Origins of Language: Constraints on Hypotheses. Sverker
Johansson. xii + 345 pp. John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2005. $114.
After a long period of disrepute, the evolution of language has
recently reemerged as an important focus of scientific
discussion—a shift fueled both by exciting discoveries in
paleoanthropology and by rapid progress in understanding the neural
and genetic mechanisms involved in human language. The complexities
of these domains combine to make the core questions of
biolinguistics some of the most challenging scientific issues of our
time: What is it about our brains that allows humans, but not other
animals, to freely convey arbitrary thoughts to one another? What
genes underlie these differences? How, and why, did the special
neural mechanisms behind language evolve in our species?
Despite rapid progress and a growing consensus that such questions
are scientifically answerable, major obstacles stand in the way of
resolving these matters. These roadblocks include barriers to
interdisciplinary communication (exemplified by the range of
meanings workers in different spheres have attached to such words as
language or symbol) and a pervasive tendency to
propose oversimplified, single-cause hypotheses. These and other
difficulties have made biolinguistics a highly contentious field,
riddled with mutual misunderstandings.
Sverker Johansson, a physicist by training, comes into this area of
study as an outsider, one who is attempting to gather together the
many strands of data and theory relevant to the study of language
evolution. His fresh, enthusiastic view and clear, pragmatic
approach are what one might expect of a physicist. He lists the main
problems and proposed solutions, briefly reviews the various sources
of data and in conclusion fills in a 4 x 8 summary table with
estimates of the likelihood of the various theoretical
possibilities. I can't help admiring the approach, because most
single-author books in this field defend the writer's own new
solution to the problem of language evolution; few dispassionate
surveys are available.
In his search for information, Johansson casts his net wide, and the
voluminous selection of references presented (80 pages' worth, in
small type) is, by itself, an impressive contribution. For anyone
who believes there is little data relevant to theories of language
evolution, this book will serve as a useful corrective.
The downside is a distinct trade-off between breadth and depth. Many
of Johansson's reviews are lists, of the form "X said this, but
Y said the opposite," giving little detailed critical analysis
of either the disputes themselves or the types of investigation
required to resolve them. The reference list is something of a
hodgepodge, with popular books, journalists' summaries and
unpublished Web documents receiving equal billing with peer-reviewed
scholarly articles. Worse, data that have been thoroughly
discredited are sometimes repeated uncritically, including some
proposed fossil indicators of speech, such as the size of the
hypoglossal canal (formally withdrawn by its originators). Given
that such data figure quite prominently in Johansson's final
judgment that speech must have arisen early in human evolution,
these oversights end up being rather significant for the overall conclusions.
An example of the dangers of an uncritical attitude is Johansson's
treatment of the "ape language" controversy, which
provides a good lesson about how interdisciplinary misunderstandings
and overblown rhetoric (on both sides) have almost hopelessly
crippled this field of study. Relying heavily on popular books by
ape-language researchers, Johansson concludes that apes have latent
capacities for language that approach the abilities of modern
humans. Quoting Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's question "Why are we
afraid of apes with language?," Johansson asks, "Would not
our world be richer if they did have minds and language?" Well,
yes, it would be wonderful if apes (or dolphins, or dogs, for that
matter) had language in a full human sense, so we could discuss with
them their ideas, memories, feelings about life, and so on. But
unfortunately we can't, because none of these species has, or can be
trained to have, a language in anything like this rich
sense—regardless of our hopes or fears. We should not discount
the notable and important achievements of chimpanzees and other
species; nor should we exaggerate their accomplishments and thus
underestimate the evolutionary distance modern humans have traveled
since our last common ancestor with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees
certainly have important ingredients necessary for human language
(for example, the ability to pair arbitrary signals with meanings),
but they are still not discussing philosophy or even what they had
for dinner yesterday. Although Johansson cites both sides of this
debate, he comes down sharply on one side of it and unfortunately
gives readers little basis for judging the scientific data for
themselves. Such gaps make the book hard to recommend as an
authoritative introduction to the field. A multi-authored volume
such as Language Evolution, the recent survey edited by
Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby (Oxford University Press,
2003), would be a better option.
Another troubling aspect of Origins of Language is that
Johansson sometimes appears to misunderstand hypotheses that he
dismisses. A prominent example is the treatment of linguist Noam
Chomsky, whose influential idea of an innate basis for the human
capacity to acquire language is treated in a derogatory tone
throughout the book. As with "ape language," Chomsky's
hypothesis of a Language Acquisition Device has occasioned much
controversy, and Johansson should have dispassionately reviewed the
pros and cons of this idea rather than recycling the various
misinterpretations of Chomsky perennially erected by his opponents:
that language is "monolithic," that language couldn't have
evolved and so on. Many of these misinterpretations have been
recently and forcibly rejected by Chomsky himself, in papers that
Johansson cites as "important"—so why continue to
criticize him based on these misconceptions?
Various other interesting hypotheses receive similarly short shrift,
including a possible link between the evolution of music and
language, the "holistic protolanguage" theory that complex
phonology might have preceded complex syntax, and the idea that
language evolved first in the service of thought and was only later
put to use for communication. Although each of these ideas has
advantages and disadvantages, none of them is simply silly: Each
makes testable predictions, and all deserve a more balanced and
insightful treatment than they receive here. Thus at least some of
the "constraints on hypotheses" presented in this book
seem to result more from a failure of imagination than from
rejection forced by current data.
Despite these criticisms, Johansson's book—the first
book-length, single-authored attempt I know of to synthesize this
fascinating and rapidly growing field—makes several important
contributions. First, it offers a good overview of the many relevant
strands of data—from fossils, from genes, from brain imaging,
from animal communication. Although the quality of Johansson's
reviews varies, the very attempt to synthesize these diverse
scientific fields is admirable and useful, and the flaws stand as a
challenge for future scholars to try to do better. More important,
the basic scientific attitude embodied in the book—survey the
hypotheses, survey the data and then combine them to exclude some
hypotheses—is certainly the correct way forward for the field.
It is rather surprising that no one has done it before, and anyone
interested in entering the field of language evolution should look
to this book for an overview of some of the important debates.
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