I’ve been thinking about this blog’s posts that appeared during the past two months. Reporting on one revolutionary article after another has forced me to regroup. During the 16 months I’ve been reporting on developments concerning speech origins I’ve changed my mind about so many important points that I’m now asking questions quite different from the ones I began with. So this post will set out a framework for speech origins that seems more in tune with the material I have reported.
The standard framework for speech origins is very much in keeping with an individualistic, rationalistic view of human behavior. The rationalism side assumes that speech organizes symbols to express their relationships, while the individualism part supposes that genes are selected to increase the speaker’s ability to control others through the rational power speech provides.
A traditional humanist might want to quarrel with this or that point, but the whole structure is supported by distinct lines of inquiry. So even if a doubter questions one proposition, the structure remains sturdy and able to stand. However, when I sat down to list the major changes I have made as a result of this blog I discovered the whole established structure has been replaced. Like Yosemite Sam finally noticing the ground beneath his feet has gone, I’m forced to holler Yikes.
I. Early Homo evolved in a very unstable, very unpredictable environment.
A special issue of the Journal of Human Evolution reported that “12 of the 15 hominin species first appeared” in one of the extreme periods it called “wet/dry.” The linkage of species with specific climate conditions demands attention, and it moves the story of the Homo lineage from savanna to lakeshore. (See: Humanity’s Pump 12/9/07)
The foundation point of the proposed new framework is the instability of the environment in which our ancestors lived. Instead of trying to understand human traits as adaptations to savanna living, we do better to understand them as responses to an uncertain environment. This approach has the immediate appeal of offering a basis for humanity’s most distinctive biological fact—our wide range of habitats. From very early on Homo lived well outside the savanna eco-systems. This uncertainty of habitat also suggests a reason for speech’s peculiar ability to say anything. We could not evolve a communication system suited for a particular setting because our setting could not be anticipated.
This proposition also implies a reason that human evolution was concentrated in Africa even though from an early date Homo erectus (and possibly Homo habilis) migrated much more widely. The environment was much more stable outside East Africa and did not provide the “pump” for generating species that persisted for so long in the Rift Valley region.
II. Human neurology has broken the link between sensory inputs and motor responses, making us unusually dependent on cues to guide our actions.
A paper by Don Ross, built on ideas developed by an Australian philosopher, Kim Sterelny, proposed that we have divorced the normal union between paying attention to something and responding in a predictable way. This capacity to ponder things without immediately acting upon them or forgetting about them provides an explanation for a speaker’s ability to focus on topics without triggering a stereotypical reaction. It also explains why we are “marinated” in cultural cues, verbal and non-verbal. (See: Some Answers at Last 11/10/07)
This point flows naturally from the presence of an uncertain habitat. If specific responses can no longer be trusted to be appropriate, evolution might be expected to break the input-response link if it can find a replacement. In a predictable environment the replacement might be a better response or the rise of a new sense to better discriminate between situations. The Homo lineage, however, was in an unpredictable environment and responded by filling its environment with ad hoc cues and prompts to guide members to an apt response.
III. Words are tools to pilot attention.
It turns out that theories of symbolism have contributed little or nothing to the progress of this blog. Meanwhile, the work of Giorgio Marchetti and Michael Tomasello has persuaded me to look elsewhere and use as my working assumption that the function of speech is to direct attention (usually jointly, i.e., coordinating the attention of two or more people). (See: Attention! It’s a Revolution 10/29/06)
This idea ties easily with the earlier point about cueing. If one person notices something, that person can alert others. Human alerting did not take the form favored by vervet monkeys whose alerts draw specific responses. Instead of the vervet’s, “Leopard! Run!” we get, “What was that?” Vervets live in narrow, predictable environments. Our ancestors could not settle for their solution; they needed an ability to draw attention to anything, and respond as seems appropriate.
IV. True language is the ability to place a subject against a background.
In Jean-Louis Dessalles’ book Why We Talk the author proposes that protolanguage points things out while true language places that subject of attention in a context, i.e., gives it a background. This spatial terminology is not metaphorical. All languages express non-visual relationships spatially, using the gestalt structure of spatial perception to unite an idea as foreground/background. (See: Interpretive Speech 3/26/07; see also: Just How Old are Noun Phrases 10/21/07)
This idea is a clear extension of the notion that words pilot attention. Attention is a function of perception, focusing on a subject. Full perception includes awareness of a background, enabling the subject to be recognized as part of a larger context. Syntactical statements can put a subject into an abstract context, enabling people to speak intelligibly about something outside the here-and-now. Perhaps the idea’s most productive feature is that it points the way for speech to develop naturally beyond words and protospeech without requiring a miraculous intervention, or highly unlikely mutation, that moved the lineage from perceptual to symbolic thinking.
V. Speech is a group adaptation that evolved through group selection.
I came to this blog with the assumption that, practically speaking, evolution works only at the level of the gene. This is the so-called selfish gene theory in which altruistic behavior is explained in terms of selection for a particular gene. An article by two leading evolutionary biologists, David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, attempts to create a new consensus that includes a place for group selection. They argue that the selfish-gene theory’s focus on selection at the gene level is incomplete and there is no need to try to find gene-level explanations for culture It is a group adaptation that maximizes group fitness without maximizing individual fitness. Typically, group selection evolves some enforcement mechanisms that make it costly for individuals to cheat and freeload on the group benefits. (See: A Vote for Group Selection 12/16/07)
This point makes thinking about speech origins much more commonsensical. There are very strong arguments against developing speech through gene selection because it depends on a willingness to share information with individuals who are, at best, only distantly related. Thus, many scholars go through enormous contortions trying to explain the speech triangle—speaker, listener, and topic—in terms of gene selection, when it plainly benefits the whole group.
A good example of the contortions endured is in Dessalles’ account of the evolution of syntax. He provides a brilliant analysis of syntax as expressing a full gestalt and then he falls into an unpersuasive gene-selection argument to justify it. His idea is that syntax provides a way of testing the truth of a statement, even though liars and con-men long ago found ways to turn syntactical powers into allies. Occam’s Razor lets us shave all that away and say this benefit to the group evolved through a process of group selection without maximizing individual fitness.
VI. Language does not grow through the assertion of power, but through the creation of a larger human community.
Group selection explains and is in turn justified by an observation reported by Nicholas Ostler in his history of how various languages spread, Empires of the Word. Ostler shows that the languages endure only when they are used for communal needs. Communication systems in the animal and machine worlds work differently. They serve to control, and conquerors often try to use their own languages as tools for controlling their subject people. Alien languages can be used for bureaucracy and/or scholarship for centuries, only to fade and be replaced by the community tongues that privately thrived during those same centuries right along side of the power language. (See: Words Rubbing Together 11/2/06) Ostler’s empirical work combines with the theoretical work of Wilson and Wilson (point V) to provide a mechanism for preserving and spreading language. If a hypothetical role for a change in speech does not promote the community of speakers, it is probably wrong.
These six points constitute a complete overthrow of the major working assumptions I first brought to this blog and are not consistent with a view of humanity as a set of rational individuals. It is not that we aren’t individuals, of course we are, but there is a steady tension between our individuality and out identity as a member of a group. Nor is it fair to say that we are irrational, but our rationality is community- and sensory-oriented. It is not the rationality of symbolic logic or Hobbesian game theory.
Humanity’s defining distinction, as suggested by these six points, appears to be a license to act appropriately. Given an uncertain eco-niche, we evolved the tools necessary to identify what was appropriate to the moment. To this day we survive by directing one another’s attention and keeping the group informed. Different people will have different understandings of what is appropriate, depending on their tastes, information, communication skills, and bias in balancing personal and group interests. The result of this mixture, as far as this blog is concerned, is speech that is neither stereotypical nor random. Instead, it is apt.
The chief question for this blog, therefore, might be posed as how did we become a species of apt speakers?