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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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A simple theory of language origin

Most hypotheses of language origin are based on the idea that language is a means of communication. This definition is correct but incomplete: language is a means of communication for people engaged in a joint activity, real or even imaginary. There is a clear correlation between the diversity of activities and the complexity of the language serving these activities. Modern languages consist of hundreds of thousands of words only because these languages are applied in thousands of diverse activities.

Each human activity is goal-directed, hence, the complexity of languages is a consequence of the ability of the human brain to construct diverse goals. Indeed, most human goals are not constrained by any innate basis; they are social, and result from interactions between people. Therefore, there is an obvious connection between language and the ability to construct and maintain long-term motivations with no innate basis.

No animals have a motivational system with similar characteristics. Animals have long-term motivations (e.g., sex, hunger), but these are all innate. An animal can form learned motivations, but only when their basic drives or emotions are activated. The hypothesis that the motivation of animals is always constrained by the activation of basic drives and emotions was suggested by Kohler, a prominent German psychologist in 1917, and despite intensive researches, there have still been no data inconsistent with it.

With the limited and stable number of long-term motivations, animals are constrained in using and developing their languages. Since all their motivations are connected with vital functions, any serious misunderstanding in the process of communication can be fatal; as a result, the number of signals in animal languages must be limited, and the signals must have unequivocal meanings. Roughly speaking, animals do not have a language similar to human languages because they simply do not need it.

As a result, it can be hypothesized that the emergence of the ability to construct and maintain long-term goals with no innate basis was the missing link for language and for other distinctively human characteristics because the ability allowed ancient humans to overcome the constraints of innate motivations, thus providing the possibility of constructing flexible and open cognitive systems.

In other words, protolanguage emerged because in new situations conditioned by goals having no innate basis, the innate communicative means became inefficient for interactions between ancient hominids, and those, who were able to construct new means, succeeded in reproduction. Of course, language, imitation, and the theory of mind had started evolving then. It is very important to emphasize that without the prior (or parallel) formation of the system able to construct learned, long-term motivations, any changes in other systems (e.g., in intelligence) were not sufficient to overcome innate constraints.

For example, the capacity of birds to navigate in three-dimensional space on the basis of visual cues obviously exceeds that of humans, but innate mechanisms determine the behavior of birds.

It is reasonable to think that there was a reciprocal interaction in the evolution of human language and human motivation. The new motivational ability spurred the development of language; afterwards language was used to construct efficient, purposeful processes, and this interaction likely determined all stages of human evolution.
BLOGGER: Thanks for this good post. I have broken it up into paragraphs to encourage visitors to read the whole thing.

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