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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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Rick Thomas

Let's explore another sense in which human language is technology:

The neural crest cells produce many distinguishing traits of mammals, for example, the moose's antlers and the elephant's trunk. The human vocal apparatus is also to some degree generated from the neural crest. (These cells and their role in the development of the mammal cranium, face, pharynx, ear and other vocal related parts has a long and contentious history, reminiscent of language evolution's troubles. See this amusing chapter.)

Speaking loosely, these features are technology developed by the lineage as it adapted. For the antlers a conventional story about male competition and maybe sexual selection suffices. For the elephant trunk and tusks these and flexibility in grazing are factors, but the trunk is also used in raising offspring and grooming. This seems more like an invented technology because the ancestors put their endowment to work solving various problems in a uniquely elephantine way.

Here the best story we have invokes Baldwin - elephant ancestors that happened to have greater reach survived and somehow that trait was assimilated. But this is unsatisfying as an explanation of how the trunk became so articulate and so multi-purpose - and so different from nearby lineages.

It takes two hypotheses to patch up this story. First is one of evolvability. The gene-nerve partnership goes back to the earliest theorized animal ancestors. It would be surprising if no mechanism had evolved that allowed differential nerve expression based on gene combination. In the mammal neural crest this could explain the plasticity and apparent purposefulness something like this: a gene combination (something more subtle than we currently understand) gives a heritable variation to nerve expression. In effect the recombination "probes" the behavioral environment with a bias to the nerves. Then in the Baldwin story there is a systematic assimilation of successful neural tissue.

The second hypothesis brings elephant intention into the story. The browsing, rearing, social, and other behaviors were proven by intelligent animals - not as random meetings with the environment but at least as repeated trials to satisfy immediate needs. Now the Baldwin story is more satisfying - and more arguably describes the lineage's development and use of a technology building on the core gene-nerve base.

Applied to human language the parallels are obvious, with the further fascinating effects of the co-evolving symbolic niche and expanding self-awareness. This strengthens the case that language is technology - that incremental human intention shaped the vocal apparatus and its wiring.


Yes it is, but a speciall kind of, the communication one. Communication technologies have special qualities and properties. McLuhlan and Baudillard talk a little about them, I think they give a pretty good overview of their particularities.


Every one invents language, the community is there to help them invent the right one?

BLOGGER: I like this sentence, except for that word "right."


Language is a technology, only it is not just any old technology. It is the technology that made us human, it is technology wired up into our brain: internalized technology. And it is still being invented, not only by children but by linguists as well. I guess the two positions you outline at the beginning of the post are crying for a synthesis.


Thank you Edmund. 3 years after you posted this message I'm thinking about the same problem.
I think that more than ask if language is technology the problem is that if we assume that language is technology, what it is not technology?

Rodrigo Barbosa
BLOGGER: Thanks. Nice to see a stir after these years.

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