A couple of years ago we were inundated with books attacking belief in God. Now it seems the hot topic is human language. Language has been a perennial subject of philosophers since the “linguistic turn” at the turn of the 20th century, but the idea of defining the human as the language-using animal, which goes back at least to Aristotle (zoon logon echon), has had its ups and downs. Most recently, the turn from generative grammar to cognitive linguistics has downplayed the specificity of language and Chomsky’s “biological” Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in favor of a blending of language with other human cognitive abilities, so that, for example, in How Homo Became Sapiens (Oxford, 2003), Peter Gärdenfors (who is scheduled to speak at our next GASC in Stockholm) is able to describe language as a “very recent addition to human abilities,” as “explained by the fact that language presupposes the existence of the other cognitive functions presented here” (p. 14), which is to say: thought, representation, imagination, planning, self-consciousness, and free will.
That a popular writer such as Tom Wolfe, astute but anything but rigorous, would write a book (The Kingdom of Speech, Little, Brown, 2016; unfortunately, page numbers below refer to the Large Print edition, the only one available in my library at the time) identifying the human with language can be understood in two ways.
In principle, it is a Good Thing, since the idea that the acquisition of language can be explained in terms of Darwinian evolution, which in Chomsky’s case (where, to be fair, the origin of human language is virtually irrelevant to the overall theory) means that the LAD is presumed the result of a “mutation,” intraspecific communication not being required at all, is patently inadequate. Wolfe’s own “explanation” in the last chapter of his little book, that language is simply a mnemonic device, is so clearly tautological that it requires no refutation. But it is just as clearly an afterthought; Wolfe’s real point, and he does have a point, is that language is a free human invention, not the product of a genetic mutation acquired through natural selection. The many mutations that have helped us improve our language skills have indeed been selected for, but only once language itself came into being. Claiming that we “invented” it, however, although no doubt correct in principle, provides no explanation for its emergence.
Whence my second, more personal reaction to Wolfe’s book, which is one of rage. Having proposed the originary hypothesis in The Origin of Language (TOOL) some 35 years ago, I have yet to see in reaction, not merely a reasoned refutation, let alone an admission that the hypothesis in fact represents a qualitative advance, but even an intemperate dismissal. Although TOOL was published by the University of California Press and even advertised in the New York Review of Books, this work is never included in bibliographies on the subject; it was simply, in 1981, too far ahead of its time, and not having been authored by a certified member of the linguistics (or anthropology) profession, has simply been ignored. I have resigned myself to this in hopes that I may live long enough for the social science community to finally understand the need for something like my hypothesis. But reading Wolfe is really frustrating, since he so enjoys telling stories about how the Great Minds have misunderstood the question and reacted by putting down those who would respond to it, without even dreaming of what would really make his story conclusive as well as providing it with an even more obscure protagonist.
There are two such stories in Wolfe’s book. In the first half of the book (Chapters 1-3), he takes on Darwin’s “victory” over Alfred Wallace in obtaining the credit for the theory of evolution, despite the fact that Wallace’s 1858 paper, published jointly with one of Darwin’s, was in fact the first publishable statement of the theory (which Darwin had long been elaborating but, fearing rejection, had been slow to present in written form). Wolfe insists, without providing any clear evidence, that Darwin’s central purpose in developing his theory was only secondarily to describe the emergence of the various forms of life, but primarily to show that man was “descended from the apes,” a point only brought out in Darwin’s second major work on the subject, The Descent of Man in 1871. In this book, Darwin makes great efforts to find animal forms of communication that might have evolved into language, notably bird song.
Throughout, Wolfe relentlessly and sarcastically opposes Darwin (along with Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker) as “Gentlemen” to poor Wallace the “flycatcher,” who was forced to finance his explorations in the Amazon and Malaya by catching and sending home large volumes of (dead) insects and similar specimens. But the crux of these chapters is that unlike Darwin, Wallace, and more pointedly, the philologist Max Müller (see Chronicle 192) understood that natural selection cannot account for human language. Wallace’s later descent (or rise, according to tastes) into spiritualism reflected this—just as Creationism did in a later era. As for Müller, he specifically declared that “Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it” (Wolfe p. 86, quoting Müller’s “Darwinism Tested by the Science of Language,” Nature 1, 1870).
Whether or not these denials of the biological origin of human language were as great a blow to Darwin as Wolfe claims in his inimitably hyperbolic style is irrelevant to our purposes. Claiming that man “invented” language instead of “evolving” it from animal behavior is a good start, but the claim is vacuous unless one can offer a hypothesis concerning the circumstances of this “invention.”
The second half of the book is wilder and woolier. After noting Noam Chomsky’s meteoric rise, with Syntactic Structures (1957), to the top of the linguistics profession even before he finished his doctorate, and his utter dominance over that profession for several decades, Wolfe brings in a missionary-anthropologist named Daniel Everett to play the role of David-Wallace in bringing down Chomsky-Goliath. Everett did his research in the 1980s, but the fat hit the fire in 2005 when he published a paper in Current Anthropology concerning his researches, deep in the Amazonian jungle, among the Pirahᾶ tribe, work that eventually led to a 2008 book entitled Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes—purportedly the tribe’s rather ironic way of saying goodnight. According to Wolfe-Everett, the Pirahᾶ language has no tenses other than the present, nor any numbers other than “few” and “many.” (Since I’m not planning a trip to the Amazon—whose many dangers Wolfe describes with great relish—I suppose I have to take this at face value, although it’s hard to imagine that a language could have no word for one.) The real scandal of Pirahᾶ language, however, is that, again according to Everett, it does not involve recursion, a quality that Chomsky considered fundamental to the syntax of human language, and the one that he referenced most conclusively in his well-known refutation of B. F. Skinner’s behavioristic Verbal Behavior (1957)—a refutation which, however arrogant it may be, I consider totally correct.
Since, in the text of an interview with Chomsky that Wolfe quotes on p. 235-36 as a demonstration of his arrogance, the Great Man makes what strikes me as the perfectly cogent point that, given that these tribesman are able to learn Portuguese to speak with those outside the tribe, the idiosyncrasies of their language have no bearing on the hypothetical existence of the LAD, it doesn’t really matter anyway. But to stipulate the correctness of Wolfe’s account, the “scandal” occasioned by the discovery of a language without recursive constructions (e.g., subordinate clauses) was a key element in permitting cognitive linguists such as Michael Tomasello to take over the dominant position in the field after several decades of Chomskian formalism. Whereas Chomsky and his followers, considering all languages as essentially equivalent and our ability to learn them explained by the LAD, put the study of multiple languages and of language acquisition on the back burner, the new linguistics emphasizes both the specificity of different languages and the necessity of studying language use in early childhood to show how grammatical constructions are learned, not, as per the doctrine of generative grammar, as abstract structures upon the child’s minimal exposure (the “poverty of the stimulus”), but in the context of specific syntactic constructions integrated with their phonetic and semantic components.
These internecine quarrels of linguists are of little concern to GA, and although there is no need to dismiss Chomsky’s formalism out of hand (science is always about making models, not studying “the thing itself”), the cognitive approach seems to me much more potentially fruitful in allowing us to develop GA’s own linguistic hypotheses beyond the suggestions of TOOL. Nor does the cognitive approach require, as in the above citation from Gärdenfors, that we downplay the unique quality of language as opposed to other cognitive functions. Chomsky’s description of the LAD as a kind of organ can only be understood as a formal simplification, conducive, for example, to reducing language to a set of algorithms. Even if such an “organ” could be said to exist somewhere in the brain, the idea that we are born with it and just need to “set” its various parameters has as far as I know no justification in neuroscience, and the claim that it came into being in one fell swoop via a mutation is an extravagant just-so story.
But as we have seen in these Chronicles, Michael Tomasello, the leading member of the cognitive school, who has done much important and meticulous work on language acquisition, and who is associated with the most important idea of this school, that of joint shared attention, is incapable even of taking religion seriously, let alone of formulating a hypothesis concerning its origin along with language. Wolfe is not seeking to promote cognitive linguistics, in which he shows little interest. His point in the second part of the book is to debunk Chomsky and his “biological”-evolutionary conception of human language, and the fact that Chomsky’s structuralism is inherently indifferent to such things as speculation about origins is the least of Wolfe’s concerns.
And so, after carelessly tossing off his “mnemonic” explanation without realizing its utterly tautological nature (as though the names for the colors of the spectrum were derived from “Roy G. Biv” rather than the other way around), he concludes with a paean to Speech to which we can all say Amen. Yes, language is the fundamental attribute of the human, and no, it can’t be explained via Darwinian evolution. But, let me repeat, just saying that we “invented” it doesn’t explain by what new mechanism it might have appeared.
It was the first recognizable version of just such a mechanism that I recognized in René Girard’s La violence et le sacré in 1972, and that I later refocused on representation—the deferral of violence through representation—starting with TOOL in 1981. I won’t repeat for the nth time how the total neglect of my hypothesis only proves its superiority to the feeble attempts at creating scenarios of origin from mothering to grooming to gossiping to hunting to … No, I can’t demonstrate that things went according to my scenario, but I can show that unless you can explain the coeval scenic emergence of language-significance and the sacred, there is nothing that a sign can refer to in a different way from a signal. This is really a rather simple idea, and I have a feeling that it would have found a more receptive audience in the era of Durkheim—who didn’t think of religion as the process by which shamanistic tribal leaders claimed to have “somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way.” Durkheim understood religious ritual as a means of reinforcing solidarity, which may at the very least be taken to imply that such solidarity was not a simple given and risked breaking down in violence in the absence of ritual activity.
If you are reading this, you are one of a tiny and insignificant minority in our intellectual universe. These Chronicles have been posted on the Internet for 21 years, and there are now 525 of them, well over a million words. Yet the total readership of all of them together is probably less than that of a single semi-popular blog by an Internet pundit, or the viewership of a single “viral” cat video. Assuming that there is a good chance that you share at least in part my conviction that the originary hypothesis offers a unique and qualitatively superior theory of the origin of language and of human culture, this seems to me to be a good time to suggest that you stand up and be counted.
One thing Wolfe’s book has persuaded me to do is to pursue a project I had been hesitating over, that of producing a second edition of TOOL. It will have to be simplified and greatly shortened, and above all brought up to date to reflect not so much the results of “research” as my own thinking on the subject. But I can at least hope that this may be a moment when such a book would actually be read by more than the few dozen persons who take the originary hypothesis seriously at the present time.
In the next Chronicle I intend to discuss another recent book defining the human through language—and like Wolfe’s, not having the least clue about the need for an originary hypothesis—by a very different kind of author, Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal (Harvard, 2016).