the spoken word "cat" sounds nothing like
a cat sounds, when someone says the word out loud,
you're able to conjure up an image. Language, says anthropologist Brooks, is entirely
composed of these arbitrary symbols. "Every sound that comes out of my mouth has some
kind of arbitrary meaning assigned to it," she says. "I
could just as well be talking to you in another
language and making totally different sounds and
saying the same thing." The miracle is that these arbitrary sounds -- these
symbols -- allow us to see what's going on in other
people's minds and also allows us to share what's
going on in ours. For example, if I say the word "bead" you
immediately have a picture in your mind of what I'm
talking about. If I said beads, you'd generate a
slightly different picture in your mind, that I have
made your mind form. If I said glass beads -- using an
adjective to modify the concept -- you'd immediately see something different than if I said gold beads. In
this way, I make you think in your mind of a thing
that I have in my mind. And once we have this ability for symbolic thought
and language then all kinds of things become
possible. Through language we can pass down what
we've learned, organize larger and larger groups of
people who can do more and more complex things
like build bridges and schools and computers and practically everything else in modern life. Evolution Of Symbolic Thought The question to answer, though, is when did we get
like this? When is the first evidence that we had
acquired this magical ability and were finally
mentally modern? Museums are full of bones under glass -- fossils that
can tell us when we became physically modern. But
how do you find a fossil of a symbolic thought? Not very long ago a man named Chris Henshilwood
stumbled upon one possible answer to this question. Henshilwood is an academic in Norway, but when he
was a small boy, he would often visit his
grandfather's farm on the western coast of South
Africa. It was there one day in his youth that
Henshilwood discovered a cave half obscured by a
sand dune. Thirty years later, when Henshilwood was no longer
a boy but a new archaeologist trying to make a name
for himself, he went back to that cave and, under a
layer of sand, found several dozen seashells that
dated back 75,000 years. "They are the size, or even smaller, than the nail on
your pinkie," Henshilwood says. "They're very tiny
little shells, and really if you don't look at them
carefully, they are rather insignificant." Henshilwood originally dismissed the shells -- he
assumed they were leftovers from meals or other
activities. But then he put them under a microscope
and noticed that each of these small, insignificant
shells had a tiny hole in its lip. And that's when
Henshilwood had his epiphany: These shells weren't simply shells -- the shells were beads. "The hole that had been made was in the same place.
I could very clearly see under the microscope the
wear that had been made by the string or whatever
had been used to string these beads together,"
Henshilwood says. "And by the time I'd looked
through 30 I was convinced -- these are beads. These are the oldest beads yet discovered." Why are a few shell beads such a big deal? The handful of shells Henshilwood found was an
early version of the wedding band on your finger or
the golden cross around your neck. The beads were
symbols -- symbols that indicated to the people of
that community who this person was, what he
believed and whether he was friend or enemy. So with all of this in mind, I'd like to make a proposal:
It's time for a new iconic image of the moment we
became human. And here's the one I suggest: A hairy
ape man with a thick brow sits crouched, working a
tiny hole into a small shell. He pushes a strip of
animal hide through the hole. And -- suddenly -- you and I are born.

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