What Is Nature-Harnessing?

Nature-harnessing is how we came to have spoken language, writing, music, and the arts. It’s how we Homo sapiens became the modern humans we take ourselves to be today.

In my research and new book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, I provide evidence that we never evolved to possess language and music. Instead, these keys to our modern selves were once invented, and then cultural evolution sculpted them over time to be better and better shaped for our ancient brains.

And what was the trick to making language and music well-shaped for our brains? It was to fashion them to mimic nature. Language and music became shaped like fundamental aspects of nature, and in this way could harness non-language and non-music brain regions to do new, modern tasks (namely, language and music).

More specifically, what aspects of “nature” have writing, speech, and music come to mimic?

Writing looks like the sorts of contours we find in natural scenes—namely, when there are opaque objects strewn about. For example, Ls and Ts happen commonly in natural scenes, but Xs do not, and we find the same pattern across more than a hundred writing systems over history.

Speech sounds like fundamental event sounds from natural scenes—in particular, the sound patterns that occur when solid objects are involved. They hit and slide and ring, and I show that human speech across the Earth follows the same patterns.

And music? I provide a myriad of evidence to show that music has the signature sounds that people make when they move and do stuff in your midst. Music is an auditory portrait of a person moving evocatively in your midst. That’s what your lower auditory brain thinks it’s hearing, which is why music is distinctly emotional (compared, for example, with sterile speech sounds).

The biggest secret to who we are today is not hidden in our genes but hidden within the nature-harnessing patterns of strokes on this page, the sound structure of speech, and the way music is organized.

Mark Changizi is the director of human cognition at 2AI Labs and the author of the new book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.

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