If a boatload of babies washed up on the Galapagos, how would the babies fare?
Christine Kenneally ends her new book The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language by asking a collection of scholars:
If we shipwrecked a boatload of babies on the Galapagos Islands—assuming they had all the food, water, and shelter they needed to survive—would they produce language in any form when they grew up? And if it did, how many individuals would you need for it to take off, what form might it take, and how would it change over the generations?
It is an elaborate way of asking how dependent we are on the chain of elders who passed language on to us when we were small. The question gave me a chuckle because I was asking the same general question in 1970 and could never find anybody, linguist or not, who took it seriously. How times have changed. Kenneally’s score: 11 say yes some sort of language or protolanguage would appear; 2 say no language would appear; 1 says probably not and 1 it depends.
I used to tell my sixth-grade science students that in science we don’t determine answers by voting, and I would especially stress that doctrine when I knew the majority of students were wrong. But a survey like Kenneally’s is useful (and entertaining) because it shows trends and where the most fashionable evidence lies. In this case the point raised over and over by defenders of both yes and no is the case of the Nicaraguan sign language.
The yes party's position was simple: we have seen in Nicaragua that deaf children when brought together will invent their own language. The anti-instinct party says that the evidence isn't decisive because they were still living in a symbol-laden world, and interacting with people with language.
More surprising to me was the complete absence of reference to the universal presence of babbling in human infants. Deaf and autistic children babble even though the babbling does not lead to speech. It seems as much of an instinct as human behavior can be and, because associations are such an elementary part of perception, almost any hearing individual who randomly generates sounds will produce an association or two. Saying toto to indicate one's caregiver isn't really speech, but it's something, something more than the great apes manage. (I know that in the Kenneally question there are no caregivers, but that's a bit of minimalism that, if taken literally, ends her thought experiment before it begins.)
Also, nobody refers directly to the historical conversion of pidgin languages (protolanguages) into creoles (full languages). This change has happened many times in the past centuries, and Derek Bickerton established nicely that it was the children who converted Hawaiian pidgin into Hawaiian Creole. This feat was not accomplished in a nonlinguistic setting. The pidgin pre-existed the children, so these speakers were not like the lone infants on the Galapagos, nevertheless, the babbling of infants, the creation of the Nicaraguan sign language, and the conversion of Hawaiian English from pidgin to creole offers a pile of positive evidence that humans are born with more than a language-ready brain. We have a set of behaviors and social expectations that make some kind of linguistic communication sure to arise, assuming some kind of minimal social life.
Another interesting feature of Kenneally's survey is the way there seem to be no schools of thought. Even among Chomsky's collaborators completely opposite answers may appear. Chomsky did not provide an answer to Kenneally's question, but his two co-authors in his most recent paper on language evolution, Tecumseh Fitch and Marc Hauser, did reply. Fitch says the islanders would have a "fully stable language" by the fourth generation, although he offers no evidence for his argument.
Hauser is on the no team, but his explanation is entirely theoretical. The "language faculty requires input of some kind in order to be" more than internal thought. With no input, there is no output. (Again, we have no attention to babbling.) This position seems to require that a miracle occurred at some point in human history, for even if we evolved a language faculty we still needed to get input from somewhere else. I thought it was the most astonishing reply in the book.
The computer modeling enthusiasts also appear on both sides of the question. Simon Kirby gives the "it depends" answer, and says that his computer modeling shows that "certain features of the population appear to be critical for a novel language to emerge." Meanwhile, Luc Steels, who is also a leading computer modeler says unequivocally, "Yes. They would develop language. It's a social institution."
The no answer that makes the strongest appeal to facts rather than theory comes from Michael Arbib. "For us, as modern humans, it seems inconceivable that the very idea of language is something that has to be invented." His critical argument rests on the idea of the symbolic big bang that appears in the archaeological record less than 100,000 years ago, although Homo sapiens has been around for twice that length of time:
I believe that the brain of Homo sapiens was biolgically ready for language perhaps 200,000 years ago, but if increased complexity of artifacts like art and burial customs correlate with language of some subtlety, then human languages as we know them arose at most, 50,000 to 90,000 years ago. [p. 293]
That's the key argument for invention and, just as the no party has to have an answer to the Nicaraguan sign language, the yes group needs something to say about this big bang idea. The answers given in this book do not attempt to address it.
I thought the best response from the yes party came from Chris Knight because he considers the question from an angle that Kenneally herself refers to but never explores, the social differences that enable humans, even very retarded ones, to speak, while chimpanzees, even very clever ones, never do talk amongst themselves. First, Knight says, at its core language requires joint attention, and he goes on:
Like the use of paper money, linguistic communication depends entirely on trust. ... As we all know, chimpanzees, bonobos especially, have considerable innate potential for symbolic communication. Why is such potential not drawn upon in the wild? The reasons are political as much as cognitive. Chimpanzees don't hold one another to collectively agreed standards of public behavior. ... Where public trust is not the default state, individuals have no choice but to fall back on emotionally, persuasive, hard-to-fake gestures. [p. 297]
That is the split that dominates today.
- On the one hand are the people who see language as the manipulation of symbols,
- versus those who see language as a social interaction of joint attention and taking one another seriously.
If language is symbol processing, it becomes like writing, something our brains could handle, but which still took a long time to invent. For those who see speech as a shared activity, one based on a mutual sense of being part of a community, then those supporting instincts are what make the rise of language an inevitable feature of every generation.
Because they are talking about two different things, both sides could be right. That is to say, we might have a long evolutionary history in which we develop the biological urge to share attention and form a community by conversing, and a shorter cultural history in which we used that biology to invent cultural symbols and start manipulating them.