Re: Natural Language and Natural Selection

Date: Wed Feb 28 1996 - 16:39:26 GMT

The article begins with a general introduction about language, for
example that within societies humans are proficient language users
regardless of their social status or any other factor.
The main emphasis of the article relates to the popular idea that human
language is the process of Darwinian Natural Selection and how some
people suggest that it is not the result of a process of natural
selection. Chomsky and Gould, for example suggest that language is a
side effect of other evolutionary forces such as an increase in over
all brain size and ' constraints of as yet unknown laws of structure
and growth '.

The article is generally arguing in favour of the Natural Selection
theory. To do this it firstly looks at Gould et al's ideas, which are
a shift in emphasis within the NeoDarwinian framework.
Gould argues against Darwinian ideas of adaptation and gradualism.

Gould belives that Darwin uses an inappropriate use of adaptive
theorising to explain things which have happened for another reason.
An example given in the article is that humans have two teats because
they usually bear single children and often have twins, the number of
teats corresponds to the maximum number of children born at any one
time. There was'nt even a suggestion made that the human body would'nt
be likely to have one breast, or more than two for that matter. The
above example is the Darwinian method of looking at and adapting things
into a theory. Gould's criticism seems very sensible at first, but then
an example is made of the eye. No physical process other than natural
selection can explain the evolution of an organ such as the eye, this
is because it is the only physical process in which the criterion of
being good at seeing can play a causal role.

Another argument against Gould and in favour of Darwinian ideas
continues with examples of how modifications have been made in
species to adapt to their enviroment eg. having five didgets on each

This arguement is about whether evolutionary change is gradual from
generation to generation. Gould believes that most evolutionary change
is confined to bursts of change which are relatively brief on the
geological time change.
The general conclusions and arguments coming from Gould's ideas seem
to be that Natural Selection could be used to explain language and
where it comes from.

The article then goes on to look at the whole area of the design of
language, it discusses pharse structure rules, grammar, verb afixes etc
and how these are universally accepted. There is an argument that
neural mechanisms are there purely to accomodate language and it's
development. The article goes on to debate language design, for example
it quotes Chomsky's argument that anything that is found in one
language can also be found in any other language. It also lokks at the
question of why there is more than one language at all. Two arguments
put forward are:

1. Speakers need a learning mechanism for labels for
cultural innovations. The example of a screwdriver is given in the

2. It may be difficult to develop a huge innate code. ( I don't quite
understand where this point comes from, even after reading it over a
couple of times).

The process of language evolution is also looked at in detail.
There must have been a time when there was no language and then
language 'happened'. As this happened there must have been genetic
variation among individuals in their grammatical competence!!
Society and it's effeect on language development was also looked at,
the lifestyle of many humans led to an increased need for cooperation
with others in order to survive.

A comparison is made between humans and apes, the conclusion drawn was
that there is very little, if any association between the ' language'
of humans and apes. Even when sign language was compared in deaf
children and apes there was still no association. This does NOT go
against the argument that human language evolved by natural selection
though... the debate on this one goes on.

The article concludes with the result it set out to show which was that
language has developed through a process of natural selection. I would
have liked to have seen some other ideas in the article which disagree
with the natural selection hypothesis, I wonder what Pinker would have
to say about the work of Skinner and others in the same area.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:24:15 GMT