Natural Language and Natural Selection

From: m (
Date: Mon Feb 26 1996 - 14:12:54 GMT

Dear One and All

Here is a summary of the Natural Language and Natural Selection
article by S. Pinker. It was not a too difficult read, though the shear
volume (it s nearly 20 pages long) is a little off putting. He makes
some interesting points about the Darwinian Natural Selection process
and it's current position in modern scientific thought, though I did
get a little lost in some of the intricacies of the language faculty
(i.e. defining language), though as Steve told us: no complete language
definition suffices to explain this phenomena. The Spandrel analogy
was a good way of explaining his ideas in a physical sense and made
much of the article alot clearer. This helps a great deal to the
reader as there is a vast amount of information and hypotheses that
Pinker illustrates.

The article is split into Six sections including an Introduction and a
Conclusion :but it's core is based around this test of 1- Whether
Natural selection is an appropriate explanation for the evolution of
complex traits (i.e. is Darwin's theory correct ?) 2- Then to apply
the test to language (using complex cognitive mechanisms) that has
occurred through the process of natural selection (i.e. is language a
complex trait that has arisen through the process of natural selection
?). The last part is a characterisation of language (specifically
grammar) being an innate human characteristic and therefore supporting
the Darwinian account for the complexities of language by natural
selection, that Pinker discusses in the first two parts.

( The Spandrel analogy is used to exemplify that for some structures
you have to not look at the centre piece (a mosaic) but to what lies
around it (the pillars) which if removed would decrease the
'profoundness' of the centre piece. The spandrel can be considered to
be an innate language ability which is needed in order to create the
detailed mosaic of language acquisition. Where this spandrel
originated from is where the article is directed).

1- Natural Selection (in this article) states that the only plausible
explanation for the creation of near perfect organs is by adaptive
complexity . Where many interacting parts of a system arrange
themselves to fullfil a specific function. The eye (organ) is a perfect
adaptation for visual imagery (function) and could only have occurred
through a process of natural selection and those who did not need the
function would not develop the eye. This process occurs gradually
through a series of small mutations and proceeds over a relatively long
period of time (some sort of hill climbing to adaptation). The
argument that if it is not natural selection then what other process
could create such phenomena : Divine Intervention ? (I don t think so
?) do not seem plausible. Natural selection seems to be the only method
(at present) to explain complex organs and organisms adapted to their
specific function/functioning. NATURAL SELECTION SEEMS PLAUSIBLE.

2 - So if natural selection can seem to explain the complex design of
the eye then could it be used to explain the complex design of the
cognitive mechanisms used in language? Pinker then goes onto
characterise the features of a language functioning i.e. Verb Affixes
e.t.c and it's complexity .Which was even recognised by Darwin himself
"that perfection of structure (language)... which justly excites our
admiration" . Not only is the fact that such a complex tool could only
have been created by natural selection: but the universality of it's
structures (that there are similar linguistic traits of languages all
over the world (Chomsky)) also supports this view. Natural selection
can only explain the cognitive mechanisms such as the arbitrariness of
the sign (that grammar and language is just the use of some sort of
systematic symbolism to mean something for everyone) that are needed in
order to achieve language competency.

This arbitriness of the sign is important in an achievement of parity
(same communication standardisation) I.e in computers where one
computer goes: beep beep and another goes boop boop - these two are of
different parity and are in compatible). Humans must have some sort of
parity in order to be compatible and understand one another. The
arbitriness of the sign allows communication within a language as well
as outside to other languages (Steve talked about the fact that you can
transform any word in one language to any word in another - the word is
just the arbitriness of the sign) and we all have this ability and it
must have been created somewhere.

The final part of this section is a difference between language
evolution (described above) and language acquisition. The fact that
early infants can distinguish different grammatical utterances and find
the correct ones relatively quickly would indicate the existence of
some cognitive mechanism that is innate, and is very much different to
the evolution of how it got there. The child has this ability that has
been adapted to it's present complex functioning by natural selection
and now the child can build upon it. LANGUAGE IS A COMPLEX DESIGN

1 - Natural Selection is a valid method of explaining complex organs
and there functions at there present state.

2 - Language fits the bill of being a complex cognitive mechanism and
passes the test of being adapted to it s present form by a process of
natural selection.

The final part of the article concentrates on some sort of steps that
may have occurred during this evolutionary process. At one stage there
must have been no language and it must have evolved by some method and
due to some reasons into it s present form ? Pinker hypothesises these
reasons such as the fact that early communication must have been among
kin and maybe certain cognitive mechanisms were created by this,
specific to that community. He talks later of a cognitive 'arms race'
between groups in order to accelerate there development. Whereby a
group with a quicker and more complex language are going to be more
adept in teaching their youngsters learned 'stuff' and in planning
hunting/gathering and other exercises. This is a viable hypothesis as a
group with a greater language capability would have developed quicker
than ones with a deficit or difference.

A biological explanation of language evolution is also presented. These
cognitive language mechanisms are no good if it is only one person who
has them i.e. if one cave man has one language whilst all the others
have another no one will be able to understand him. By a process of
inter-mating (this returns to the kin idea ) certain genetic traits are
continued along a line leading to stabilising of that trait (not
perfection as natural selection does not strive towards perfectionism:
mainly to some form of similarity and stability). Here two points are
important : that organisms pass on some learned information to their
offspring genetically, who improve upon this knowledge and pass it onto
their offspring e.t.c add infinitum. This could explain the passing of
increased complex cognitive mechanisms used in language by genetic
mutation which is increased and stabilised over a relatively short
period of time. (A few million years is nothing in the evolutionary
time scale of the process of natural selection).


There should be some mention that the article makes no reference to
being refutable and that all the ideas within it are un-testable
hypotheses and totally conventional (we cannot go out and find a
caveman and test the level of his language ability). But Pinker
produces evidence by Gould, Chomsky, Slobin, Darwin and others which
supports each of the points that he conveys and the theories would seem
to be plausible. I will use a sentence from his conclusion that
summarises the main body of the article : 'Language shows signs of
complex design for the communication of prepositional structures, and
the only explanation for the origin of organs with complex design is
the process of natural selection'(Pinker Behavioral and Brain Sciences

HINT - Try to remember when reading the last part of the article about
the innate nature of language capability in all humans, that it is not
the characteristics of the ability that Pinker is trying to describe
but by tracing it back through to a natural selection process may
explain it s present form/forms. (I found this part a little confusing
and have probably misinterpreted it).



(Will send my ideas on Monday s tutorial in a few days. Just as soon as
I can find some time. And I think that I worked out my confusion over
the poverty of the stimulus problem : it's the wording that I am
confused about (poverty means deficit) and this is in my view a little
mis-leading in this context.

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