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Linguists skeptical of Darwinian theory that toolmaking “paved the way” for human language

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adult female Homo erectus, Smithsonian/John Gurche (reconstruction), Tim Evanson (photography); CC

Should young ID theorists study language origins, as retired linguist suggests below? From Ben James at The Atlantic:

Oren Kolodny, a biologist at Stanford University, puts the question in more scientific terms: “What kind of evolutionary pressures could have given rise to this really weird and surprising phenomenon that is so critical to the essence of being human?” And he has proposed a provocative answer. In a recent paper in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Kolodny argues that early humans—while teaching their kin how to make complex tools—hijacked the capacity for language from themselves.

That is provocative: hijacking a capability from “themselves”…?

Kolodny’s arguments build off the groundbreaking experiments of Dietrich Stout, an anthropologist at Emory University. A flintknapper himself, Stout has taught hundreds of students how to make Acheulean-era tools, and he’s tracked their brain activity during the learning process. Stout found that his students’ white matter—or the neural connectivity in their brains—increased as they gained competence in flintknapping. His research suggests that producing complex tools spurred an increase in brain size and other aspects of hominin evolution, including—perhaps—the emergence of language.

Kolodny sees teaching as a critical part of the process:

When hominins like Homo ergaster and Homo erectus taught their close relatives how to make complex tools, they worked their way into an ever more specialized cultural niche, with evolutionary advantage going to those individuals who were not only adept at making and using complex tools, but who were also able—at the same time—to communicate in more and more sophisticated ways. More.

But how does the need for language in order to advance to a higher technical level of skill produce it? In other words, why aren’t apes, even though they make tools, entering the Stone Age in real life (despite pop science claims)?

Kolodny and co-author Shimon Edelman argue that language structure somehow got “exapted” (Stephen Jay Gould’s term) from the orderly procedure needed to make tools. This sounds like another attempt to build an air ladder. Other linguists are not buying it and—surprisingly—are critical of the Darwinian approach:

Chomsky has been notably reticent on the subject of language evolution. On numerous occasions, he’s called the question either irrelevant, unsolvable, or both. A surprise came in 2014, when Chomsky, Robert Berwick, and other titans in the field weighed in substantively on the topic of evolution for the first time, arguing in a series of jaw-dropping papers that language basically did show up on the scene like a fully formed Athena, syntax-driven shield in hand. “The language faculty is an extremely recent acquisition in our lineage,” these authors wrote, “and it was acquired not in the context of slow, gradual modification of preexisting systems under natural selection but in a single, rapid, emergent event.”

Atlantic author Ben James term this view “brazen refutation of known evolutionary processes,” so we are all to understand that they must be wrong, and indeed suspicious characters.

We asked friendly local linguist Noel Rude for some thoughts:

Back when I was in school, some were observing that a part of the brain involved in hand-eye coordination is also involved in language. Before that some observed that one organ involved in eating (the tongue) is also involved in language. Human language involves lots of things—perhaps in some respects irreducibly complex.

Chomsky and Berwick (2017) see recursion as a spandrel. All these things (brain, tongue, etc.) were selected for whatever reasons but there was no language until recursion came along. For those interested, I recommend Guy Dutscher (2005), who shows how language would have evolved from a “me Tarzan” state where all the required abilities were already there—creative mind, prodigious memory, ability to hierarchize, etc., etc. With all that already there, he then shows how a human language would evolve via these three abilities:

1) Simplification

2) Metaphor

3) Pattern creation

See: Berwick, Robert C., and Noam Chomsky. 2017. Why Only Us: Language and Evolution. MIT Press.

Deutscher, Guy. 2005. The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

I (News) wrote back to ask,

But don’t we first need something to say? The animals I interact with do not have a language in the human sense because they have no thoughts that require that kind of processing. A much simpler system is adequate and no more complex one is envisioned.

He replied,

But of course!

“All these things” include the fact that we have something to say. Chomsky, for all his faults, dealt with the infinity of this in his review of B. F. Skinner. From the title of his book, Cartesian Linguistics, it was obvious he would countenance no materialistic theory of mind.

But we share certain things with the creatures. My wife and I spent much of the winter in Guatemala (yes, we left before the volcano), and there of a morning I was amused with those birds they call zanate. “They’re speaking in syllables,” I told my wife. Certain birds, as we’ve noted before, share much of our neurological ability to produce speech. Wolves howl, dogs bark, cats meow, horses whinny, cows moo—but none of them produce syllables. These zanates would repeat strings of syllables, some stressed and some not. One morning I heard, “Cigarette! Cigarette!” And then from another bird came, “Do it! Do it!” OK, they didn’t mean it, but to this English speaker that is how it sounded. Then another day the birds were imitating different kinds of sirens.

No mammal and no ape shares this ability. Just the birds and us.

Not only does language spring from mind, it also requires skill on many levels. Not only, for example, is there the need of a prodigious memory (for vocabulary and grammar), discourse studies also tell us of the requirement of short term memory.

Someday, hopefully, linguistics will be a bigger part of ID. It should be, and I’d like to see some of our young folks who love both language and math get into the field. Language is so central to our existence that few people have ever given it any thought. Most are hardly cognizant of an empirical “science” of language. Language, however, is the most direct window into the soul. It merits study.

He offers a suggested reading list as well:

Chomsky, Avram Noam. 1959. Reviews: Verbal behavior by B. F. Skinner. Language 35 (1): 26–58.

Chomsky, Avram Noam. 1966. Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought. New York: Harper and Row.

Chomsky, Avram Noam. 1968. Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Note: Tom Wolfe’s last book, The Kingdom of Speech, critiqued Darwinian claims about the origin of language. Wolfe (1931–2018) was a thoughtful critic of Darwinism for decades, focusing on language . See, for example, Tom Wolfe on Evolution as a Theory of Everything.

See also: Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

3 Replies to “Linguists skeptical of Darwinian theory that toolmaking “paved the way” for human language

  1. 1 says:

    There’s no proven connection between hominins and humans.
    And of course, human evolution is impossible –

  2. 2
    ronvanwegen says:

    “… with evolutionary advantage going to those individuals who were not only adept at making and using complex tools, but who were also able—at the same time—to communicate in more and more sophisticated ways.”

    Because we all know that nerds get all the chicks – right!?

  3. 3
    Pearlman says:

    A classic on language is Isaacson ‘the origin of the speeches’

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