Re: Pinker & Bloom on Language Evolution

From: nik bollons (
Date: Mon Dec 08 1997 - 11:31:33 GMT

Dear All


Here is my email on the first seminar we had on language (the Pinker
book). I know its a bit late, but ive been having having trouble
getting to a computer (me legs, you know). Ill send an email on the
second language lecture (the Pinker & Bloom paper) sometime at the end
of this week.

The main thing that I picked up from the first lecture was that
language, and the evolution of language, comes to pose an awful lot of
problems for evolutionary theory. So far we have been content to
explain a great many of the complicated structures and behaviors in
animals today -eyes, wings, female sexual behavior, etc.- as the
product of blind natural selection. But language seems to be a more
complicated phenomena, something somewhat different from the mutational
structures and ESS that we have discussed before. It therefore may
warrant a different and more complex explanation. My point is, when
trying to explain the evolution of language, it may be better not to
think in ESS, selfish genes, etc.; but to see language as a separate
entity, needing different thinking caps.

One problem when looking at language, which we seemed to experience, is
that it is difficult to define what language is. I did not manage to
get a clear definition when we were in the lecture - if anybody has got
a decent definition of what is communication system, and what is a
language, and how they differ, I would really appreciate it.

Another problem we experienced, was whether language is unique to
humans? So far, evidence points to the fact that humans are alone in
their language ability on this planet. Dolphins may have a language,
but it is so complex that we cannot decipher it - at present. Perhaps
the main reason we cannot decipher it is because their environment has
created a language so different from ours, our minds have no way of
comprehending it - the other minds problem. I think a point we missed
is, even if Dolphins do have language ability, that only makes two
species on this planet - out of countless millions which have had
millions of years to do so - which have developed language. This
underlines my ideas about seeing language as something a bit different
from the usual evolutionary stuff.

In looking at human language ability - all humans have the ability to
learn a language quickly and with little effort. The reason for this is
Universal Grammar (UG), an innate piece of machinery in the mind, that
specializes in language processing. But UG is so difficult to identify
and test - it is not the same as normal grammar. Silly sentences that
may point to its existence can be explained in terms of changing normal
grammar rules around. Perhaps the reason we cannot point to UG is
because it is inside us, we use it, and cannot disentangle it from the
way we think / use our language. Maybe an alien - or a dolphin - with
their different language abilities, different ways of communicating,
different way of thinking, could easily identifying it.

Here is a final thought, what if Dolphins did have a language, and with
language, intelligence. They may be swimming around going I wonder if
those human creatures have language ability? They certainly look like
they do? Well if they do, then it certainly is far too simple for me to
understand when compared to my complex language abilities. God, they
are so thick - throw us another Tuna. The other minds problem in an
opposite direction.

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