Human communication is evolving! Well, okay, maybe not.

Evolution is genetic change in a population over time. Sometimes so many genetic changes occur that the population can no longer breed with members of their original species. This population becomes a new species.

Populations can adapt to their environment, and pass those adaptations to the next generation by teaching or modeling the behavior. But those adaptations will not contribute to evolution unless: mutations with similar outcomes occur in the sperm or egg of multiple individuals, to change the bodies of the next generation in way that supports the adaptation.

Two weeks ago I had this sudden understanding that my brain has a relationship with words that is not the same as many people I interact with. I am sure it is not unique, and no better or worse than any other brain/word relationship. But that brain/word relationship has been so important in shaping my life, that I would tell you, without hesitation, that my very existence is made of words.

In that moment I also reflected specifically that my brain/word relationship is different than my 70 year old mother’s, and different than my 11-14 year old students’.

Generation gaps, education level, technology integration, lexicon and meaning changes, and social norms are all completely sufficient explanations for those differences. But I must have thought that was boring, because my mind leapt to entertain the question: ARE WE WITNESSING THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN COMMUNICATION?

Words are losing their meaning. The spelling of words and expressions is changing. Some are severely abbreviated, diminishing their resemblance to ‘standard’ words and making them appear more symbolic. I suspect the lexicon is shrinking. Words continue to have their meanings changed through creative use. The lack of proof-reading and editing is decomposing accuracy in the language. If words don’t have commonly known meanings they have lost their ability to convey an idea.

Technology is allowing people to invent new ways of communicating. There is a focus on making information more compact. There is, at least the hope of, comprehension that is as instantaneous as the transmission of the message. There is an emphasis on aural and visual communication, neither of which require words to take their ‘accurate’ form. New ways of communicating change us, because…

The brain is plastic. This is where my idea is 100% right and, sadly, completely wrong. Of course human communication is evolving! There have been changes in technology that are not going to be undone (until we run out of power, or all get disfiguring cancers). Our tools have evolved and our brains have adapted to their use. We hand those adaptations down to our children (earlier and earlier) by teaching them to use the new tools of communication. Then their brains change, earlier and faster than ours.

But those brain changes occur during our lifetime and do not affect the DNA that we, or our children, will use to reproduce. And that is where I am wrong. Mutations are random. Communication is a VERY complex event requiring multiple parts of the brain. And the selection pressure on communication is not very high, which is why we have such incredible diversity in this arena: deaf, mute, blind, developmental disorders, etc.

I am still hoping that the differential brain/word relationships are actually evidence of new and different brain structures emerging. That this is the murky middle, like when our first water bound ancestor with weird fins couldn’t swim as well as everyone else, but still couldn’t support its weight on dry land. I’m hoping for a future with fewer words, but more understanding. How I would love to witness that.


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