Re: Natural Language and Natural Selection

From: E.J.Fletcher (
Date: Sun Mar 03 1996 - 15:48:19 GMT

All human societies have language. Therefore did language evolve
because it made us better at surviving and reproducing? It is traits
which enable an advantage to be held over others, which achieves
dominance over time. After all "nothing succeeds like success"; success
which is "founded on a process of blind variation and selection. Blind
because no one steers the variation in any direction; it is random"
(Dawkins). So language "appeared at some point, over some form of time
scale, installing in mankind some form of advantage. It obviously was
instrumental in self survival, otherwise such a trait would not be
evident now. A shared language has obvious advantages. e.g.the
conveyance of experience and information from one generation to the
next, and more basic terms, group advantages concerning fundamentals of
survival (.e.g. being able to distinguish between "you can eat the
animals over there" and "the animals over there can eat you").

However, was language determined by evolution initially? Surely
language development is a consequence of the evolution of
consciousness? Language would not exist if cognition
(thought/experience) was not present , after all language

allows expression of thought or experience; if only a somewhat poor
one. Perhaps it is not fair to say the way in which we formulate
language in our minds, and the factor that prompted us to do so ,
originates from conscious reasoning: but through a process of
unconscious reasoning. Nevertheless language us to express and create
some form of labelling for our experiences, to which we are, of course,
conscious. After all to experience is to be conscious.

Chomsky points to a universal grammar (U.G.) which is innate,
suggesting that grammatical rules are inborn. this is in a sense
logical, as grammatical rules are centred around what it is possible to
say and what it is not possible to say. What you cannot say is never
produced, so no correction occurs. Therefore the process of learning
not what to say has been made redundant.

Pinker and Bloom suggest that "all languages are complex computational
systems with basic rules and representations". Surely it is more than
this however. Basic rules and representations of what? Cognitive
processes? Experiences? Chomsky, Fodor, Lenneburg and Liberman etc.
suggest that the mind is a "series of freely activating computational
modules of which language is a product". Where did the input originate
from? should this not be the question which neoDarwinists should be
searching for, as it appears that language is a bi- product of such
"processing". Is experience, or unconscious reasoning the cause here?
After all, is language not a product of cognition?

What if language development was purely developed though purely random
selection. How does this explain how language emerged? Could an innate
generative grammar have evolved by natural selection. Evolution appears
to explain development, not how the qualities emerged. e.g. universal
grammar appears to be inherent ( and thus seems to be a quality
selected by evolution due to it's successful nature). However this does
not explain how, or why language originated, it just defines what can
and cannot be said. Perhaps language was a bi-product of cognitive
functioning. If Pinker and Bloom suggest "human knowledge and reasoning
is expressed in a language of thought", then surely cognition
superseded the development of language.

It appears that language "assumes" a listener, as a form of equilibrium
is maintained between the size, and use, of vocabulary needed to
express experiences, and the minimal language need for the listener to
fully comprehend the speakers words, without ambiguity. As such Pinker
and Bloom suggest that there is pressure for evolution of neural
mechanisms which decode information.
However when reduced to basics, is it not consciousness which allows us to do
this? If so the question should not be wether evolution put pressure on the
formation of neural mechanisms which decode information, but why should
evolution have led to our consciousness, and how that, in turn, lead to language

According to Pinker and Bloom "syntax is acquired by general purpose
learning abilities". However as suggested earlier universal grammar
appears to be inherent. It dictates what can and cannot be said. On the
other hand, meanings may be learnt, as we learn through experience what
makes one particular experience common to others.

"Natural selection, while feeding on variation uses it up, therefore
there are not qualitative differences in basic design". Does this mean
that a process of natural selection led to U.G., as this is now
inherent to all humans? Or was U.G. always present even at the origins
of language itself? Could U.G. be only 5% complete? surely it's all or

In conclusion Pinker and Bloom suggest that language shows signs of
complex design for the communication of propositional structures" and
that "the only explanation for the origin of organisms with complex
design is natural selection". Perhaps this is true, but not when
concerning language. How does this explain U.G. Surely language should
be assessed in the context of the development of cognition.

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