About the Author
Derek Bickerton is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. His most recent book, Bastard Tongues, was published by Hill and Wang in 2008.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
You can try this at home.
No specially constructed course, safety equipment, or medical assistance of any kind is required.
It’s what’s called a thought experiment. Thought experiments are vital to science. Without thought experiments, we’d never have had the theory of relativity. If Einstein hadn’t imagined what riding on a beam of light would be like, or what would happen if two gangsters shot at each other, one in a moving elevator, one outside, we’d still be stuck with the Newtonian universe.
This particular thought experiment is very simple. You just have to imagine for a moment that you don’t have language and nobody else has, either.
Not speech, mind you. Language.
For some people these are synonymous. My heart sinks every time I open a new book on human evolution, turn to the index, and find the entry "language: see speech." "You don’t see speech, you idiot," I feel like yelling. "You hear speech." You can have speech without it meaning a thing; lots of parrots do. Speech is simply one vehicle for language. Another is manual sign. (I’m talking about the structured sign languages of the deaf, like American Sign Language, not the ad hoc gestures hearing people use.) Language is what determines the meanings of words and signs and what combines them into meaningful wholes, wholes that add up to conversations, speeches, essays, epic poems. Language goes beyond that, even; it’s what makes your thoughts truly meaningful, what builds your ideas into structured wholes. (If you doubt this, or feel it’s a stretch, just read on to the end of the book.) Even if you think you think in images, language is what puts thoseimages together to make meaningful wholes, rather than just disordered, tangled messes.
Think of how, without language, you’d do any of the things you do, without thinking, every day of your life. Writing letters (e-mail or snail mail). Answering the phone. Talking to those you love. Following the instructions for assembling the newgadget you just bought. Reading road signs (okay, some are graphic symbols, but the meanings of such symbols are not transparent—you have to learn, through language, that a picture of something with a diagonal line through it means you’re not supposed to do that thing). Playing any game (you learned the rules, spoken or written, through language). Shopping (you couldn’t read the labels on the cans; indeed, there wouldn’t be any labels to read, if there was even a store to shop in). Rehearsing the excuses you’ll make to your boss for coming in late. The list goes on and on. When you get to the end of it, here’s what you’ll find: everything you do that makes you human, each one of the countless things you can do that other speciescan’t, depends crucially on language.
Language is what makes us human.
Maybe it’s the only thing that makes us human.
It’s also the greatest problem in science.
You don’t agree with that? Well then, what would you say were the greatest problems in science? How life began? How the universe began? Whether there’s intelligent life anywhere else in the universe? None of these are questions we could even ask if we didn’t have language. How we got language is a question that logically precedes all other scientific questions, because without language there wouldn’t be any scientific questions. How can we know whether our answers to those questions haveany validity, if we don’t even know how we came to be able to ask them?
Since the dawn of time humans have wondered what it means to be human. Every answer you can think of has been proposed, andsome you couldn’t have thought of. Plato defined humans as featherless bipeds and Diogenes refuted him with a plucked chicken. In 1758 Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who first classified species, termed us Homo sapiens—wise man—and later on, when the multiple-branching tree of human evolution was revealed, and we had to disentangle ourselves from Neanderthals and "early" Homo sapiens (presumed ancestor of both us and them), we became Homo sapienssapiens: wisest of the wise. (Look around you and tell me if you think that’s accurate.) Look up "human being" in the online Encyclopaedia Britannica and you’ll find "a culture-bearing primate that is anatomically similar and related to the other great apes but is distinguished by a more highly developed brain and a resultant capacity for articulate speech and abstract reasoning." "Resultant," indeed! This is one of those remarks that seem to make sense, like "The sun rises in the east," until you ask yourself, is that what really happened?
Darwin knew a century and a half ago that the Encyclopaedia had it backward—that it wasn’t a "highly developed brain" that gave us language (not speech!) and abstract thought, but language that gave us abstract thought and a highly developed brain. "If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly advanced intellectual faculties, and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed language."
Nobody followed up on this. It was bad enough having an ape as one’s great-granddaddy—worse still if all that really divided us was that we could talk and he couldn’t. It was much more flattering to our self-esteem to suppose that our marvelous brains and minds just...grew somehow, got smarter all by themselves, and then started pouring out a cornucopia of thought and invention, science and literature, all the things that proved us the wisest of the wise. So we heard endlessly thatwhat distinguished us as humans was our consciousness, our self-consciousness, our foresight, our hindsight, our imagination, our ability to reason and to plan, and on and on. Not one word about how any of these miraculous abilities evolved. Thatmight have forced us to really look at language and how language began and what it did for us. But the belief that languagewas merely one of many outputs of our wonderful brains, though not quite universal, was widespread enough to make language origins look like an isolated problem, one you could split off from the rest of evolution, even the rest of human evolution, and crack at leisure, when there wasn’t anything more pressing to be done.
One thing writers on language origins all-too-often ignore, but that I want to emphasize throughout this book, is that language evolution is part of human evolution, and makes sense only if considered as a part of human evolution.
Another thing that discouraged people from coming to grips with language evolution was that it was such a hard problem. Insoluble, some said. In 1967 the psychologist Eric Lenneberg published a book, for the most part excellent, called Biological Foundations of Language. Now you’d think in a book with that title there would be, somewhere, some hint or at leasta guess as to how those foundations got founded—how the mills of biological evolution managed to grind out such a unique product. But there isn’t: Lenneberg concluded (always a rash move in science) that here was a question that could never be answered. Even two students of language evolution, writing very recently, described the origin of language as "the hardest problem in science." Language leaves no fossils. You can’t do experiments (at least not ethical ones). Language is a population of one, a truly unique trait. And that’s something all scientists dread, because it means you can’t use comparative methods, and comparing things that are similar but differ slightly from one another forms one of the most fruitful procedures known to science.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that attempts to explain how language evolved—and there’s been a growing number of these over the past few years—should have gone off in dozens of different directions. Nor is it surprising that these explanations have shied away from the very heart of the problem. You can read endless accounts of what skills and capacities our ancestors had to have before they could get language, or what selective pressures might have favored the emergence of language; you can read accounts, not quite endless and usually sketchier, of how language developed once it had begun. But you will read little, and that little extremely vague, about what I once called "the magic moment"—the moment when our ancestors first broke away from the kind of communication system that had served all other species well for at least half a billion years.
How language evolved isn’t just a hard problem in itself. It’s been made much harder to solve by two factors, both of which are actually quite irrelevant to it, but which we’ll have to deal with if we are to start with a clear idea of what the problem really is (and also of what it isn’t). One factor concerns the way in which evolution in general, and therefore human evolution in particular, has been presented by the neo-Darwinian consensus of the last century. I’ll get to that ina moment. First I want to deal with an issue that will seem to many, perhaps most, as even more pressing and urgent: the status of the human species itself.
What’s that got to do with language evolution?
You’re right—nothing. And yet the evolution of language has been dragged willy-nilly into the culture wars, the epic and still unresolved struggle between those who want things to stay the way they are and those for whom they can’t change too quickly.
Before the last century, there weren’t many who dissented from the established view of "man’s place in the universe." The human species, always identified with one half of it, was somewhere between ape and angel, equipped with an immortalsoul (unlike the beasts), destined for eternal life (unlike the beasts), and in general enjoying an exalted status as a one-of-a-kind, specially created darling of the Almighty. Needless to say, the intellectual (as well as moral) powers of theseanointed beings outshone the capacities of mere animals as the sun outshines the moon.
As Darwin’s ideas spread, this notion of human status grew less and less sustainable. There gradually emerged an alternative view of humanity, humans as a species of ape, ground out like all species by the mills of natural selection, with nothingthat made it more valuable than any other species, and nothing of any real importance that made it significantly different from any other species.
At first, this view served as a highly salutary corrective to the supremacist take on humans. But soon the two views were in full-on combat mode. And in war, if truth is the first casualty, objectivity goes out in the very next body bag.
There was an agenda (Get rid of superstitious nonsense!). There was a dogma (Evolution was always and everywhere a very slow and gradual process). On the rational scientific side (that’s the godless materialist side, if you’re on the other side),agenda and dogma combined to give a single program. It became mandatory to deny every difference between humans and other species that could in any way be interpreted as showing the superiority of humans. Everything that had been interpreted in this way must be reinterpreted as the result of minuscule changes in ancestral and other related species, species whose histories simply had to be littered with "precursors of," and "stepping-stones toward," any capacity that had been regarded as uniquely human. There could not be anything you could call a discontinuity. A few holdouts would reluctantly allow a small measure of discontinuity in language, but even here it was widely believed that nonlanguage somehow segued into language, through precursors, across stepping-stones, without any real Rubicon to cross.
Anything else was a no-no—meant giving aid and comfort, even tacit endorsement, to those who were increasingly perceived as enemies, those who still believed humans arose through a unique act of creation. As I have written elsewhere, to suggest that the discontinuity between language and nonlanguage was only part of a much greater discontinuity fell somewhere, on the scale of political correctness, between Holocaust denial and rejecting global warming. Despite the fact that, as an intrepid trio of researchers wrote, "human animals—and no other—build fires and wheels, diagnose each other’s illnesses, communicate using symbols, navigate with maps, risk their lives for ideals, collaborate with each other, explain the world in terms of hypothetical causes, punish strangers for breaking rules, imagine possible scenarios, and teach each other all of the above." This, and much more; the list compiled by Derek Penn and his colleagues barely scratches the surface of all the things humans can do that no member of any other species has even come close to doing.
If the gap between humans and other animals is as small as we’ve been told, what in the world could possibly be this minuscule difference that makes all other animals do so little and us do so much? So far as I’m aware, none of those who argue for continuity between humans and other species have ever realized, let alone admitted, that each time the gap is minimized, the manifold, manifest abilities of humans become more mysterious than ever.
Does that mean we must accept some all-powerful deity, or some enigmatic Intelligent Designer?
Of course not. The evidence for evolution is far too widespread, far too strong: somehow, somewhere, perfectly normal evolutionary processes have produced the difference, whatever it is. We’ve just been lazy. We haven’t done our due diligence. And in the interests of dogma, we’ve kissed objectivity goodbye. Discontinuity exists, and that discontinuity is not limited to language—it extends to all aspects of the human mind. We have, first, to admit that it exists. Then we have to figure out how evolution could have produced it.
In nature, a tiny change can sometimes lead to a phase transition. A few degrees down, liquid water becomes ice. A few degrees up, it becomes steam. Steam and ice and water are things that behave in totally different ways, yet the boundaries between them are, pun intended, still just a matter of degrees.
Or take living creatures—take flight in insects. Nobody’s sure how insects developed flight. Did they enlarge the gills they’d used in their previous aquatic existence until they were big enough to glide with? Did they grow vibratory devices for cooling purposes that, one fine day, lifted the first of them into the atmosphere? Whatever happened, those first flights would have been over in seconds, but a barrier had been breached, a totally new realm had been opened up, a realm withnew and limitless possibilities. Now there’s a discontinuity for you.
What powered the human mind was the intellectual equivalent of flight.
Penn and his coauthors assumed there were two discontinuities, not one: a particular discontinuity in language and a more general discontinu...
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