If you attended any of Chomsky's recent presentations on language, you probably heard him joke about the pile of books on the origin of language despite the fact that almost nothing is known about the subject. So I was surprised to see that 2016 has begun with the launching of a book about the evolution of language (Why Only Us: language and evolution) written by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky. Fans of generative grammar need not worry, however, for nothing has changed and there is nothing new here.
Chomsky still says that language consists of a process, called Merge, of sticking concepts together. This process still began with one mutation that occurred between 60 and 200 thousand years ago. Later on Merge was hooked up to an externalization system that allows us to speak, or sign, or touch (as in braile), or see (writing). Any other possibilities are still dismissed as incoherent. The theory was first described on this blog 8 years ago and, if Chomsky has changed, it is only to grow more confident. Oh, he does say that the old belief that he was dismissive of evolution was an error, not a misunderstanding on the part of others: an error, perhaps even a lie. The boom that followed Pinker and Bloom's 1990 paper was literally much ado about nothing.
For those readers who are not already familiar with the Chomsky theory, the key paragraph is to be found on page 87:
In some completely unknown way, our ancestors developed human concepts.
At some time in the recent past, apparently before 80,000 years ago if we can judge from associated symbolic proxies, a small group of hominids in East Africa underwent a minor biological change that provided the operation Merge--an operation that takes human concepts as computational atoms and yields structured expressions that, systematically interpreted by the conceptual system, provide a rich language of thought. These processes might be computationally perfect, or close to it, hence the result of physical laws independent of humans.
The innovation had obvious advantages and took over the small group.
At some later stage, the internal language of thought was connected to the sensorimotor system, a complex task that can be solved in many ways and at different times.
In the course of these events, the human capacity took shape, yielding a good part of our "moral and intellectual nature," in [Alfred] Wallace's phrase.
I love the fact that in the beginning, and before there was any language, and in some "completely unknown way" we got the computational atoms that Merge assembles. So we start with a miracle. Words get their meanings by invoking these concepts. Thus, when I speak of the Hudson, or the Seine, or the Nile I am getting my meaning, not by pointing to a specific geographical entity, but by invoking an innate concept of river that is older than language. This kind of raw Platonism has appealed to many thinkers over the centuries, but I confess to always being a bit repelled by the sterility of the realm of forms.
The interesting thing about Merge turns out to be its near computational perfection, which sets language apart from the humans that use it. Too bad if you thought language was peculiarly human.
The "obvious advantages" part is a little surprising, not because no effort is made to list them, but because so much of chapter 1 was devoted to explaining why chance and circumstance is so much more important than natural selection. I had assumed this was building up to the news that we got Merge by happenstance. But no; its advantages are so obvious they need not be named. And then comes the great plot twist: Merge "took over" a population. Normally, we say something like "claws became a fixed trait of felines" but in this case humans became a trait of language.
The later stage externalization is interesting because it suggests the possibility that not all groups externalize their language using the same biology. This might refer only to the difference between speaking and writing or signing, but it also might refer to the difference between a Frenchman's speaking and a Polynesian woman's speech. Chomsky is ambiguous on the point. The authors go on for a while at a couple of places in the book about how our various languages may reflect different externalization histories, but who knows what they are really getting at.
Finally, if Jefferson can summarize history by referring to the course of events, I see no reason to tell the authors of this book that they cannot do the same.
So why are humans the only critters with language? The answer cannot be based on our general humanity, since the near perfect computation system is independent of humanity. Nor can it be due to our moral or intellectual nature, since that is the result, not the cause, of language. It turns out to rest on chance and circumstance. Other animals may have had the Merge micromutation, but, useful as it is, natural selection wasn't enough to preserve it. And then there is the miracle of the concepts that were lying in wait to be Merged.