By Bryan Peacker ’18
Despite burgeoning scholarship in recent years on the evolution of language in humans, scholars disagree about the way in which language developed. This is, in part, the result of a lack of specific evidence about the specific place that language had in human evolution. As new theories about the origins of language arise and new methods to investigate these origins are developed, many models can be categorized into theories that argue for either a sudden installment of the language faculty by a chance mutation or a gradual development of language. In this article, I will focus on the latter model, which was most notably advanced by Steven Pinker, a prominent psycholinguist, and Paul Bloom, a psychologist.
Both Pinker and Bloom draw parallels between language and other specialized biological systems in order to explain the evolution of language (Pinker & Bloom, 1990). This is done in order to directly address the work of Noam Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould, two proponents of the sudden rise of language about 100,000 years ago. Part of the reason that Chomsky has supported the chance mutation hypothesis is that he believes that natural selection on its own could not have led to the rise of language. After all, language shows no genetic variation and does not give humans any particularly obvious advantage. Pinker and Bloom, on the other hand, believe that language is completely compatible with the concept of Darwinian natural selection.
According to their argument, language has “adaptive complexity,” which refers to any system that has a specific arrangement of its component parts that serves to perform a specific function (Pinker & Bloom, 1990). The development of the eye, for instance, which has a structure that evolved specifically for the purpose of vision, can be explained by natural selection. However, such a complex system can only arise if a series of mutations with minute effects builds up over time. Pinker and Bloom acknowledge that an eye could have developed in one generation from scratch, but they argue that the probability of this happening is extremely low. Similarly, language must have evolved in a gradual way, and for a specific purpose.
What was that purpose? Pinker and Bloom’s paper asserts that language was designed for the purpose of communication of propositions. In a group of socially interdependent individuals, the condition of other individuals is among the most important things to know. In addition, it is beneficial to be able to acquire knowledge that others have already gathered. It is useful to have an infinite number of constructions, to be able to communicate basic events, and speak of one’s intentions. Thus, the neural mechanisms that allow for these abilities evolved, and it is plausible that language developed gradually, like other biological systems (Pinker & Bloom, 1990).
Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13(4), 707‐784.
This article is the third in a recurring series of posts focusing on the origins of language. Check here throughout the rest of the semester for the rest of Bryan Peacker’s posts.