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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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I have two comments.
Firstly, I cannot see the original but Deric Bownds reports that PNAS has letters that may bear on exactly how the crow tests were done and whether we are looking at insight or conditioning or whatever.
Secondly, Pullum and Chomsky may disagree but they both seem to dislike the notion that some natural or normal evolutionary process connects some animal behaviours to human language. Babel's Dawn on the other hand is dedicated to tracing the origin of language in a non-allmighty-leap way. That is why I (and probably other readers) follow your blogging.


What would have been more complete in chompsky argument againt skinner is to add that it can not be donne without understandig the context.

isa kerem bayırlı

to JanetK,

I follow the blog to see the new experimental studies on language and mind and to see how ideas differ on language evolution though I myself don't believe that adaptationist explanations are on the right track. Yet, this is not what I want to say primarily.

I will write another comment on the comments on guest blogger's post. And I decided to write something here because I believe that there is a problem with the approach to see how language may have evolved.

firstly, to understand language evolution, the first question is what language is. Is it parametric fixations, that is a complutational system with a lexicon, or is it a domain-general ability like maths and arts that has ties with intelligence? The questions are further complicated when you think about the discussion on brain (whether it is domain-specific or domain-general, whether it is modular).

I would be sorry for anyone who rejects Chomskian account for language just because s/he believes that this doesn't seem to be explained in the future by adaptationism. That is because our knowledge on how evolution operated on language is highly low when compared with our knowledge of what language is and how it is acquired. To try to guess what language is in order to have a more comprehensible theory on how it may have evolved is highly misleading and from my point of view unacceptable. Science is mostly counter-intuitive, I guess.

Let's first try to develop the best theory of what language is and only then see how it may have evolved. The process should be from most known to the least known and not the vice versa.

I strongly recommend the paper by Lewontin namely "The evolution of cognition: questions that we will never answer" Maybe we will answer such questions but the first step is to formulate the question in the best way possible.


The more I think about isa kerem bayirh's comment, the more I find I disagree. A definition of language is the last thing we need in order to discover how it might have come about. Because?

First, the question of language evolution is a multi-disciplinary one. A single definition that would incorporate what a neuro-biologist, a linguist, an anthropologist, an evolutionary biologist etc. etc. find specific about language would be hard to arrive at and probably not worth the effort. It would likely be so 'committee-made' as to be useless in an particular domain.

Secondly, having a definition of the current nature of something is not much help in understanding its history. We can give a good definition of an ear but that is not all that useful in understanding how the lateral line in a fish becomes an ear in a mammal, let alone how the lateral line arose. In the process of changing from something that is definitely not language to something that definitely is language, we want to understand the change not necessarily just pin-point the moment where the threshold was crossed from non-language to language. We can describe aspects of language evolution without defining it.

Thirdly, defining ahead of understanding has a habit of casting irrelevant attitudes in stone. So if I were to want language to define humanity, I am likely to define language so that it can be used to define humanity. But if I were to want to show that animal cognitive abilities were similar to human ones, I would define language to include the efforts of chimps and parrots. There are a lot of axes that can be ground in defining language and those axes do not usually have any real relevance to the evolution of language.

Fourth, the purpose of definitions is to close doors not open them. Famously, “A while being A can be nothing but A”. We need to understand evolution, development, learning, communication, paleontology, and a host of other things in order to have a convincing narrative of language evolution. We do not want to close the door on any of these and other areas of research by defining them out of the picture. And that is what definitions do; by defining what something is, you define that it isn't. This blog does a good job of bringing its readers a wide range of ideas on the subject of the evolution of language.
BLOGGER: The problem of definition is a tricky one because it is almost impossible to start thinking about a question like origins without having some kind of definition in mind. “How did speech begin?” You have to have enough of a definition of speech to focus on the voluntary vocalizing behavior instead of, say, burping, but as JanetK says you can get yourself into a trap if you take the definition too seriously. It’s a working guidepost rather than a template.

If we look on definitions as speculative starting points rather than controlling dogmas, they can be helpful. Usually that means having a concrete definition rather than an abstract one because concrete gives you something to look for. If you say, “Language is a form of communication,” your focus immediately shifts from the first abstraction to the second one. Instead as serving as a guide, the definition works as a distraction.

isa kerem bayirli

I guess the blogger made the point I was about to made. I don't mean a full definition like Language is bla bla which bla bla under the circumstance of bla bla. What I mean is this: Is language a rule-governed system or not? To say that Language is a rule-governed system means something totally different to look for. If language is not a rule-governed system but an arbitrary association of sound and meaning, then you would need another theory. definition in the sense of what language is is an important start point without which you awould just wonder around the core of the issue.

I believe that you are right in being against my "first language then evolution" statement, which I didn't intend to mean what it means. Sorry for that. I was trying to say that in order to study language evolution, one must be acquainted with the discussions on linguistics. And this is an issue that we know much about when compared with our knowledge on how language may have evolved.

Lastly, to have an idea about the discussions in linguistics on what language is is so important that without that you wouldn't understand why Hauser, Fitch, Chomsky make a distinction between FLB (faculty of language in broad sense) and FLN (faculty of language is narrow sense) and also why they focus so much on recursion but not on , say, vocal tracts.

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