In this year’s GASC talk in New York, and in a few recent Chronicles, I have alluded to the limitations of the hard-science approach to language origin, which eschews any allusion to an event of origin. But rather than simply asking you to take me at my word, let me provide an example of what I am referring to.
The following passage is from Denis Bouchard’s The Nature and Origin of Language (Oxford, 2013), a book whose focus is on demonstrating the feasibility of the author’s “Sign Theory of Language” (STL), inspired by the Saussurean signifiant/signifié conception of the sign, but expanded to include syntactical “signs” (contiguity, agreement, etc.). This does away with the need for Chomskian Universal Grammar and its Language Acquisition Device (LAD), and consequently simplifies the task of conceptualizing the evolution of language through natural selection. As a layman, I had never been persuaded by Chomsky’s arguments for the LAD, which have since been largely discredited, nor by the various mutations of Transformational Grammar since the 1960s. Thus I find Bouchard’s arguments quite compelling, and am quite ready to accept his version of the process that led to our capacity for mature language.
But the point of GA is not the evolution through natural selection of our language capacity, but the event of its origin. Here, in the book’s conclusion, is Bouchard’s take on this issue:
Questions on the origin of language relate to the fundamental question of who we are. At the personal, functional level, we have a language faculty with several properties that are different from the properties of other animal communication systems, making us unique in several ways. Darwin showed that our existence was not inevitable, that we are the result of numerous complicated and unpredictable processes, and that, on this scale of things, we do not differ much from other animals, and only a very little bit from other primates. One of the key distinguishing properties, language, in all its apparent surface complexities, is also actually just a small step removed from properties of other primates. As is so often the case, a small difference in a complex system such as a living organism can result in huge differences in the overall system. In human beings, a small change in the way some neurons function produced Offline Brain Systems* that gave us human language, and most likely human Theory of Mind. This echoes Tattersall (1998)**, who concludes that the innovation “that set the stage for language acquisition [ . . . ] depended on the phenomenon of emergence, whereby a chance combination of preexisting elements results in something totally unexpected,” a “sudden and emergent event,” presumably “a neural change [ . . . ] in some population of the human lineage.” The innovation leading to signs and all the linguistic properties that derive from it, required only a very small step, given all that was already there in the meanings and the forms: all that was needed was a way to get concepts and percepts together in a suitably matching form in the brain to link them. The emergence of OBS was sufficient to induce the advent of signs, given the contributions of other elements such as the general laws of nature, and of cognition.
(334-335; brackets in the text are the author’s)
*These “systems” were previously described by Bouchard in the following paragraph:
My proposal is that the human capacity for language rests on minute neurological changes that provided some human neuronal systems with a new “representations” capacity, resulting in a cascade of new functional capabilities. These Offline Brain Systems emerged due to an increase in synaptic interactions that was triggered by several compounding factors. One of these side effects is the possibility to link concepts and percepts, thus accounting under the STL view for the two core properties of language: the capacity to form signs follows directly; recursion is a result of the self-organization triggered by the chaotic system that emerged. These properties no longer pose insoluble challenges for natural selection. (106-107)
**The Origin of the Human Capacity [sic]: New York: James Arthur Lecture Series, American Museum of Natural History.
After over 300 pages in which he demonstrates the superiority of STL to Chomsky’s UG, one cannot say that Bouchard is unaware of the capacities of human language. Yet he begins by denying that language has any significant causality; it is just a “small step” away from the capacity of other primates. This assertion is not an objective scientific conclusion; it is a dogma, an expression of parti pris, which no evidence, let alone common sense, could disprove. If the only force that can bring about change in living creatures is natural selection, then nothing other than incremental changes can occur. But the similarity of our genome to that of the chimpanzee should only make it all the more imperative to explain the origin of the vast difference between our respective cultures.
Indeed, the dramatic expression “sudden and emergent event” in Bouchard’s paragraph—significantly, quoted from another authority—suggests that something more consequent has occurred than “a small change in the way some neurons function.” But the drama is immediately belied by its characterization as “a neural change in some population.”
This is simply incoherent. How is the appearance of “a neural change” in any sense an “event”? Certainly a genetic change in a “population” could not take place all at once, as events are presumed to do. Tattersall is clearly referring to a mutation. In the more naïve past, we used to hear from Chomsky and others about a “language gene” that “suddenly” appeared in a similar manner, its communicative properties being in any case subordinate to its “representational” qualities. Today, our authors are more cautious. Even if this mutation adds the key ingredient that permits the emergence of language, it can be spoken of only in austere and general terms as “a neural change” or “an increase in synaptic interactions.” Language is never more than what Stephen J. Gould called a spandrel, a secondary consequence of the real fitness-enhancing changes in the nervous system, although once it got going, it can be assumed to have had its own “Baldwinian” effects on the genome.
There is, in fact, another variety of language-origin book that deals with language’s “social origin,” where our incremental superiority to our primate cousins is measured not in purely cognitive terms but in those of the “small steps”—never either eventful or scenic—that separate our different “societies.” I will deal with these in a subsequent Chronicle. But in works like Bouchard’s that remain wholly focused on the mechanisms of language, the idea that a social-communicative element might play a role in these “sudden” developments is never in the least hinted at. Everything takes place in individual brains.
Now language is certainly one “behavior” that cannot be explained by an “emergent event” affecting single individuals. How indeed did this mutation not merely “suddenly” appear, but spread to an entire “population,” yet without a word concerning its effect on reproductive fitness, which is the mechanism through which selection operates? Well, we can say the change constitutes an improvement in general intelligence. But presumably such changes had been taking place for a while in the hominin line; why is this change “suddenly” productive of an entirely new form of collective behavior? Need I insist further that every language-specific question raised in this paragraph is simply begged?
Similarly, the Offline Brain System (OBS) had “emerged” without any apparent feedback from the collective social order. Bouchard well knows that the “arbitrary” signifiers of language are in no way outgrowths of the indexical signals of other primates, a point Terrence Deacon made quite forcefully in The Symbolic Species. But now an “increase in synaptic interactions” suddenly allows our ancestors to link “concepts to percepts.” If the term “concept” has any meaning, it cannot mean what animals “conceive” as families of percepts, such as “prey” for a carnivore, and which evoke specific behaviors. For to the extent that animals have “concepts,” they must already be linked to percepts to exist at all.
What then is the differentiating factor in creating human concepts that can be represented by signs? But, we learn, the transition poses no problem at all. As Daniel Everett tells us (see Chronicle 567), “language is not that difficult.” Or in Bouchard’s terms, “the capacity to form the sign follows directly.”
There is nothing in these passages, nor in the entire book, that sheds any light whatever on the emergence of “signs” that are not simply the product of “synaptic interactions” in individual animals, but are somehow shared by an entire group of creatures such that they can be communicated among them. Such sharing requires not only a Theory of Mind, by which we intuit the intention of the other, but, if not a grammar, certainly a lexicon. How could humans have created even a single sign without somehow coming to agreement on its meaning?
Thus we have, on the one hand, a sophisticated discussion of linguistic phenomena, and on the other, mere Darwinian patter to disguise the same old wishful thinking that adding some new synapses and “neural changes” suddenly enables an entirely new and life-transforming system of communication.
The taboo that surrounds the revelatory event of human language allows us, at the very least, to be secure in our confidence that GA’s invisibility has a cause beyond our collective ineptness at attracting publicity. GA must remain invisible, as women’s bodies remain invisible under Sharia. Watched any Iranian movies lately?
To speculate a bit further, it seems obvious that there is a causal relationship between the unrelenting increase in the dogmatism of victimary thinking in the softer parts of the campus and the increasingly rigid methodological dogmatism in the harder ones. Certainly the increase in scientific rigor in the fringes of the victimary world, say, in the “digital humanities,” reflects the desire of many younger scholars, if not to combat the PC mania, then simply to sidestep it by resorting to provably “objective” methods.
The last years of the 20th century, which saw the publication of Deacon’s Symbolic Species and (posthumously) Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, both of whose authors saw no difficulty in proposing a cultural and even religious causality for language, have by now become ancient history. That was the now-distant Clinton era, when the reign of the victim was just beginning. Remember Sister Souljah, the black activist whose praise of black-on-white violence Clinton won votes back in 1992 by denouncing? (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtSifopiL1g) Let’s see a Democrat try that today.
Today’s scientists, whether students of neurons or of language, want nothing to do with anything that suggests culture. Even what Wrangham naively called language’s “mysterious dawning” (see Chronicle 614) can only be a spandrel of the evolution of our internal capacity to create the Saussurean signifier-signified relationship. Although the study of language origin might not appear to be vulnerable to considerations of identity politics, just think of the fact that in Deacon’s scenario, as in mine, it is men who invent language—in his case, to insure the fidelity of their women. Such speculation today would surely run afoul of the campus Title IX officer. And imagine daring to suggest that sacred rituals might have a function other than duping the masses into following the Great Leader. How much less troublesome to describe it all in terms of synapses and neurons and (non-sex-linked) genes.
And how much less troublesome as well to avoid the disturbing implication that language somehow makes us superior to the other denizens of the planet. In Genesis 1:26, God gives Adam “dominion” over all other creatures. Today, we still acknowledge that we are indeed smarter than our primate cousins, but only by “a very little bit.”
The paradox of it all is that it is the very existence of superiority, of firstness, less between humans and other creatures than within the human race, that generates all this nonsense, from anti-white and anti-masculine resentment to antisemitism. Humans are both the same and different, and our greatest challenge, one that renews itself in different guises at unpredictable intervals, is to reconcile our fundamental moral equality with our unequal ability to contribute to the human community. As a solution to this problem, victimocracy, like socialism, is just another repressive horror disguised as an Eden.
CODA: The limits of belief
I thought that the idea of mathematics as “white” (see Chronicle 563) was the limit of victimary absurdity, until I saw this passage, from a piece by a non-woke Harvard student on the National Review site.
When a close friend told her roommates that she believed in biological differences between the sexes, she was forced to change dorms because she had created an uncomfortable environment for one of the students.
Need we further proof that the victimocracy, as embodied in the Harvard administration, is plumbing hitherto unexplored depths of abjection? Belief in witches, or in alien abductions, (1) would not have resulted in the young lady’s expulsion, and (2) supplements the real world with dubious phenomena, but does not deny its most fundamental components.
Following on the Sullivan affair (see Chronicle 621), Harvard would appear to be striving to prove itself the most contemptible “institution of higher learning” in history.