Lewis Thomas on the awe-inspiring collective project of human language

From The Lives of a Cell:

There are lots of possibilities here, but if you think about the construction of the Hill by a colony of a million ants, each one working ceaselessly and compulsively to add perfection to his region of the structure without having the faintest notion of what is being constructed elsewhere, living out his brief life in a social enterprise that extends back into what is for him the deepest antiquity (ants die at the rate of 3-4 per cent per day; in a month or so an entire generation vanishes, while the Hill can go on for sixty years or, given good years, forever), performing his work with infallible, undistracted skill in the midst of a confusion of others, all tumbling over each other to get the twigs and bits of earth aligned in precisely the right configurations for the warmth and ventilation of the eggs and larvae, but totally incapacitated by isolation, there is only one human activity that is like this, and it is language.

We have been working at it for what seems eternity, generation after articulate generation, and still we have no notion how it is done, nor what it will be like when finished, if it is ever to be finished. It is the most compulsively collective, genetically programmed, species-specific, and autonomic of all the things we do, and we are infallible at it. It comes naturally. We have DNA for grammar, neurons for syntax. We can never let up; we scramble our way through one civilization after another, metamorphosing, sprouting tools and cities everywhere, and all the time new words keep tumbling out.

Complement with Maria Popova on reality’s density of wonder, Oliver Morton on humanity’s fascination with the moon, and Kevin Kelly on how technology creates opportunity.

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