Re: Natural Language and Natural Selection

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sun Apr 14 1996 - 16:34:37 BST

> From: "Liz Lee" <>
> Date: Thu, 11 Apr 1996 10:52:01 GMT
> Is language a biological capacity or a cultural invention? I thought I
> was on track but now I've come to write it up I realise I haven't got a
> good argument for either case.

You may not have a good argument for why language is ALL biology or ALL
culture, but surely you have some good arguments for why it might be in
part one and in part the other (and what parts).

It may help to consider separately the parts out of which language is
made: pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary. The two Pinker papers should
have given you plenty of food for thought on this question.

> If language has developed from thought
> as (I think) Vygotsky suggested then the cultural invention holds -
> language became necessary to represent known information and pass it
> from one person to another - but the biological processes were already
> in place to be able to do this

Vygotsky does not have a theory of the evolutionary origin of language,
as far as I know; he studied its origins during the lifetime of the
child, and speculated about its social origins. Pinker is a better
source than Vygotsky for current thinking about this.

> so was the ability to speak an
> evolutionary development that was only activated when the social
> situation arose demanding it?

Hard to imagine that all that capacity was in place before there was
any pressure to use it -- but a logical case can be made for the fact
that naming categories of things and their properties and then
stringing together the names to make statements about other things with
other properties is in principle within reach of any creature with
enough sensorimotor and instrumental learning capacity.

Biology and history do not always follow logic, though, so if no new
cognitive capacity was logically required, it may still have been
required neurobiologically, if for nothing else than to strengthen
the inclination to USE the potential capacity.

> A friend has told me about a study
> whereby a group of children were raised without ever being spoken to
> (obviously some time ago - and, I think, Russian) and consequently had
> no language facility - do you know anything about this?
> Would appreciate some guidance!

I doubt that normal children have ever been systematically language
deprived, but you might want to look at this book.

Candland, Douglas Keith.
Feral children and clever animals: Reflections on human nature. Oxford
University Press; New York, NY, US, 1993.

Abstract: (from the jacket) (In this) book, Douglas Candland shows that as we
begin to understand the way animals and nonspeaking humans "think," we
hold up a mirror of sorts to our own mental world, and gain profound
insights into human nature.... Weaving together diaries, contemporary
newspaper accounts, and his own enlightening commentary, Candland brings
to life a series of extraordinary stories. He begins with a look at past
efforts to civilize feral children.... In each case, it was hoped that the
study of these children would help clarify the age-old nature/nurture
debate, but, as Candland shows, much of the information discovered was
really only a projection of beliefs previously held by the investigating
scientists.... Candland then turns to "clever animals."... (He) discusses
the many attempts to communicate with our closest neighbor, the apes....
(This book) offers us a new understanding not only of the animal kingdom,
but the very nature of humanity, and our place in the great chain of

Part I: What feral children tell us.
Nature and nurture: Children without human parenting.
Kaspar Hauser and the wolf-children.
Part II: Four psychologies.
Thinking about the mind.
The psychology of psychoanalysis: Freud and Little Hans.
The psychology of experimentalism and behaviorism: Clever Hans and Lady
Experimentation and the experimenter: Clever Hans's companions.
The psychology of perceiving: Phenomenology and ethology.
Part III: The mental ladder.
Peter and Moses, chimpanzees who write.
Exploiting the missing link.
Part IV: People and apes communicating.
Raising human babies with chimps: Donald, Gua, and Viki.
Human and ape communication: Washoe, Koko, and Nim.
Language and meaning: Sarah and Lana, Sherman and Austin, Kanzi and Ai.
Part V: Principles and myths.
Feral children and clever animals.

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