Blog Rating

Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Comments

Jean-Louis Dessalles

Many thanks for this comprehensive and insightful series of reviews on my book “Why we talk”. I am really impressed by the quality of your reading, and greatly appreciate the good words you have about the book.

I am sure we would both appreciate discussing several issues concerning the proximal and ultimate reasons of why we are a talking species. Let me just react to your last post.

I am a little bit surprised, not that you might disagree with my political account of the origin of language, but that quit the ship (that seeks for a Darwinian explanation for language) just before she lands. You say:

“The only way I see of remaining true to Darwin […] is to bite the bullet and say something happened to move the Homo line out of the sauve qui peut mode and into some situation in which individual survival depends on group survival.”

We don’t think of changing the laws of physics every time we encounter a bizarre phenomenon. This old idea about group selection, besides the fact that no known plausible model supports it, is fortunately dispensable. (I suspect that its attractiveness comes from a confusion between ‘group’ and ‘coalition’, the latter being a political reunion of individuals that constantly choose each other).

If Afghan villagers felt the urge to be helpful to Stewart, it was not the consequence of some new biological law especially designed for our lucky species. As in other political species, the behaviour of any human individual is scrutinized by conspecifics. The villagers’ generous conduct was perhaps not primarily directed at Stewart, but at other villagers.

The classical idea that language would be the mere instrument of some sort of Informational Collectivism is contradicted by the fact that those who pay for a phone call are those who have something to say, not those who are eager to listen. (a similar logic applies to writing books and to writing good blogs).

This small disagreement about the conclusion of the book should not obscure the fact that we do agree on most important issues.

Best wishes,

J-L. D.

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BLOGGER: I don't think I'm calling for new laws of physcis, or quitting Darwin, but something radical has to be done. What fun, by the way, to get a comment from the author of the book.

TLTB

Thanks for the review.

It seems that one sub-theme of this blog has become cataloging various failures to give Darwinian accounts for the development of the formal properties of language (syntax in particular).

I think at the root of this problem is the fact that syntax can actually be argued to impede communication (think of the way we drop functional elements like determiners and auxiliaries when trying to communicate with non-native speakers of English or children); therefore, any account that relies on communication as a motivation for selecting syntax isn't going to be satisfying.

Keep looking for answers...

incze

You can be interested in this Kirby et al. paper: Innateness and culture in the evolution of language (http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/104/12/5241 ). There is some math, but not too hard in it.

Basically it states, that at very weak biological biases, language universals arise as a result of individual learning and social (generation to generation) transfer. Even this social transfer parenthises the evolution of these biases, there would be no pressure for change.

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