Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Writing Is One of the Defining Features of Mankind

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I had dinner with a friend last night and among our philosophical musings was the impact of written communication on mankind. I suggested it is even one of the core distinguishing features between man and animal. The oral tradition of passing stories on from generation to generation gave individuals the capacity to pass on information beyond their lifetimes. Writing took that even one step further - it allowed one to share information from beyond the grave without the risk of the details being obscured or altered.

The animal kingdom relies on instinct and generation after generation essentially teaching their offspring the same tasks which they were taught. There isn't the opportunity for some grand evolution where one generation is able to preserve the knowledge it acquired to allow future generations to build on it.

Because of writing, however, man has the power to continuously build on past knowledge. What becomes especially significant about that power is that it means individuals do not have to possess a vast knowledge of how everything in their lives operates. One person does not need to know how electricity or phones or computers or automobiles or centralized heat and air operate to benefit from them.

These human luxuries are directly attributable to writing. When someone makes a breakthrough in research in, say, medical technology, then he or she can record that information in written form. That allows others to absorb that information even after the initial writer is gone. As a result, a new person can take what the first person knows and add to it and transform it into something even more evolved.

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That age-old oral tradition of telling stories around the campfire has had another significant impact on mankind. It has fueled our spirit for storytelling. Not only has written communication allowed us to expand the ability to record and preserve the knowledge we've gained from past generations, but the creativity. At one time, a story told around the campfire would take on a different tone every time it was told because of the individual storyteller. With the advent of written communication, however, the person who wrote down the story had the power to preserve it in a form which would not be reshaped and recrafted every time it was shared.

The experience of creating and telling stories is arguably as essential to defining mankind as is the ability to record and preserve past knowledge. We are an enriched species precisely because we have learned to read and write.