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Human evolution: Inventing the origin of language


While preparing a lecture, paleoanthropologist John Hawks considers the following division of opinion on the origin of language, grammar, etc: Whether language evolved as an accidental by-product of tool use, etc. or how the rules of grammar evolved, and the way in which language originated as a byproduct of tool use and how the rules of grammar evolved by natural selection (discussing Chomsky, Pinker, and Ramachandran. He is not satisfied with what he hears:

I still don’t believe it. Some archaeologists fetishize stone tools in this way, making them the end-all of human cognitive evolution. But let’s face it: chimpanzees and even capuchin monkeys perform multistep tool operations using the brains they have. Hafting a point on a stick seems like the pinnacle of progress only when points are all the ground yields up.Consider how many times a child will witness tools being crafted. Now consider how many times the same child hears spoken communication. The second is at least two or three orders of magnitude greater than the first. It’s not statistically credible for toolmaking to provide a cognitive basis for language. The opposite is vastly more likely.

Ironically, my current view is that much of language cognition really may be a spandrel – at least, in the broad sense promoted by Gould. (March 11, 2011)

Essentially, the spandrel is a supposed accidental byproduct of evolution by natural selection.

Now, in the face of a subject as momentous as language, just what project engages Hawks and his lecture subjects: Not to discover the origin of language but to develop a theory that follows with utter regularity from Darwinian evolution. That, of course, is precisely where the trouble begins.

As a lifetime professional communicator, I would say we know a few truths about human language:

– Grammar is like mathematics; it’s what gives sense to an apparent jumble of words or numbers. Asking how language evolved in a Darwinian way is like asking how mathematics evolved in a Darwinian way. (Yes, people do.) The underlying assumption in both cases is that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, of which they could be expressions.

– Starting from the assumption that there is inherent meaning in the universe, grammar and mathematics can both be seen as correct guesses, not lucky strikes. In that case, they are useful to the extent that they are correct guesses. But the applications of these guesses don’t precede; they follow. Both begin with curiosity about the nature of things, and a need to communicate.

– Humans seem so generally to have this curiosity and need to communicate that we find, especially with language, that ,deprived of a language, they invent one. Twins apparently do this, and so do people left to themselves in mixed-language communities, as in pidgins and creoles. So do deaf people, as in American Sign Language. Most of what preceded or followed these developments was not about basic survival matters.

– It’s not self-evident that language is useful, which is, I presume, the intended point of the story of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11: 1-9 Genesis 11: 1-9. The Babelites were involved in a useless and hopeless project, and their only rescue came from being incommunicado with each other until the whole thing broke up. Anyone who doubts the story should consider that, in the modern world, huge empires imprisoning billions of people and killing tens of millions, have been based on speech control (implicitly, thought control) backed by violence. Usually, the empires’ theories were wrong, their projects useless or destructive, and their end welcome. The pity is that no one was able to shut them down quickly by making everyone mutually incomprehensible about everything.

At any rate, because Darwinists need to chase their tails by denying precisely what language itself affirms (meaning, order, and purpose), I imagine we will hear many more interesting speculations in years to come.

If you've been around a long time alan, you must know that I'm a young earth creationist right? You must know also that brains do in fact have neurons with synapses and they are there for some designed purpose, not just taking up space, right? You know language, so you ought to know about word association right? Particularly with smells? Ever said something "without thinking"? Remarkably apt phrase, especially in the current context. tragic mishap
Bantay, re:
Does that mean that when Dawkins speaks, it is meaningless, orderless and purposeless?
One thing is for sure. The rationalizations that he and others continue to spew, in order to prop up their bankrupt orthodoxy, are becoming a crashing bore. jstanley01
Bantay & Tragic "Does that mean that when Dawkins speaks, it is meaningless, orderless and purposeless?" No, not meaningless, but Anti-Meaning, Anti order and Anti-purpose. Tragic - "thoughts from our "minds"" interesting even within the context of your meaningless diatribe, at least as my synaptic firings can detect and I've been around a fairly long time and use language to make a living. And watch out for those prodded stimuli; you might wind up saying something factually, politically or morally incorrect. Am I serious or what? alan
Tragic- I suppose you've never read 1984 or Chinese policies concerning what can and cannot be said especially during the cultural revolution. Political correctness itself is an attempt at speech control and social engineering. Phaedros
"...because Darwinists need to chase their tails by denying precisely what language itself affirms (meaning, order, and purpose)" Does that mean that when Dawkins speaks, it is meaningless, orderless and purposeless? Bantay
Speech control? Are you serious? You sound like Jared Loughner. Anyway I think language is pretty much the same as any other type of thought. We program our brains to respond in a certain pattern of synaptic firings when prodded by a certain stimuli. In the case of language the stimuli could be just about anything, including a thought from our minds. But word association can work with any of the senses as well. tragic mishap

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