Human Achievement of the Day: The Written Word

What makes human beings unique? It isn’t tool use. Finches, otters, baboons, and many other of our fellow animals use sticks, rocks, and more to build nests and find food.

Nor is it agriculture, though that particular revolution remains one of the most important events in human history. Ants farm aphids, and other symbiotic relationships exist in nearly every ecosystem.

Language doesn’t make us unique. Whales, birds, and even cats and dogs use sophisticated vocal and physical signals to communicate with each other, and with other species. In fact, many animals have distinct regional accents, the same as we humans do.

So maybe literacy and the written word set us apart from other species. Even if not, everything from a trashy celebrity news website to a university library is an amazing human achievement. As Kurt Vonnegut put it on page 133 of his posthumously published book A Man without a Country:

A book is an arrangement of twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten numerals, and about eight punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo.

Or even some Kardashian’s latest jaunt to a nightclub. But note that posthumous part. Vonnegut passed away in 2007. Because of the written word, you and I can take in his insights and stories just as vividly as if he were sitting with us in person right now. Whether he was writing in the 1950s as a young man, or in the current century as a literary elder statesman, it’s all there. All you have to do is pick up a book and read it.

The same is true of William Shakespeare, who died in 1616, more than four centuries ago. His complete works, which consist of over than 30 plays and more than 150 sonnets, is now available online for free. Nobody alive today is within a dozen or so generations of Shakespeare’s time—but because of writing, even today he still makes people laugh, cry, and learn about what it means to be human.

Julius Caesar—the subject of one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies—died a violent death in 44 B.C., more than two millennia ago. Unlike the man himself, his two books, The Gallic War and The Civil War, survive. And if, like me, you can’t read Latin, English translations are readily available. They remain valuable introductions to political posturing, which has changed rather less than the rest of the world over the years. I recommend them.

Going back nearly another half millennium farther in time, Confucius died in 479 B.C. But because of the written word, his ideas influenced dynasty after dynasty in China, right on up to the twentieth century. Even today, his name and ideas are known and respected across the world.

The most amazing part about the written word is that nobody invented it. The earliest known examples go as far back as early Mesopotamian city-states, whose merchants and bureaucrats used cuneiform writing on tablets to keep track of their accounts. Phoenicia, located at the fringes of the Greek world in the Eastern Mediterranean, used the first known alphabet (we get the word from alpha-beta, the Greek letters A and B). Ironically, Phoenicia would eventually spawn a colony named Carthage, which was Rome’s greatest enemy in pre-Caesarian times.

Back to more modern times. Writing is a classic example of what the economist F.A. Hayek called spontaneous order. No single person consciously planned the spoken versions of Latin, Spanish, English, or any other language—except for Esperanto, which turned out to be a dud. Nor did any single person plan how the written word would work.

People experimented, talked to each other, went through many trials and many errors, and over time writing just evolved. Whether on clay tablets, papyrus, paper, or pixel, it’s everywhere. And not just in the Mediterranean world, but in Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas—pretty much everywhere humans have lived, we have spontaneously evolved some kind of writing. Cuneiform, hieroglyphs, kanji, alphabets, and more all spontaneously evolved without any form of conscious planning or central direction. That is a true human achievement.

Which is why, for this year’s Human Achievement Hour, I intend to crack open a book—or my e-reader, which is another amazing human achievement—and absorb some wisdom from people who would otherwise be unable to share it across geography, generations, and language barriers. We live in amazing times.