Read an Excerpt
You can try this at home.
No specially constructed course, safety equipment, or medical assistance of any kind is required.
It’s what’s called a thought experiment. Thought experiments are vital to science. Without thought experiments, we’d never have had the theory of relativity. If Einstein hadn’t imagined what riding on a beam of light would be like, or what would happen if two gangsters shot at each other, one in a moving elevator, one outside, we’d still be stuck with the Newtonian universe.
This particular thought experiment is very simple. You just have to imagine for a moment that you don’t have language and nobody else has, either.
Not speech, mind you. Language.
For some people these are synonymous. My heart sinks every time I open a new book on human evolution, turn to the index, and find the entry "language: see speech." "You don’t see speech, you idiot," I feel like yelling. "You hear speech." You can have speech without it meaning a thing; lots of parrots do. Speech is simply one vehicle for language. Another is manual sign. (I’m talking about the structured sign languages of the deaf, like American Sign Language, not the ad hoc gestures hearing people use.) Language is what determines the meanings of words and signs and what combines them into meaningful wholes, wholes that add up to conversations, speeches, essays, epic poems. Language goes beyond that, even; it’s what makes your thoughts truly meaningful, what builds your ideas into structured wholes. (If you doubt this, or feel it’s a stretch, just read on to the end of the book.) Even if you think you think in images, language is what puts thoseimages together to make meaningful wholes, rather than just disordered, tangled messes.
Think of how, without language, you’d do any of the things you do, without thinking, every day of your life. Writing letters (e-mail or snail mail). Answering the phone. Talking to those you love. Following the instructions for assembling the newgadget you just bought. Reading road signs (okay, some are graphic symbols, but the meanings of such symbols are not transparent—you have to learn, through language, that a picture of something with a diagonal line through it means you’re not supposed to do that thing). Playing any game (you learned the rules, spoken or written, through language). Shopping (you couldn’t read the labels on the cans; indeed, there wouldn’t be any labels to read, if there was even a store to shop in). Rehearsing the excuses you’ll make to your boss for coming in late. The list goes on and on. When you get to the end of it, here’s what you’ll find: everything you do that makes you human, each one of the countless things you can do that other speciescan’t, depends crucially on language.
Language is what makes us human.
Maybe it’s the only thing that makes us human.
It’s also the greatest problem in science.
You don’t agree with that? Well then, what would you say were the greatest problems in science? How life began? How the universe began? Whether there’s intelligent life anywhere else in the universe? None of these are questions we could even ask if we didn’t have language. How we got language is a question that logically precedes all other scientific questions, because without language there wouldn’t be any scientific questions. How can we know whether our answers to those questions haveany validity, if we don’t even know how we came to be able to ask them?
Since the dawn of time humans have wondered what it means to be human. Every answer you can think of has been proposed, andsome you couldn’t have thought of. Plato defined humans as featherless bipeds and Diogenes refuted him with a plucked chicken. In 1758 Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who first classified species, termed us Homo sapiens—wise man—and later on, when the multiple-branching tree of human evolution was revealed, and we had to disentangle ourselves from Neanderthals and "early" Homo sapiens (presumed ancestor of both us and them), we became Homo sapienssapiens: wisest of the wise. (Look around you and tell me if you think that’s accurate.) Look up "human being" in the online Encyclopaedia Britannica and you’ll find "a culture-bearing primate that is anatomically similar and related to the other great apes but is distinguished by a more highly developed brain and a resultant capacity for articulate speech and abstract reasoning." "Resultant," indeed! This is one of those remarks that seem to make sense, like "The sun rises in the east," until you ask yourself, is that what really happened?
Darwin knew a century and a half ago that the Encyclopaedia had it backward—that it wasn’t a "highly developed brain" that gave us language (not speech!) and abstract thought, but language that gave us abstract thought and a highly developed brain. "If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly advanced intellectual faculties, and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed language."
Nobody followed up on this. It was bad enough having an ape as one’s great-granddaddy—worse still if all that really divided us was that we could talk and he couldn’t. It was much more flattering to our self-esteem to suppose that our marvelous brains and minds just...grew somehow, got smarter all by themselves, and then started pouring out a cornucopia of thought and invention, science and literature, all the things that proved us the wisest of the wise. So we heard endlessly thatwhat distinguished us as humans was our consciousness, our self-consciousness, our foresight, our hindsight, our imagination, our ability to reason and to plan, and on and on. Not one word about how any of these miraculous abilities evolved. Thatmight have forced us to really look at language and how language began and what it did for us. But the belief that languagewas merely one of many outputs of our wonderful brains, though not quite universal, was widespread enough to make language origins look like an isolated problem, one you could split off from the rest of evolution, even the rest of human evolution, and crack at leisure, when there wasn’t anything more pressing to be done.
One thing writers on language origins all-too-often ignore, but that I want to emphasize throughout this book, is that language evolution is part of human evolution, and makes sense only if considered as a part of human evolution.
Another thing that discouraged people from coming to grips with language evolution was that it was such a hard problem. Insoluble, some said. In 1967 the psychologist Eric Lenneberg published a book, for the most part excellent, called Biological Foundations of Language. Now you’d think in a book with that title there would be, somewhere, some hint or at leasta guess as to how those foundations got founded—how the mills of biological evolution managed to grind out such a unique product. But there isn’t: Lenneberg concluded (always a rash move in science) that here was a question that could never be answered. Even two students of language evolution, writing very recently, described the origin of language as "the hardest problem in science." Language leaves no fossils. You can’t do experiments (at least not ethical ones). Language is a population of one, a truly unique trait. And that’s something all scientists dread, because it means you can’t use comparative methods, and comparing things that are similar but differ slightly from one another forms one of the most fruitful procedures known to science.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that attempts to explain how language evolved—and there’s been a growing number of these over the past few years—should have gone off in dozens of different directions. Nor is it surprising that these explanations have shied away from the very heart of the problem. You can read endless accounts of what skills and capacities our ancestors had to have before they could get language, or what selective pressures might have favored the emergence of language; you can read accounts, not quite endless and usually sketchier, of how language developed once it had begun. But you will read little, and that little extremely vague, about what I once called "the magic moment"—the moment when our ancestors first broke away from the kind of communication system that had served all other species well for at least half a billion years.
How language evolved isn’t just a hard problem in itself. It’s been made much harder to solve by two factors, both of which are actually quite irrelevant to it, but which we’ll have to deal with if we are to start with a clear idea of what the problem really is (and also of what it isn’t). One factor concerns the way in which evolution in general, and therefore human evolution in particular, has been presented by the neo-Darwinian consensus of the last century. I’ll get to that ina moment. First I want to deal with an issue that will seem to many, perhaps most, as even more pressing and urgent: the status of the human species itself.
What’s that got to do with language evolution?
You’re right—nothing. And yet the evolution of language has been dragged willy-nilly into the culture wars, the epic and still unresolved struggle between those who want things to stay the way they are and those for whom they can’t change too quickly.
Before the last century, there weren’t many who dissented from the established view of "man’s place in the universe." The human species, always identified with one half of it, was somewhere between ape and angel, equipped with an immortalsoul (unlike the beasts), destined for eternal life (unlike the beasts), and in general enjoying an exalted status as a one-of-a-kind, specially created darling of the Almighty. Needless to say, the intellectual (as well as moral) powers of theseanointed beings outshone the capacities of mere animals as the sun outshines the moon.
As Darwin’s ideas spread, this notion of human status grew less and less sustainable. There gradually emerged an alternative view of humanity, humans as a species of ape, ground out like all species by the mills of natural selection, with nothingthat made it more valuable than any other species, and nothing of any real importance that made it significantly different from any other species.
At first, this view served as a highly salutary corrective to the supremacist take on humans. But soon the two views were in full-on combat mode. And in war, if truth is the first casualty, objectivity goes out in the very next body bag.
There was an agenda (Get rid of superstitious nonsense!). There was a dogma (Evolution was always and everywhere a very slow and gradual process). On the rational scientific side (that’s the godless materialist side, if you’re on the other side),agenda and dogma combined to give a single program. It became mandatory to deny every difference between humans and other species that could in any way be interpreted as showing the superiority of humans. Everything that had been interpreted in this way must be reinterpreted as the result of minuscule changes in ancestral and other related species, species whose histories simply had to be littered with "precursors of," and "stepping-stones toward," any capacity that had been regarded as uniquely human. There could not be anything you could call a discontinuity. A few holdouts would reluctantly allow a small measure of discontinuity in language, but even here it was widely believed that nonlanguage somehow segued into language, through precursors, across stepping-stones, without any real Rubicon to cross.
Anything else was a no-no—meant giving aid and comfort, even tacit endorsement, to those who were increasingly perceived as enemies, those who still believed humans arose through a unique act of creation. As I have written elsewhere, to suggest that the discontinuity between language and nonlanguage was only part of a much greater discontinuity fell somewhere, on the scale of political correctness, between Holocaust denial and rejecting global warming. Despite the fact that, as an intrepid trio of researchers wrote, "human animals—and no other—build fires and wheels, diagnose each other’s illnesses, communicate using symbols, navigate with maps, risk their lives for ideals, collaborate with each other, explain the world in terms of hypothetical causes, punish strangers for breaking rules, imagine possible scenarios, and teach each other all of the above." This, and much more; the list compiled by Derek Penn and his colleagues barely scratches the surface of all the things humans can do that no member of any other species has even come close to doing.
If the gap between humans and other animals is as small as we’ve been told, what in the world could possibly be this minuscule difference that makes all other animals do so little and us do so much? So far as I’m aware, none of those who argue for continuity between humans and other species have ever realized, let alone admitted, that each time the gap is minimized, the manifold, manifest abilities of humans become more mysterious than ever.
Does that mean we must accept some all-powerful deity, or some enigmatic Intelligent Designer?
Of course not. The evidence for evolution is far too widespread, far too strong: somehow, somewhere, perfectly normal evolutionary processes have produced the difference, whatever it is. We’ve just been lazy. We haven’t done our due diligence. And in the interests of dogma, we’ve kissed objectivity goodbye. Discontinuity exists, and that discontinuity is not limited to language—it extends to all aspects of the human mind. We have, first, to admit that it exists. Then we have to figure out how evolution could have produced it.
In nature, a tiny change can sometimes lead to a phase transition. A few degrees down, liquid water becomes ice. A few degrees up, it becomes steam. Steam and ice and water are things that behave in totally different ways, yet the boundaries between them are, pun intended, still just a matter of degrees.
Or take living creatures—take flight in insects. Nobody’s sure how insects developed flight. Did they enlarge the gills they’d used in their previous aquatic existence until they were big enough to glide with? Did they grow vibratory devices for cooling purposes that, one fine day, lifted the first of them into the atmosphere? Whatever happened, those first flights would have been over in seconds, but a barrier had been breached, a totally new realm had been opened up, a realm withnew and limitless possibilities. Now there’s a discontinuity for you.
What powered the human mind was the intellectual equivalent of flight.
Penn and his coauthors assumed there were two discontinuities, not one: a particular discontinuity in language and a more general discontinuity in cognition. They couldn’t see how the first could have caused the second. They didn’t show how the second could have caused the first, either. What they failed to face was the profound improbability that, in a single, otherwise unremarkable lineage of terrestrial apes, two evolutionary discontinuities of this magnitude could have emerged.
It doesn’t make sense. One would be bad enough. And in this book, for the first time ever, I’m going to show you not just how language evolved, but how language caused the human mind to evolve.
But why did any of this happen?
If prehumans broke from a communicative pattern that had served all other species well for half a billion years, they must have been driven by some kind of need—a very strong need, surely, to produce such radical consequences. Perhaps they developed a new kind of behavior that required them to communicate in ways beyond the range of previous communication systems. But the neo-Darwinian consensus of the twentieth century seemed to rule out any such development.
According to George Williams, an icon of modern evolutionary biology, "Adaptation is always asymmetrical; organisms adapt to their environment, never vice versa." On the face of things, this sounds indisputable; how could the environment—rocks and trees, wind and rain and sunlight—adapt itself to you and me? But a consequence of Williams’s position, one widely shared among evolutionists, is that evolution becomes a one-way street. "Adaptation" makes it sound as if organisms are doing something positive, but that’s not what it means. It means that animals, including us, are not agents of their own destiny, but automatically throw off random genetic recombinations and occasional mutations from which theenvironment selects. That’s natural selection. Nothing in the animals’ actual behavior has any effects or any significant consequences. This is the view of evolution taken to its logical extreme by Richard Dawkins’s "selfish gene, genes are everything" approach.
Now if what I just described was the whole evolutionary story, there’d be no point in searching through the course of humanevolution for some special, unique behavior that could have triggered language. There couldn’t be one. Our ancestors must simply have gone on having sex with one another and recombining their genes and tossing out the odd mutation until one fine day they hit the jackpot with some combination that made language, at least in a very simple form, possible. And then once they were capable of language, it was what the French call an embarras du choix; there were just too many things forwhich language would obviously be useful. Hunting, toolmaking, social relations, rituals, gossip, scheming for power, attracting mates, controlling children...All these and more have been proposed as the original function of language. After all, these activities were all carried on by other primates. And since we were primates with primate genes, and since genes werewhat determined behavior, there was no point in looking anywhere but at our closest relatives, the great apes (who unlike our immediate ancestors had the advantage of being alive and well and available for study), if we wanted to know how language began.
Irene Pepperberg, who has shown that at least one species of parrot has as much language potential as apes, called this the"primate-centric" approach to language evolution.
Let’s look a little more closely at Williams’s dictum. "Organisms adapt to their environment." Not the environment,note—their environment. The environment as a whole doesn’t select for anything. (The weather in Alaska doesn’t botherHawaiian finches.) A species is only affected by the environment that immediately surrounds it. But that environment is in its turn changed, sometimes drastically, by the species that inhabit it. Goats cause deforestation. Worms enrich the soil. Beavers flood valleys. Seabirds dumped so much guano on the island of Nauru that, now that the Nauruans have sold it all, there’s hardly any island left. So the selector in natural selection isn’t some generalized, abstract "environment";it’s a part of the environment that has already been worked over by its inhabitants. What living organisms did to that environment will then select for new traits in those organisms that will enable them to modify their environment still further,which in turn...
Get the idea? It sets up a constant feedback process.
So evolution is no longer just selfish genes mindlessly replicating themselves. It’s a process in which the things animals do guide their own evolution. This happens to be a much more user-friendly view of evolution, but that’s not why you shouldaccept it. You should accept it because it’s closer to the truth.
It’s only in the last few years that this view, one known to biologists as niche construction theory, has developed; it’s still hardly known to outsiders. Nobody has yet used it to look at language evolution. I’ll explain what niche construction theory says in chapter 5. All we need here is the radically changed picture of human evolution that it gives us. No longer is human evolution, and the complex culture that human evolution produced, a one-of-a-kind anomaly. What drives it can now be seen as a process operating in many other species—possibly most species.
Human culture is just the human niche.
It’s the way we adapt our environment to suit ourselves, in the same way that the complex worlds of ant nests or termite mounds are the way ants and termites adapt the environment to suit them. We do it by learning, they do it by instinct; big deal. We can do it by learning only because we have language, which is by now the fruit of instinct just as much as a termitemound is. And language itself is a prize example of niche construction.
What this new theory suggests is that people have been seeking the origin of language in all the wrong places. Previous treatments fall into one of two categories. Either language was some exotic gift that fell from on high for no very clear reason, or it was such a simple and obviously useful thing that any of a dozen factors might equally well have selected for it.We’ll meet both kinds of explanation in the pages that follow, and see what’s wrong with each of them.
From the perspective of niche construction theory, language could only be the logical result—maybe even the inevitable result—of some very specific choices our ancestors made and some very particular actions they performed. To be moreprecise, they must have started to do something that no species of even remotely similar brain power had attempted, something that could not be accomplished unless they somehow broke through the limitations that restrict almost all other animal communication systems. And of course, once they broke through, once they established a new kind of system, they would have moved into a new niche—the language niche. No matter how crude or how primitive that first system was, it would be subject to the same feedback loop— behavior to genes, genes to behavior, behavior back to genes again— that all forms ofniche construction create. Language would change, grow, and develop until it became the infinitely complex, infinitely subtle medium that we all know and use (and take totally for granted!) today and every day of our lives.
I have two goals in writing this book.
First, I have a burning desire to convince you that language is the key to what it means to be human, and that without understanding how language evolved, we can never hope to explain or understand ourselves. I’m not saying this because the evolution of language happens to be what I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of decades. It’s the other way around. I’ve been thinking about the evolution of language for the last couple of decades precisely because I’m convinced it’s the keyto understanding humanity, and for no other reason. I didn’t have to do it. I don’t need the money, not that there’s much money in it. I could have stretched out on a chaise longue by the pool with a pitcher of margaritas and blown the days away.But the desire I have to convince you merely reflects my own passionate need to know, to understand, what humans really are—a need I’ve had all my life.
Second, I want to dispose of some of the many confounding factors that have bedeviled the study of language evolution, thathave made it a chaos of conflicting theories, extravagant claims, and irreconcilable positions. One of these factors I’ve already noted: the "primate-centric bias" that affects so many in this field, focusing exclusively on our genetic continuity with the great apes and ignoring all the environmental and ecological differences between our ancestors and theirs.
Another factor, closely allied with this one, is the belief that the communication systems of other species make up some kind of hierarchy, like a ladder or a pyramid with language seated firmly on top. It’s as if the communication systems of other species were no more than a series of botched attempts at language: they did their best, but weren’t quite up to it; only we were smart enough to scale the pinnacle. This is what you might call the "homocentric bias"—folk seldom admit to it, but it’s colored all too many theories. Watch out for people who talk about "precursors" of this or that aspect of language, or who seek "stepping-stones to language" in the communication of other species: these are some ofthe signs of homocentric bias.
In reality, the communication system of any species is designed simply and solely to take care of that species’ evolutionary needs. There’s no evidence anywhere for a cumulative or "progressive" tendency operating across communication as a whole.
A third factor is assuming that language was originally a target for natural selection. This looks like a no-brainer. Language was what evolved, and evolution proceeds through natural selection, so language had to be selected for, didn’t it? The question then becomes simply, what selected for it? Was it hunting, toolmaking, child care, social competitiveness, sexual display? All these and more have been picked by some experts as the pressure. Not surprisingly, there’s no good reason to choose any one of these over the others; indeed all of them are seriously flawed in one way or another.
The error here, made even by those who think the earliest language was far simpler than the languages of today, is thinkingthat language could have been a target at all. How could it be a target, even in its simplest, most basic form, when it couldn’t even exist until some of the necessary bits and pieces had been assembled?
Instead of asking how language evolved, we should be asking what caused our ancestors to take the first halting steps away from the kind of communication system all other animals had and have. We should be looking at those ancestors’ way of life,what they were trying to do and how they did it, and then asking which of the constraints on animal communication those activities would have forced them to break.
If we can avoid all of these confounding factors, we may be able to get past the two head-butting alternatives in which thelanguage evolution debate is all too often framed:
• "All communication systems are on a continuum."
• "Language is a totally different kind of communication system."
Too often, these contradictory positions are argued on ideological rather than scientific grounds: those who want humans tobe just another species take the first position, and those who think humans are something very special take the second. We have to realize that the dichotomy is a false one; the second may be true now, but it certainly wasn’t then, whenever "then" was. We have to look, more closely than anyone has yet done, at how our ancestors could have first cracked the mold of animal communication, and how that first breakthrough, in a species not so distant from our own, could have unleasheda cascade of change that would radically alter not just communication, but the very minds that communicated.
It’s a long story, a complex story.
But is it the true, the only real story?
I can’t guarantee that. Science isn’t faith. What seemed certain yesterday can look like nonsense tomorrow, yet become possible again the day after. Not because scientists can’t make up their minds, but because new knowledge is constantly coming in, because that knowledge inevitably changes (hopefully improves) our picture of reality, and because, not being faith-based observers, we have to ensure that our theories fit that picture.
What I can guarantee is that, on the basis of what we presently know about humans, evolution, human evolution, biology, andlanguage, what you will read in the following chapters represents the best and best-supported account it’s possible to get today. What we know may change, and it may no longer be the best, but our knowledge would have to change a lot before that happened. For what I think will remain true, regardless of new discoveries, is the idea that we must look for the source oflanguage not in the things apes do today, but things our ancestors did that apes didn’t do.
But that, as they say, is an empirical question.
You be the judge. If you enjoy this book half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, it will have been more than worthwhile.
Excerpted from Adam’s Tongue by Derek Bickerton.
Copyright © 2009 by Derek Bickerton.
Published 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.