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Book Review. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

David Roemer

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The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
By Christine Kenneally
The Penguin Group, 357 pages, $26.95
ISBN 978-0-670-03490-1

The study of the evolution of language began in earnest in the 1990s when Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker, linguists at MIT, took issue with Noam Chomsky’s views on the subject. In an interview, Bloom said:

And then, at the same time, Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, a colleague and friend of mine in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, published an article in Cognition on the evolution of cognition and language. His article presented in this very sharp, cogent fashion the Chomskyan view on evolution—basically he said that there was very little interesting to make of the connection between natural selection and cognition and that language has features that simply cannot be explained in terms of adaption. I strongly disagreed with it. (p. 52)

Christine Kenneally provides us with the following Chomskyan quotes:

Chomsky’s signature claim is that all humans share a “universal grammar,” otherwise known as UG, a set of rules that can generate the syntax of every human language. This means that apart from the difference in a few mental settings, English and Mohawk, for example, are essentially the same language. Traditionally researchers committed to Chomskyan linguistics believed that universal grammar exists in some part of our brain in a language organ that all humans possess but no other animals have. (p. 25)

As he wrote in 1975: “A human language is a system of remarkable complexity. To come to know a human language would be an extraordinary achievement for a creature not specifically designed to accomplish this task. A normal child acquires this knowledge on relatively slight exposure and without specific training. He can then quite effortlessly make use of an intricate structure of specific rules and guiding principles to convey his thoughts and feelings to others, arousing in them novel ideas and subtle perceptions and judgments.” (p. 36 )

In his book Language and Mind he wrote, “It is perfectly safe to attribute this development [of innate mental structure] to ‘natural selection,’ so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena.” (p. 38)

Humans have the observable and definable property of being able to converse with one another. This property is closely related to the unobservable and indefinable properties of free will and conscious knowledge. We can comprehend the unobservable properties because we have the ability to transcend ourselves and make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. Existentialism is a philosophy that arises from this self-knowledge and addresses our need to decide what to do with our lives. Kenneally acknowledges that the uniqueness of human beings is based on both existential and observable properties:

But asking what makes humans unique is almost always qualitatively different from asking what makes the antelope unique, or the sloth, or the dung beetle. These questions don’t have to be, but have historically been so, the former is never purely scientific, but is inevitably shaded by our self-regard and is always, to some degree, existential. (p. 85)

Science is a method of inquiry that excludes existential questions by focusing on phenomena. In evolutionary biology, the two paramount phenomena are the adaptation of species to their environment and common descent, the latter referring to the evolution of mammals from fish and fish from bacteria. Darwinian natural selection only explains adaptation. The increase in the complexity of life over time, like the Big Bang 14 billion years ago and the origin of life 3.5 billion years ago, lacks a scientific explanation. That Darwinism has this limited scope of applicability appears to be understood only by creationists, advocates of intelligent design, and evolutionary biologist. Like many amateur biologists, Kenneally thinks natural selection explains the complexity of living organisms:

They [Pinker and Bloom] particularly emphasized that language is incredibly complex, as Chomsky had been saying for decades. Indeed, it was the enormous complexity of language that made is hard to imagine not merely how it had evolved but that it had evolved at all.

But, continued Pinker and Bloom, complexity is not a problem for evolution. Consider the eye. The little organ is composed of many specialized parts, each delicately calibrated to perform its role in conjunction with the others. It includes the cornea,…Even Darwin said that it was hard to image how the eye could have evolved.

And yet, he explained, it did evolve, and the only possible way is through natural selection—the inestimable back-and-forth of random genetic mutation with small effects…Over the eons, those small changes accreted and eventually resulted in the eye as we know it. (pp. 59–60)

Kenneally, following Chomsky, says the human eye and language are both complex. The human eye is complex in the ways spelled out by Kenneally. One might add to her macroscopic description that the location of every amino acid in every protein in the eye is exactly known. The complexity of the human eye is an observable property.

The idea that language is a complex is a different matter entirely. Language is the ability to create sentences and requires learning many rules of grammar and many vocabulary words. According to Chomsky, it also means being born with a UG. To make plurals in English you add -s or -es if the word is not irregular, and you put the subject before the verb in declarative sentences. Those who speak American Sign Language (ASL) fluently add the equivalent of the English -ing to verbs to show grammatical aspect.

Investigating the evolution of language is perfectly reasonable, as Kenneally explains, because it presumably evolved from the ability of animals to communicate with one another. As the quotes above indicate, it is also an ability children inherit from their parents. Adults who learn ASL as adolescents, for example, don’t sign as well as children—even children taught ASL by grammatically challenged adults.

However, the evolution of language requires an understanding of the evolution of grammar. Grammatical rules are hard to learn and a person trying to understand a book on grammar may exclaim, “Wow. This is complex!” But grammar is not complex in a molecular or thermodynamic sense. The rules of grammar are statements about abstractions.

Abstractions are mental beings that humans, which are real beings, create. Abstractions are drawn from and are based on real beings, but only have a fleeting and mysterious existence. The abstraction represented by the word dog is based on real four-legged beings. It is a first order abstraction, if you will, because it is once removed from real beings. The abstraction represented by the word noun is based on the sound humans make when communicating about dogs and other subjects. This makes nouns second order abstractions and the parts of speech third order abstractions. The rules of grammar are sentences about abstractions involving all five parts of the English sentence: subject, complement, verb, object, and adverbial.

Abstractions do not take up space and have mass. This is why humans are indefinabilities, embodied spirits, or ensouled bodies. This is also why evolution only applies to the bodies of humans, not their souls. To investigate the evolution of an adaptive trait without defining that adaptive trait other than to assert the trait is complex is not scientific.

Intelligence, for example, is an adaptive trait because it can be defined as problem solving. Kenneally tells about a collie named Rico who knows the meaning of hundreds of words and can fetch items by name. When commanded to fetch an item whose name it doesn’t know, it solves the problem by retrieving an object it never saw before. Chimpanzees are known to engage in deceptive behavior. The idea that language is just another example of the superiority of human intelligence was abandoned with the work of Chomsky.

Another reason language creates a problem for evolutionary biology concerns the past and the future. The ability to create and understand sentences requires an ability to know what was said in the past and is likely to be said in the future. The word cat, for example, consists of three phonemes—there are 40 in English—and lasts for about a second. The listener has to remember all three phonemes. A story that begins Once upon a time requires the speaker to predict the rest of the clause and the hearer to remember the beginning adverbial. But what is the past and what is the future? The past and the future are mental beings, like abstractions, that exist only in the minds of those contemplating the past and the future.

This is what Kenneally says about time:

Only recently we believed that animals lived forever in the present, unable to think about the future. But in 2006 Nicholas Mulcahy and Josep Call showed that orangutans and bonobos could plan for a future event. In a number of experiments Mulcahy and Call demonstrated that both kinds of animals were able to select from a range of tools the appropriate instruments for getting food out of a specially constructed device, even though they wouldn’t have access to the device for up to fourteen hours. (p. 105)

These experiments demonstrate that the sense knowledge of animals includes knowledge of the future. The experiments do not show that animals have the conscious knowledge of humans about the past and future. The distinction between the conscious knowledge and sense knowledge is made in the famous poem by Robert Burns:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

We can assume animals have no concept of the past and future because no animal ever said it did. It might be objected that no animal has ever said that it walked. However, we can define walking. We can’t explicate what the past and the future are because the past and future are mental beings.

The other problem with understanding the evolution of language is what linguists call the productivity of language. Humans have the ability to create sentences that have never been created before. There are an infinite number of possible sentences. This is the unobservable infinity of existentialism, not the definable or observable infinity of mathematics and science. The ability of humans to create an infinite number of clauses and sentences is related to our finitude. Our finitude is based on the unobservable truth that we are unified with respect to ourselves and different from other beings.

In dismissing the idea that language evolved, Chomsky and his followers were saying human beings have spiritual souls, without actually using the four-letter word. They were saying as much without consciously knowing that the human soul is the metaphysical principle that makes us unique among other categories of organisms and the human body is the correlative principle that makes us different from one another.

David Roemer graduated from Fordham College in 1964 with a B. S. and from New York University in 1971 with a Ph. D. in physics. He became a science teacher for the New York City Department of Education in 1984, after working in sales and marketing for manufacturers of radiation therapy equipment. Since 1998, he has been working as a copyeditor and writer of science textbooks and ancillaries.

@2009 David Roemer. Reprinted with permission. Contact David Roemer at dkroemer@optonline.net. Visit the David Roemer website.

Posted: 24-Oct-2009



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