Sounds to Civilization

Van Talmage
11 min readSep 11, 2020

It is the enhanced use of sound that distinguishes humans from other primates, mammals, and creatures of nature. This enhancement led to language which led to ideas which led to civilization.

The socialization of hominoids came about from the sheltering together, particularly after the control of fire. Here is a brief, chronological summary of:

How We Came About:

· Big Bang and the introduction of matter (13.8 Billion years ago)

· Universe expansion and the collection of matter into stars, galaxies, etc.

· Our sun and the solar system (10 billion ya)

· Earth forms (4.45 billion ya)

· Origin of Life (3.8 billion ya)

· Age of bacteria and archea (about 2 billion years in length)

· Eukaryotes and the explosion of life (700 million ya)

· Biological evolution up to the point of primates (up to about 10 million ya)

· Bipedalism (out of the trees, 2 feet and hands)

· Control of Fire (sheltering together and better food and bigger brains)

So for the starting point for this discussion, our ancestors have gathered in groups and in live in close proximity to each other.

Now consider


Sound is an energy wave that moves through the environment (air, the medium). The energy causes a modulation of the air pressure, and, like other physical processes, the energy dissipates over time and the modulation drops to zero. But if someone within range feels the air pressure modulation, that entity “hears” the sound.

Sound definition:

the sensation produced by stimulation of the organs of hearing by vibrations transmitted through the air or other medium.

Some preliminary points:

Point 1: Sound is useless unless there is a receptor.

Point 2: Sound carries information.

The advantage of sound is that it is the most efficient technique in terms of energy use to convey information from point A to point B.

Think about early mammals who used sounds to alert them to nearby activities. Hearing sounds and associating them with warnings became a survival matter. Better hearing, better living. This applies to all creatures, not just hominoids. This is classic natural selection.

The nature of the information transferred is the important point here. What are the sounds heard, and what do they mean? In the example above, the sound of twig breaking could mean another entity nearby and, perhaps, triggering a flight response. The actual sound is converted into something with meaning and causing action. Not all sounds do this, but many certainly do. “FIRE” in a crowded theater has significant meaning and causes significant action.

Point 3: Sounds which carry information are transformed by the receiver.

In our case, vibrations of the ear drum are sent as signals to our brains where it is converted to some meaning. This is key, the conversion of information to a broader, bigger or more specific meaning.

Point 4: Sound, as communication of information is the most energy efficient technique for the transmission of this information (significantly and particularly at close ranges).

Consider two early hominoids separated by some distance (meters not miles). Assume one person wants to communicate that there is game nearby. Sound is the way to go.

They could use sign language and signals (and this was probably done), but think about the transmission of the information. The energy to produce the information is the energy to move the hands (arms, body). The signals are then conveyed because of light, because we can see. The light is free if it is sunlight. But sound production is easier than even hand signals. Sound more efficient than body language? But, more importantly, sound transfers information in the dark and around corners.

It is this efficiency of sound in communication which is the paramount reason for its importance.

So by this point (between 2 and 4 million years ago) our ancestors had become social creatures: groups living together. And it is here that the qualities of low energy sounds combined with the learning capabilities of our brain and the resulting creativity to allow our species to become the dominant species that we are today.

Now before the hominoids came together in this physical manner, mammals

· Already made sounds

· Sounds were used for warnings and other elementary types of communication

· Sounds carried information and this information had to be interpreted and given meaning

· The meaning as interpreted by the brain gave raise to actions

This was BEFORE there were hominoids.

Yet hominoids are going to seriously augment or enhance the use of sound. Hominoids will turn sounds into language.

The key is that hominoids greatly increased the repertoire of sounds produced and sounds understood. And while doing this we/they built brain structures that eventually allowed for the storing of “memories” and the ability to string sounds together to make larger meanings.

One aspect of how hominoid use of sounds is the large number of additional sounds. These were learned both to speak and to hear. By standing more vertical there was room for the vocal cords to get bigger and add function. That function was sound production.

In addition, obviously, we had to learn how to capture the sound and then interpret the sound. This is the more significant because it involves our brains and the storing of information, the translation of a nerve vibration into meaning (possibly causing action). This is the development that lead to language (and to civilization).

The increased size and functions of the vocal cords allowed for more sounds hence more communication and meaning. Hominoids turned that to their evolutionary advantage. The repertoire of sounds became huge.

You get a simple understanding of this by doing the following: say the alphabet slowly out loud and watch the positions of your mouth, your tongue, your cheeks: A B C D E F G …

We as humans have learned this. Speech and hearing are learned through pattern recognition and following others or visual clues. Just think about how we learn to speak. You listen and copy the sounds (words and language by now) of those around you. It is key to remember, that a word is really a sound and that sound is converted to other meaning.

Humans in caves and other groups were in close proximity. Close enough that sounds sent from one person to another did not dissipate and die out as the energy of sound waves drops due to air friction.

Low energy (therefore, easy and efficient) communication became possible and enhanced the group and social network aspects of hominoids. Better sound repertoires because of physical condition (vocal cords, bigger brains, better ears), better brains for learning because of bipedalism and fire, all combine for the evolutionary advantage of hominoids. We survived in part because of our ability to work as group.

Our Brains

Before getting a little deeper into language, let’s consider the brain, our brains. By now the neuroscientists have identified the parts or modules or areas of the brain and some of the main functions of these different areas. Hominoid brains have evolved (gotten bigger, changed) over time. Our primitive brains control and monitor our physical bodies and processes. But later additions to the more evolved brain deal with memory and thinking and other cognitive functions.

First, we, as living creatures, had to learn how to grow new brain matter, and how to (using our brains) do the things that enhanced survivability. When sound entered the toolbox of mental activities, it had to be turned into meaning and meanings had to be “remembered”. What is the learning process to store a memory or a “thought”, or some other image or sensation?

Living creatures learned this capability long before hominoids. By the time we climbed out of the trees we had sophisticated brains that managed bodies and kept biological entities alive long enough to reproduce. By the time of the primates, our bodies and brains were already amazing.

However, the addition of language and the huge increase in “meanings” and brain activity had an incredible effect on the world we live in.

At a deeper anatomical level, our brains are cells (neurons) joined in a “neural network”. By now we have seen pictures of the dendrites and axons and the sinewy or web-like structure of this network of neurons. We know of “electrical activity” passed along the pathways of this network. The electrical activity is transmitted because of chemical processes in the synapses (gaps between these neutrons).

This point bears repeating: our thinking is the result of chemical activity following the laws of physics, and it involves a physical, neural pathways which support electrical activity that is turned into thought.

Information is flowing via this electrical activity. Thought and beliefs come from chemical and electrical patterns in the brains. It seems likely that those patterns of activity that are used the most will predominate, (cells become stronger, faster electrical activity, higher concentrations of chemical components?) The patterns of thought (which more correctly are response to stimuli) get burned in at an early age.

Learning is the biological process of laying down new neurons or emphasizing existent ones to reinforce their use. My brother referred to this as “ideas are physical”. Long before language, creatures had learned to learn. By the time of primates, we had large and active brains and the biological capability to learn.

But Hominoids took it further.

Purpose of Sounds

So what were sounds used for? Warning and nurturing seem like the starting point.

A warning sound might cause a startled reaction as part of the response to a stimulus (sound). Example: a sound from one entity (such as a lion) that another entity (say a deer) hears and responds to. That response, that reception of the sound is a learned event (somehow) and there are likely pathways in the brain that translate the stimuli from the ear, to a meaningful action, such as running away.

Nurturing, the soft sounds of mother holding or cuddling an infant, easily could be translated into feelings of warmth and security. This is mothering from a time long before hominoids. The ability to capture sounds and translate them was clearly part of the mammal populations. Again, hominoids, with their greater capacity of sound production and reception would have taken this ‘learning’ ability to new heights (or new places or new ways of thinking).

If we started with one warning, it quickly became possible to distinguish sounds, which meant different sounds meant different warnings. The evolution toward language started.

The linguists probably have explored how we went from sounds only to language, but I admit to only these thoughts:

· Labels came first, that is, specific sounds for specific objects. (Argghhh……lion)

· Then actions, meaning that the object of the label referred to an act taking by someone or some thing. (, I want to eat)

· Then perhaps two sounds were put together (me eat) and sentences were born,

· Then label or sound some kind of concept or feeling. (A specific sound for love)

· Then concepts time, meaning both remembrance and anticipation or projection into the future.

It is easy to see how warnings multiplied into different sounds with different meanings. This is labeling and once sounds were meant to represent things, it became possible to make up new sounds for other items. Rain, food, night. And then came actions: sounds for move or eat or sleep. (Not words like I am using), but oral sounds.

Note that these different sounds had to be learned by the receptors. They had to be learned by the creators and then repeated or somehow taught to the receptors. The meaning had to be taught and captured in some kind of neural network pathway so that when the recipient heard the sound again, it meant something.

And it is easy to see that once this process of sounds-to-meaning got started, once the vocal cords and ears worked with the brain to record and translate sounds to meaning, then the use of sounds could explode to cover more and more items: ice, hot, soft, good (tasting), etc. Also more and more actions: run, kill, climb, smile, huh, have sex, etc.

From a time perspective, they (the scientists, the people who really study the details) say Homo Sapiens came together as species about 250,000–500,000 years ago. And language took a huge jump somewhere between 70,000 and 125,000 years ago.

All because humans had expanded the use of sound.

Onwards to language and civilization

Of course, now it gets interesting. Once the labelling of things and actions was well established, it wasn’t hard to name things that might not have existed. Images from dreams, feelings from inside ourselves (getting sick for instance), and other “concepts”. The idea of ideas came about. Ideas of things unseen.

But notice something else: internal dialogue. Do you have a stream of consciousness in your mind? Do you say things to yourself that you are not speaking out loud? Are you doing this in language? Are you using words and sounds to explain and say things to yourself? This is internal dialogue and it is distinct from “consciousness”.

Some people or more visual in their minds and the stream of consciousness could be image after image. And there are techniques for quieting the mind, the internal dialogue, to let ourselves just be. But for internal dialogue, there is nothing like the efficiency of sound.

I think this development of internal dialogue, the stream of thoughts that are associated with the sounds we have learned, was the fundamental enhancement that led to ideas and concepts as usual learning tools and the expansion of our knowledge. It was language that allowed us to ask why and what if and to expand our thoughts into things not yet discovered or invented or thought about.

If internal dialogue is a thing, then it had to start someplace. It doesn’t seem to be present in bacteria or at the start of life, hence, it came about through ordinary evolutionary process and persisted because it provided of some evolutionary advantage. It did come about until after the development of sound and hearing. If internal dialogue is done in language, then, even if it is not unique to our species, it a serious enhancement beyond other species. It is because we started talking that our group, our mates, our families became more survival. We progressed to ability to express and communicate ideas, even ideas not seen. We communicated, we collaborated, and we built.

It is these concepts or ideas, the ability to have concepts, to have ideas, to store memories, to form neural pathways and use them if very efficient communication that lead to civilization.

Some obvious early concepts or ideas were these: group organization with spiritual and political leaders, creation stories to help understand where we came from, relationships and patterns within family and questions about the nature of things. All of these are mental aspects that required language to develop and build on. The capturing of sound and putting it into language, and the development of that internal dialogue (and extension, or perhaps a precursor, of speaking) was critical to getting to our world today.

Eventually, we (humans) got even better: we learned to write down information, we learned to break sounds into phonetic symbols that led to writing and reading and recording of information. We learned to store information on walls, on scrolls, in books and eventually we got to the digital world and Google.

There is only one ancillary conclusion that comes from this: I think religion had to come after language and conceptual thinking had started. It did not come about until humans started asking why and how (in whatever sounds they used back in the day). If this is true, it is extremely likely that you have convincing argument that God is an invention of the mind and that God is created in our image (Father). This has implications because it affects the major fault line of our times: the science-religious debate. But we will leave this for a later time.


Sound communication is very energy efficient. We humans have used it to our advantage as we have learned about our world and taken over the planet as its most important species (for now, anyway). And this is really the question: will our advanced learning (concepts, ideas, theories, collaborations, organizational structures, rules and laws) be sufficient to solve the problems of our future. After all, we are facing Donald Trump and Climate Change.