Language, modularity, and evolution

In David Papineau & Graham MacDonald (eds.), Teleosemantics: New Philosophical Essays. Oup. 23 (2004)
Language is at the core of the cognitive revolution that has transformed that discipline over the last forty years or so, and it is also the central paradigm for the most prominent attempt to synthesise psychology and evolutionary theory. A single and distinctively modular view of language has emerged out of both these perspectives, one that encourages a certain idealisation. Linguistic competence is uniform, independent of other cognitive capacities, and with a developmental trajectory that is largely independent of environmental input (Pinker 1994; Pinker 1997). Thus language is seen as a paradigm of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides’ concept of “evoked culture”: linguistic experience serves only to select a specific item from a menu of innately available options (Tooby and Cosmides 1992). In explaining this concept, they appeal to the metaphor of a jukebox. The human genome pre-stores a set of options, and the different experiences provided by different cultures select different elements out of this option set. I think an appropriate evolutionary perspective on language substantially undercuts this idealisation and the evoked culture model of language. Variability between speakers; the sensitivity of linguistic development to environmental input; and the limits of encapsulation are not noise. They are central to the language and its evolution
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