Aristotle taught that all knowledge comes through the senses.
Part I summarized Chomsky's theory of internal language and said that an alternate theory is possible. In this part I present that alternative.
Alternate Theory: Community
First, we can say there are several fundamental differences between humans and other primates, not just one.
Plato also believed that concepts are more real than reality.
I recently watched a long YouTube video of Chomsky speaking pretty familiar stuff. The part on language origins was especially trite; it left me unsure whether to laugh or shake my head. So much for that old man, thought I.
Then Christina Behme posted a comment on this blog with a link to her book review denouncing Noam Chomsky's The Science of Language. For a moment I thought perhaps the linguistics world had come full circle. Chomsky's stardom had begun with a take-down book review, so it might end. Of course the review does not satisfy those anticipations. I suppose it could not. Chomsky was reviewing a book that set forth a theory that, as Chomsky demonstrated, was inadequate to account for the facts of language. One of Behme's complaints is that Chomsky does not set forth a theory, so it couldn't be knocked down.
The father of modern philosophy.
Really, the opposition to natural selection by so many orthodox linguists is a scandal. The latest example is in Biolinguistics (here) in which the authors seek to refute Derick Bickerton's paper (PDF here), which I discussed in Biology Without Darwin? Bickerton's point was that even if a process is self-organizing rather than genetic, it becomes fixed in the species only through selection.
I have often thought that if I could just get a grip on the reason Chomskyans have such a distaste for natural selection, I would have a much clearer grasp of what at lies at the root of our disagreement. Chomsky is making an assumption; I hold a counter-assumption. They are so basic that I can stare them in the face and not see their radicalism. So I was relieved to find a paper by Francesco Ferretti and Ines Adornetti titled "Against Linguistic Cartesianism" (abstract here) that at last made the obvious pop out at me.
If there is one thing Chomsky has taught us about sentences, it is that they are unbounded. A clever person can always write a longer sentence. So I was interested when I read British anthropologist Robin Dunbar's latest paper on language origins (here) and found this sentence, "it may be no coincidence that the levels of intentionality that adults can cope with is the same as the level of embedding that we can cope with in sentences." [p. 56] With this concept of coping, Dunbar seems to be hinting that he believes sentences are bounded after all—maybe not by syntactic rules, but by psychological ones.
Thhis blog was unavailable for days, apparently due to some denial of service attack. I am also disturbed by Typepad's poor handling of the situation. They completely botched their obligation of keeping me informed of what was happening, and I assume they were equally awful toward their other clients.
I see that Derek Bickerton has a paper in the latest issue of Biolinguistics (PDF here). Bickerton is an interesting man who has done major work on pidgins and creoles, and he has thought hard and creatively about languag origins. He is interesting too because he combines an excellent knowledge of generative linguistics with a questioning ear. As he puts it, "Fears [are] widespread… that biolinguistics may turn out to be merely a more scientific-sounding term for generative minimalism…" [p. 73]. That is to say, he fears that biolinguistics, like generative linguistics, will continue to ignore biology and biological methods. He examines several issues in the paper, but in this posting I shall limit myself to natural selection.
The same issue of Biolinguistics reviews a new book by Bickerton and the review authors imply that Bickerton agrees with them in downplaying natural selection. Nobody reading the Bickerton paper is likely to make that mistake, but it is striking the number of generative linguists who doubt or outright deny natural selection's role in language origins and functioning.
If there is any presupposition I've brought to this blog and maintained throughout, it is the role of natural selection. Bickerton's paper reminds me of several assumptions that flow from this basic one:
Natural selection is a process that tests generations according to the variation within members of a population. The varieties that are less well-adapted to the needs of the moment fail the test. A rival process is called drift, weeding out individuals randomly.
Why should I prefer selection to drift? Drift is very common, perhaps accounting for more traits in any individual than selection. Drift might account for, say, the difference in patterns of zebra striping in Grant's and Burchell's species. It does not account for complicated systems like vision. Why not? The odds against random events alone producing an elaborate organ like the eyeball are too great to be endured. Add a functioning link like the optic nerve, plus a useful region of the brain like the visual cortex and there aren't enough atoms in the universe to support the probabilities. The only way a complex system can evolve is for a simpler system to emerge and for more complex varieties to be selected as they arise and prove superior. (Bickerton points out that evolution can also simplify, but that is irrelevant in this discussion.)
Chomsky famously denies that there is significant variation in language, or at least the kind of language that he is interested in:
The term 'language' as used in this context means internal language, sometimes called "I-language," the computational system of the mind/brain that generates structured expressions, each of which can be taken to be a set of instructions for the interface systems within which the faculty of language is embedded. [quoted from here]
In short, we all share an I-language which has no significant variation around the world. I have never believed in that proposition, which is why this blog is about the origins of speech, a behavior, rather than language, an abstraction.
Originally, I suspected that this denial of variation eliminated Chomsky from contributing anything fundamental to the story of language origins, but I have modified my views. These days I believe that language rests on perception and attention, most of which is older than the Homo genus and that, as far as human evolution is concerned. has not varied signifcantly. Perception thus does provide us all with a universal grammar that is readily translatable.
Variation, however, did matter after we began using language to share perceptions. Language today lets us say much more than perceivables like cat or little, so the details of how we evolved the ability share perceptions would show variety.
It was in early 1970 that I first realized language must have an evolutionary history, and therefore must have had some reason for being selected. I saw right away that this would be a hard one. Language seems so useful that almost any reason might explain it, except that it would seem useful to other animals too. Why don't they also use language?
The answer I currently favor is that when African woodlands gave way to open savannas animals of many species had to adapt or get the heck out of there. Our ancestors adapted by becoming more communal, trusting in one another to a greater degree than was previously prudent. Language was one more adaptation to this new, cooperative world.
The generative approach sees language's public role as secondary (the primary role being thought and planning) and dependent on the I-language. Again, I would not disagree if you think of the I-language as the perceptual system, but Chomsky reverses the process. Instead of translating perceptions into words, the interface that makes I-language public translates words into perceptions. ("the sensorimotor systems … externalize expressions in production and assign them to sensory data in perception")
Bickerton reports that during the peer-review process for a paper an anonymous reviewer objected to his "plain radical externalism" . If natural selection has played a role in linguistic history, the story will inevitably be about the adaptation to externals rather than the perfecting of processes according to some non-environmental measure.
Bickerton's contributions to linguistics includes the notion of a protolanguage, a form of speech that preceded contemporary language. Chomsky and others have rejected the idea on the grounds that language is an all-or-nothing proposition. Bickerton laments,
I can think of nothing more likely to create a barrier between biolinguists and a majority of biologists than the former's insistence that language emerged ready-made "pretty much as we know it today" .
Along with the blindness to evolutionary processes, the denial of stages makes the study of linguistics clinically useless. Language problems are common enough in the pediatric world and can persist through life. Strokes introduce many specific language problems. Many people are looking to understand what goes wrong, but generative insistence on the whole pie at once offers no help in supplying medical or teaching hypotheses.
Another point Bickerton makes is that by denying that language evolved over a period of time, linguists trivialize the role of language in the evolution of humans:
The evolution of language must have taken place during the evolution of humans, as a part of that evolution, and indeed, given its importance in their subsequent development, as arguably the most important part of that evolution. In fact, surprisingly little of the literature, biolinguistic or other, makes any serious attempt to place language evolution in the context of human evolution. But even in that company, Hauser et al. (2002) stands out as being perhaps the only work on the evolution of language that includes not a single word about how humans evolved. [83-84]
If you say that the only peculiarly human feature of language evolved at a stroke, and that this stroke came fairly late in the story (e.g., when Homo sapiens was already a hundred thousand years old) then all the other parts of human evolution that are older—the tool making, the use of fire, the enormous growth in brain size, the ability to adapt to niches across Africa, Asia, and Europe, the intense cooperation and communal life styles, the introduction of child and adolescent stages in the life-cycle, and the ability to survive on the open savanna—happened entirely without language. Of course, it may be that such was the historical case, but it sounds unlikely and should not be asserted a priori.
Alternatives to Natural Selection
If you don't like natural selection and are unwilling to call yourself a creationist, what do you do? You can blame it all on drift, but creationism is more probable. Another attempt at a solution points to all the new things that have been added to our understanding of heredity and development in recent years. Epigenetics, evo-devo, and self-organization processes are especially popular as alternatives natural selection. Bickerton argues that this response is a "category mistake" . That is to say, it is wrong to suppose epigenetics is an alternative to natural selection, just as it would be wrong to suppose that the horse is an alternative to transport.
The idea of natural selection was Darwin's great contribution. He argued that traits were selected, but he did not know what determined those traits. Early in the 20th century, Mendel's theory of genes was discovered by biologists, and a key idea in evolutionary theory became that the gene was what was selected. The so-called Modern Synthesis put the whole emphasis on genes. But in the last few years it has become apparent that the Modern Synthesis is going to need modification to take into account things like epigenetics, behavioral pushes, and automatic organization. The gene is only part of the evolutionary process. The story is more complicated than the Modern Synthesis supposed, but that is not a strike against natural selection.
Epigenetics etcetera are alternatives to genes, not to natural selection. Biologists used to think that genes were the only sources of individual variety. Now we know there are many sources, but evolution is still the same old story, a testing of individuals to determine which varieties are passed on to the next generation. Thus, theories of language that deny it has variety, or that it is an adaptation to external conditions, or that it evolved in stages have nothing to say to anyone who thinks language has a biological component and wonders how that component may have arisen.
Does a martial-arts action strike you as a well-executed ballet or a confusing oleo of hands and feet?
The current thesis favored on this blog is that language is a system for directing one another's attention so that we can share perceptions, real, imaginary or metaphorical. As it stands now I propose that human evolution began with the formation of communities based on cooperation and sharing. Once our ancestor moved from social to communal arrangements the normal, individualistic, Darwinian impediments to sharing gave way to the group benefits of cooperation and trust. Language became a part of the new order in which, initially, people spoke literally, pointing out perceptible details of reality.
Having spent some years assembling the ideas in that last paragraph, I am these days mainly interested in two questions: What new evidence have you got to challenge the thesis? What new evidence have you got that supports it?
In this regard, the current issue of Language and Linguistics Compass includes an interesting paper by Eva Malaia titled, "It Still Isn't Over: Evidence boundaries in language and perception" (abstract here). The paper is a summary of twenty-first-century thought regarding event perception and its relation to language.
Perception has often been considered as a static process, such as binding sensory impressions into a whole so that we can identify an object or scene. Event perceptions concern changes over time. They too must identify objects, but now the perception must bind the objects into a dynamic scene (an event).
It turns out to be difficult to see an event we have never seen before. Thus, the moves of a martial-arts expert can be recalled by somebody unfamiliar with the moves as just a confusing bit of motion. Yet an experienced viewer cannot only see the moves, but can critique them, offering advice on how to perform the action better. Malaia offers this model of how we perceive an events:
This simple process explains the difference in the martial-arts observers. The naïve observer has no template, makes no match, stresses working memory and has no clear recollection of the segments comprising the event. Meanwhile, the expert observer has a set of templates associated with the event, matches segments, and frees up working memory to notice details about a segment.
It would be fascinating to know how important language is for breaking a complex action down into segments. A teacher can show and identify the segment of an event so that students take note of them and see them. If I watched a film of a martial arts event twenty times, just watched without an instructor, how much clearer would the event be to me after the 20th viewing? I suspect it would be better just because I've talked to myself about what I'm seeing. If a chimpanzee could be persuaded to view the same footage twenty times, would it too be able to see the event more clearly (i.e., in more segmented form).
Malaia does report that event segments "found in most of the world's languages relate closely to the current understanding of how the brain processes reality." [p. 90]
The paper also reports experiments showing that the same kind of working-memory advantages which come from perceiving events in segments, come from reading about events in segments.
Whether reading or watching, part of the task is register and remember the input. It seems that we remember what we witness by breaking an event into segments, but this solution requires doing two things at once. We have to match perception with templates and be able to recall the appropriate templates later. It is this two-part operation that makes it so hard for a novice observer to understand a martial-arts maneuver. Without much in the way of a matching template, there is not much ability to observe and remember at the same time.
Event and sentence segments are "entirely congruent" [p. 92]. That is to say, language breaks up events in the same way perception does and for the same reason. A reader needs to register what is being read and be able to remember it as well.
Malaia's paper does not make this point, but I suspect that her summary has an interesting implication for linguists. It is well known that the sentences of natural languages are unbounded. That is to say they can be of an unpredictable length because the rules for adding phrases can be repeated indefinitely: e.g., Bob, all dressed in white, came to the party. Bob, all dressed in white, and Mary, wearing a pink apron, came to the party. Bob, all dressed in white, Mary, wearing a pink apron, and Jack, sporting cowboy boots, came to the party…
This kind of recursive structure seems to follow naturally from the structure of event perception. The more segmented the perceptual templates, the more that can be perceived, and if language is a means of sharing perceptions it should also allow for increasingly segmented linguistic templates.
Chalk one up for the search for evidence supporting this blog's claim.
The two animal types I keep an eye on for signs of langage are elephants and crows. You cannot talk unless you can draw attention to something specific, and the easiest way to do that is by poining. So today's NY Times caught my eye with a story about elephant pointing. The data is promising but so far limited to human-elephant interactions. We'll need to confirm that elephants use their trunks/ears/tusks/something to direct their fellows' attention and resolving ambiguities will be difficult work. (Is the pictured elephant eating or pointing?) Meanwhile, we're lucky elephants don't have hands. With them, those big things might be ruling the world, including us.