Chris Knight is an anthropologist with an interest in language origins. Along with his new book, Decoding Chomsky, (reviewed here), in which he does a great job of pointing out this particular emperor’s nudity, he has published an intriguing paper in Language and Communication, titled “Puzzles and mysteries in the origin of language” (abstract here). He gets straight to his point: “Language evolved in no species other than humans, suggesting a deep-going obstacle to its evolution.” The point is critical. It is not enough to propose a reason for language’s presence among humans. You also have to explain its absence everywhere else.
I have argued on this blog that language is a tool for sharing news about topics of mutual interest. This view of language is the one Knight says “presupposes anomalously high levels of mutual cooperation and trust….” But, says Knight, “One possibility is that language simply cannot evolve in a Darwinian world – that is, in a world based ultimately on competition and conflict.”
The need for cooperation and trust explains why other species don’t have language. They live in a Darwinian world where everybody is endlessly competing. The alarming feature of this observation is that it suggests language is not possible amongst humans either. Frankly, I’m amazed that the creationist forces in America do not constantly bang this drum.
Knight then looks at three theories that place language and Darwin in opposite columns.
Noam Chomsky. The famous linguist has a theory of language in which the whole must have originated in a single mutation that gave Homo sapiens the ability to think unbounded thoughts. The change to the brain happened to fit perfectly with the pre-existing brain so that the user could think correctly in an entirely new way. Chomsky says the perfect fit is so peculiar it suggests a “divine architect.” (The Architecture of Language, p 20). So Chomsky is not a Darwinian.
Amotoz Zahavi. I confess, this is a new name for me. Turns out the man is an Israeli ornithologist who is responsible for the modern understanding of how communication systems in the non-human world evolve. In essence, the argument holds that animal communication imposes a cost, so an animal willing and able to bear the cost must really be able to afford it. For example, a gazelle that jumps up and down (stotts) instead of running away must really be able to run away especially quickly if it is chased. If a lion, say, chases the stotting animal, the gazelle had better really have been able to afford the time-wasting display. Stotting communicates to the lion that the animal is in such fine shape, it is not worth pursuing. Sure enough, lions get the message and are more apt to chase non-stotting than stotting gazelles. Suppose a gazelle has a bad limp but decides to bluff it out and stott anyway? To bluff, stotting would have to be a cognitively-based act, rather than a reflexive one, and cognitively based communication systems can lie. Therefore, only reflexive systems are reliable. Therefore, lions will take stotting seriously, only if experience shows the cue is trustworthy, and it will only be trustworthy if gazelles cannot bluff-stott. Reliable communication systems must be reflexive, but language is a deliberative communication par-excellence and lying with words is both cheap and easy. So language cannot evolve.
Dan Sperber. Sperber is a French anthropologist, well known to the linguistic world as co-author of the pragmatics classic, Relevance. He maintains that humans live in a world of fictions and lies. Our ceremonies are inefficient forms of balderdash. Our languages always depend on inferences and metaphors, and metaphors may be defined as lies asserted as truths. The Darwinian process should quickly weed out inefficiencies of these sorts.
If we look at the non-human world, we see the competitive, reflexive world Darwinism describes. Amongst primates, the vocal-auditory channel that humans use for language is the least flexible, least controllable of the communicative systems. Meanwhile, in humans it is subject to enormous, deliberate control. Language is the great exception to Zahavi’s rule that to be reliable, communication must carry enough of a cost to make lying too expensive to tolerate. If “actions speak louder than words,” why ever substitute actions with words? Chomsky avoids the problem by denying that language is a communicative tool, although he still cannot offer a Darwinian explanation for the origins of grammatical thinking.
The problem, as Knight sees it, is that language “presupposes unrealistic levels of trust.” Yet language does exist. We have evolved a vocal system that we can control. What’s more, we have plainly benefitted from this system. Humans have been able to spread across the world because we can share the knowledge that enables us to find the food and behaviors needed to prosper in new ecological niches. This situation would serve to refute Darwinism, if evolutionary theory were really stuck with a purely selfish system, one in which every individual acted only to protect itself or its most closely related kin. This blog has long argued that multi-level selection theory is an absolute must if we are to understand human origins as natural.
Multi-level selection says that natural selection can occur at different “levels.” The first level is “gene selection.” Individuals compete for the survival of their progeny and those with the best genes win. A second level is “population selection.” Individuals in a population cooperate for the survival of the group’s progeny, while the populations compete with one-another. Theoretically, there is no limit to the end of levels of selection. A third level might be a collective of populations, in which collections of populations compete with one another. Multi-level selection permits extensive cooperation within the population and should even promote trust and communication.
Trust and communication is not limited to Humans. Consider, for example, the multi-cellular body. Single-celled animals like amoebas and paramecium compete with one another directly, but cells cooperate in multi-celled bodies, even at the expense of their own life. Cells in our bodies die and are replaced all the time. If they quit cooperating and become selfish, they become cancers that have to be dealt with. The simplest of multi-cellular life forms seem like colonies of cells, but long before they reached the human level they were specializing in particular tasks. The cells communicate via neurons and hormones and are dependent on one another for survival. If a cell separates from the body, it dies. In multi-cellular organisms, the organisms compete while the cells do not.
Eusocial insects are another example of co-operative, trusting evolution. Ants, for example, work together in colonies of members with different roles. They are organized through a network of complex communications that enables them to respond appropriately to events as they arise. Individual ants come and go while the colony persists. If an individual ant is separated from the colony, it must find its way back or it dies. Ant colonies compete; individual ants do not.
Now look at humans, an amazingly dependent species. Births are typically accompanied by supporting figures. Offspring are not able to fend for themselves until many years after they are weaned. Instincts in children seem to focus more on directing the young to learn from their neighbors than by simply directing their behavior. Even after puberty, humans undergo an adolescence in which they are initiated into key details of their culture. Humans commonly feel social obligations toward others, often work in teams, and their meals tend to be social occasions in which food is shared rather than coveted. Human trust and cooperation is not as fully developed as in the other examples we have seen, but compared with apes and monkeys we have been much more successful at pushing competition up to the group level.
Humans are unique in using language, but the bigger picture of being part of a cooperative community is merely unusual rather than unprecedented. The presence of trust, shared knowledge and cooperation seems to require unusual but not impossible circumstances. Thus, answering the question of how language began becomes part of a more general inquiry. How did trust and the cooperative spirit that language requires become a feature of the Homo lineage?