Re: Evolution of Universal Grammar (UG)?

From: Jon Wright (
Date: Thu Jan 22 1998 - 18:32:24 GMT

The question says "why is UG a problem for evoluionary theory and
why can it not be treated like any other evolved trait?" It is a problem
for learning theory because of poverty of the stimulus and the rapid
development of language after 2years old. Not a problem.

Evolutionary theory would say that 5% of an eye is better than
no eye at all. No doubt, so within the variation possible in the design
of an eye (or light sensitive patch) whatever is going to be more
sensitive will have a differential effect on the reproductive ability of
the vehicle and the eye evloves further. The eye has a complex design
and could not have occurred by a chance recombination of atoms/genes.

UG is more complex than it would need to be if it were designed
from scratch, but it is not. It builds on the adaptations of the last
generation of speakers and is refined. Language is flexible, which is
why there would be no point in programming in a full vocabulary since
the child might not be able to talk with it's mother and community.

Animals do not have language, in the sense that they cannot
communicate about things which are not there, referring to them with
arbitrary symbols (detached representations - words/motions). The start
of meaningful communication involves more than the present cues of the
environment the use of symbols. As soon as this starts, the evolution of
2-word sentences might begin: simple subject/object and verb. This is
the beginnings of grammar. ("protolanguage" - creole, chimpanzees
signing, Genie and wild children, two year olds)

If 1% UG made a difference to the communication between animals
in that they were able to string grunts together to mean something, the
difference would show in greater reproductive success.

Grammar and syntax arise to make sense of the strings of
arbitrary symbols. Processing becomes quicker and more efficient. All
languages discovered are, by the nature of being a language (the ability
to express concepts), complete with grammar. It is a fundamental feature
of humanity. The search for universals may begin to uncover the basis of
UG. UG could have evolved in to the complex thing it is because of the
ingeniousness of language users to create new forms and eradicate old
ones within even tens of generations.

To explain UG as an evolutionary adaptation is not difficult.
(It might be a just-so story but) what is does is enable to combination
of strings of symbols into complex sentences expressing feelings,
desires, danger, location of food, a good cave nearby to shelter in. UG
evolved into the complex (and indefinable) form it is in because of the
many ways of solving the adaptive problem of how to string words
together meaningfully. The eye evolved from a patch, generating a
lens and so on.

UG evolved like an eye EXCEPT THAT it is intangible?
it does not use its constituent parts? (piggy-backing?)
it is all or nothing? (only humans have full language)

Why can UG not be treated like any other evolved trait?

Sorry this is so long, but I did not think there was too much of
a problem with evolutionary theory. Maybe I am wildly off the mark.

thanks for the help and indeed for the whole course!

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