Symbols, Stimulus Equivalence and the Origins of Language

Behavior and Philosophy 29:221 - 244 (2001)
Abstract
Recent interest in the origins of language, within the strongly cognitive field of Evolutionary Psychology, has predominantly focused upon the origins of syntax (cf. Hurford, Knight, & Studdert-Kennedy, 1998). However, Ullin Place's (2000a) theory of the gestural origins of language also addresses the more fundamental issue of the antecedents of symbols, and does so from a behaviorist perspective, stressing the importance of the peculiarly human ability to form stimulus equivalence classes. The rejection by many developmental psychologists of a behaviorist account of language acquisition has led to a modular and distinctly nativist psychology of language (cf. Pinker, 1994, 1997; Pinker & Bloom, 1990). Little has been said about the role or nature of learning mechanisms in the evolution of language. Although Place does not provide any defense of a behaviorist linguistic ontogeny, this is no reason to rule out his phylogenetic speculations. We aim to outline Place's evolutionarily parsimonious view of symbol origins and their relation to stimulus equivalence. We applaud Ullin Place for bringing symbols into focus within the broader discipline of language origins and suggest that he has raised an interesting set of questions to be discussed in future work.
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