Stuart Newman wrote:
Perhaps my comments were off-target? I was reacting to articles and
commentaries like the following: Balter M. Language evolution. 'Speech gene'
tied to modern humans. Science 2002 297:1105, and Savulescu J. Procreative
beneficence: why we should select the best children. Bioethics 2001
15:413-26. I recognize that such things are not published in Human Nature
Review, but they are certainly part of the field known as evolutionary
psychology. Indeed, In searching through articles listed on the Human
Nature Review website I almost never encountered the words "genetics" or
"genes." (An exception is a review of a book on Human Evolutionary
Psychology where the only uses of these terms are in relation to the book's
background materials on the theory of evolution).
REPLY: You concentrate on genes rather than the integrative approach based on
Tinbergen's four questions (proximal, developmental, functional, and
evolutionary) and rooted in Oyama's developmental systems theory that I
advocated. Language is certainly a good candidate for an adaptation for all of
the reasons that Pinker and Bloom give in their well-known BBS paper "Natural
Language and Natural Selection":
"All human societies have language. As far as we know they always did; language
was not invented by some groups and spread to others like agriculture or the
alphabet. All languages are complex computational systems employing the same
basic kinds of rules and representations, with no notable correlation with
technological progress: the grammars of industrial societies are no more
complex than the grammars of hunter-gatherers; Modern English is not an advance
over Old English. Within societies, individual humans are proficient language
users regardless of intelligence, social status, or level of education.
Children are fluent speakers of complex grammatical sentences by the age of
three, without benefit of formal instruction. They are capable of inventing
languages that are more systematic than those they hear, showing resemblances
to languages that they have never heard, and they obey subtle grammatical
principles for which there is no evidence in their environments. Disease or
injury can make people linguistic savants while severely retarded, or
linguistically impaired with normal intelligence. Some language disorders are
genetically transmitted. Aspects of language skill can be linked to
characteristic regions of the human brain. The human vocal tract is tailored to
the demands of speech, compromising other functions such as breathing and
swallowing. Human auditory perception shows complementary specializations
toward the demands of decoding speech sounds into linguistic segments.
This list of facts (see Pinker, 1989a) suggests that the ability to use a
natural language belongs more to the study of human biology than human culture;
it is a topic like echolocation in bats or stereopsis in monkeys, not like
writing or the wheel. All modern students of language agree that at least some
aspects of language are due to species-specific, task-specific biological
abilities, though of course there are radical disagreements about specifics."
Pinker, S., & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection.
Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 13(4), 707-784.
It wouldn't be in keeping with developmental systems theory to evaluate the
hypothesis that language is an adaptation purely through a reductionist
approach centred on genes.
Chomsky and others have pointed out repeatedly that connectionist approaches
(based on simple rules of learning and a domain-general architecture) have
failed to produce realistic models of language. On the basis of the information
we have at present I believe it's reasonable to conclude (tentatively, of
course) that language is an adaptation. This is good science, whatever you want
to call it.
Ian Pitchford PhD CBiol MIBiol
The Human Nature Review
Department of Psychiatry
Creighton University School of Medicine
3528 Dodge Street
Omaha, NE 68131, USA