For many years the evolution of language has been seen as a disreputable topic, mired in fanciful “just so stories” about language origins. However, in the last decade a new synthesis of modern linguistics, cognitive neuroscience and neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory has begun to make important contributions to our understanding of the biology and evolution of language. I review some of this recent progress, focusing on the value of the comparative method, which uses data from animal species to draw inferences about (...) language evolution. Discussing speech first, I show how data concerning a wide variety of species, from monkeys to birds, can increase our understanding of the anatomical and neural mechanisms underlying human spoken language, and how bird and whale song provide insights into the ultimate evolutionary function of language. I discuss the “descended larynx” of humans, a peculiar adaptation for speech that has received much attention in the past, which despite earlier claims is not uniquely human. Then I will turn to the neural mechanisms underlying spoken language, pointing out the difficulties animals apparently experience in perceiving hierarchical structure in sounds, and stressing the importance of vocal imitation in the evolution of a spoken language. Turning to ultimate function, I suggest that communication among kin (especially between parents and offspring) played a crucial but neglected role in driving language evolution. Finally, I briefly discuss phylogeny, discussing hypotheses that offer plausible routes to human language from a non-linguistic chimp-like ancestor. I conclude that comparative data from living animals will be key to developing a richer, more interdisciplinary understanding of our most distinctively human trait: language. (shrink)
In this commentary on Berwick and Chomsky's “Why Only Us,” I discuss three key points. I first offer a brief critique of their scholarship, notably their often unjustified dismissal of previous thinking about language evolution. But my main focus concerns two arguments central to the book's thesis: the irrelevance of externalization to language evolution and the discontinuity between human conceptual representations and those of other animals. I argue against both stances, using cognitive data from nonhuman species to show that externalization (...) is not irrelevant to understanding the biology of language, and that many human conceptual structures have clear animal homologs. (shrink)
Historical language change (), like evolution itself, is a fact; and its implications for the biological evolution of the human capacity for language acquisition () have been ably explored by many contemporary theorists. However, Christiansen & Chater's (C&C's) revolutionary call for a replacement of phylogenetic models with glossogenetic cultural models is based on an inadequate understanding of either. The solution to their lies before their eyes, but they mistakenly reject it due to a supposed Gene/;culture co-evolution poses a series of (...) difficult theoretical and empirical problems that will be resolved by subtle thinking, adequate models, and careful cross-disciplinary research, not by oversimplified manifestos. (shrink)
Accepting Bullot & Reber's (B&R's) criteria for art appreciation would confine the study of aesthetics to those works for which historical information is available, mainly posthigh art.correct” artistic understanding is limited to experts with detailed knowledge or education in art, which implies a narrowly elitist conception of aesthetics. Scientific aesthetics must be broadly inclusive.
Explaining the transition from a signed to a spoken protolanguage is a major problem for all gestural theories. I suggest that Arbib's improved “beyond the mirror” hypothesis still leaves this core problem unsolved, and that Darwin's model of musical protolanguage provides a more compelling solution. Second, although I support Arbib's analytic theory of language origin, his claim that this transition is purely cultural seems unlikely, given its early, robust development in children.
Sussman and colleagues provide no evidence supporting their claim that the human vocal production system is specialized to produce locus equations with high correlations and linearity. We propose the alternative null hypothesis that these features result from physical and physiological factors common to all mammalian vocal tracts and we recommend caution in assuming that human speech production mechanisms are unique.
Millikan's account of substance concepts fails to do away with features. Her approach simply moves the suite of relevant features into an encapsulated module. The crux of the problem for scientists studying human infants and nonhuman animals is to determine how individuals reidentify objects and events in the world.