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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

« The Joys of Natural History | Main | Big Doings 1.76 Million Years Ago »


Karthik Durvasula

If I am reading this correctly, your preferred story of linguistic evolution is via the Baldwin Effect.

A lot of linguists are sympathetic to this point of view (Pinker and Jakendoff being vocal supporters of it). However, it needs to be acknowledged that just like the other two approaches/views you mention (a genetic leap vs. primarily cultural evolution), the coevolution/baldwin effect view point has some very troubling aspects to it.

In fact Christiansen and colleagues have some papers arguing against coevolution [Here's a ref:]. The crux of their argument is that there needs to be temporary stability for each step of coevolution to occur; however, the coevolution scenarios sketched miss exactly that requirement. So, even though co-evolution is theoretically possible, the time-line AND stages usually proposed are not sufficient.

One way out, of course if to expand the time-line (as you do in many places) and say in fact that the process started much earlier and lasted much longer than we normally presume it to. This would still leave us to figure out the intermediate stages that allow the possibility to unfold. Whether the stages are sufficient for an account of modern language, and whether they are realistic/supportable or not are the main issues for this line of thinking.

Of course this also means we find a new hero to credit with the "great (sociological/cultural) leap forward" that seems to have happened around 50k years back, instead of language, i.e., if you grant the sociological/cultural leap the status of a fact.

P.S. - from my discussions with (some) generative linguists, many seem to be unwedded to any one of these evolutionary possibilities given that there are serious issues in identifying which of them is the correct view. Which is one of the things that led Chomsky and many others, for a long time to avoid, the issue of how language evovled at all, and instead concentrate on the "let's have a linguistic theory first" approach. This silence on the part of generativists has been intrepreted as a nod towards a massive genetic jump that accounts for all universal properties of languages (related to phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics...); however, in reality, it appears to be that most acknowledge that there seems to be no clear path to distinguish between the many possibilities.

Paul Strand

Similar to the argument you and Christiansen make, Skinner predicted in 1957 that language would prove intractable if studied as a stand-alone process. That is to say, language does not exist as an orderly phenomenon outside of the social and cultural context of its use. Moreover, the acquisition and manifestation of language is a function of a history of social transactions. Consistent with this view, new research reveals that learning according to Bayesian statistical principles is powerful enough to give rise to breathtakingly complex behavior (Tenenbaum et al., 2011). These Bayesian learning mechanisms appear to be general rather than specific. Interestingly, they apparently apply across activities that are topographically distinct, yet were united by Skinner under the term, Verbal Behavior (behavior mediated by a social context). Many of these activities appear in your list of distinctively and universally human traits: music, dance, humor, morals, language, mythology, family relationships.

Skinner argued that the items on your list are in essence one thing in that they are all governed by a single set of laws. At this stage of the game, are you willing to bet against him?

Jerry Moore

If, say, from next generation human start looses his ability to talk due to some mutation, what going happen with Language?
Is it going parish together with culture and all sorts of linguistic theories?
If your answer is No, you have to think again about eminence, prime and special position of speech/vocal manifestation of Language facility and about the relevance of FOXP2 to this facility.
Investigate Language ability on the merit of ability to speak seems equally unproductive as on ability to write.
BLOGGER: I'm more interested in what happened than in what will happen. We ended up as a talking species that includes some signers and writers. How did that happen?


Edmund says: "My favorite argument against cultural evolution alone is the adaptation to vocalization shown by the human body. The control of lips and tongue is quite unlike the less precise control available to apes. The loss of air sacs in the throat, common  to all apes, widened the range of sounds available to speakers. The FOXP2 gene supports delicate motor control of vocalizations. Work with songbirds has shown that birds have special modules for learning their local song, and their foxp2 contributes to this process.
This assumes that language (at least in a comparatively full sense) developed alongside, and as a driver to, increased vocalisation. But while different languages use different aspects of vocalisation the full range of human sound controls are far wider than is necessary for language – so could there be a reason for vocalisation developing before a comprehensive language.

Edmund points out that the FOXP2 contributes to both human vocalisation and the ability of songbirds to sing, and this could be very relevant. When our ancestors first descended from the trees into more open areas and switched to hunting they would have needed communication skills to, for instance, coordinate an ambush style hunt. I have just posted "Babel's Dawn and the Evolution of Vocalisation" ( in which I discuss the possible role of using sounds in hunting – including the imitation of bird calls as signals, and animal calls as a lure. This approach links the need for better vocalisation with the need to get a full belly – which is an excellent evolutionary drive. Of course once our ancestors evolved more local skills they were in a position to use them for other means of communication, initially I suspect, to improve their hunting prowess still further.

Chris Reynolds

Raymond Weitzman

I concur with the main thrust of Paul Strand’s earlier comment. Skinner’s conception of verbal behavior as behavior mediated by social context, that is, other people, encompasses ritual behavior, dance, kin and other interrelationships, manner of dress, humor, tool making, religion, moral behavior, etc. Speech (overt and covert), listening, writing, reading, signing, and other linguistic or communicative activities are naturally included and get discussed the most by Skinner. However, I would be rather reticent to concur that a Bayesian probabilistic learning model really captures verbal behavior. It might serve possibly are a descriptive model, but not an explanatory one. In an interview published in book form, entitled B. F. Skinner: The Man and His Ideas, in discussing scientific methodology, Skinner said, “I don’t accept most current analyses of scientific methodology, however, or statistical methods which are taught as if they were the way scientists think.” In his orientation toward the behavior of the individual, he felt that statistical inferences about scientific methodology were a posteriori reconstructions. He would no doubt say the same for putatively claiming that children as well as adults have built-in Bayesian machines that calculated the probability that a certain hypothesis about “how language works” was more likely than another. All that this does is turn Chomsky’s formalistic language acquisition device into a probabilistic language acquisition device. Skinner recognized that real contingencies were involved in verbal behavior, but didn't think any statistical model could adequately encapsulate them

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