Thursday, February 7, 2008

Language Evolution II: Pinker & Bloom

If there is one paper you definitely should cite when writing about Language Evolution, it is the seminal article “Natural Language and Natural Selection” (the prefinal draft can be found here) by Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, which offers a good starting point for giving an overview of discussions about language evolution (Christiansen/Kirby 2003b: 15) because they review the contemporary theoretical paradigms of the field – like that of Chomsky, which I described in my last post – and then argue against them.
They refute the view that language is wholly incompatible with Darwinian theory as well as the theory that language could be an exaptation (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 707). In their opinion, language shows signs of “adaptive complexity”, the term describing “any system composed of many interacting parts where the details of the parts' structure and arrangement suggest design to fulfill some function” (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 709). Natural selection, that is the hypothesis that “the differential reproductive success associated with heritable variation is the primary organizing force in the evolution of organisms”, is the only scientific explanation for the development of such complexity (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 708), which could only have evolved gradually (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 711).
The function language evolved for was the communication of complex propositions. As the authors themselves point out, their paper does not so much present a new theory of language evolution as set the methodological framework for a new scientific research program (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 726f.).
The paper had a tremendous impact. In the open peer commentary, Jim Hurford (1990) hailed it as a “Liberation!” and saw it as the crucial step “Beyond the roadblock in linguistic evolution studies” most clearly represented by the 1866 ban on papers about language origin by the Linguistic Society of Paris and the rumored “Gentleman’s Agreement” with a similar notion by the Linguistic Society of America (Indeed, no paper about the topic appeared in the society’s journal, ‘Language’ until 2000 (Newmeyer 2003)), while Philip Lieberman (1990) (rightly) argued that he was making the same claim for years. To others, however, for example Richard Lewontin (Lewontin 1990: 740) and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (Piattelli-Palmarini 1990: 754), language still appeared as “a system of such complexity that its selective value [still was] difficult to imagine” (Studdert-Kennedy/Knight/Hurford 1998: 3)
Regarding its impact, Christiansen and Kirby (2002) write that
“According to the ISI Web of Knowledge index, the rate at which language evolution work appears in the literature increased tenfold in the decade following the Pinker and Bloom paper. Thus, when counting the papers that contain both “language” and “evolution” in title, keywords, or abstract, the publishing rate for 1981-1989 was 9 per year, whereas it was 86 per year for the period 1990-1999, and 134 per year between 2002 and 2002. (Christiansen/Kirby: 3)
Surely there were other crucial factors for these massive expansions, like the technological, neurobiological and overall scientific advances made in the ‘Decade of the Brain’ and in subsequent years. Still, in the “Language Evolution and Computation Bibliography” Pinker & Bloom’s paper is listed as the most cited with 135 Citations, followed by Terrence Deacons’s “The Symbolic Species” on which I will focus in a later post, with 116, and Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” with 94.

Christiansen, Morten H. and Simon Kirby 2003. “Language Evolution: The Hardest Problem in Science?” In: Christiansen, Morten H. and Simon Kirby (eds.) 2003. Language Evolution. Oxford / New York: Oxford University Press. 1-15.

Hurford, James R.1990. “Beyond the roadblock in linguistic evolution studies.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4, 736.

Lewontin, R.C. 1990. “How much did the Brain have to Change for Speech?” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4, 740-741.

Lieberman, Philip 1990. “Not invented here.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 741.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2003. “Grammar is grammar and usage is usage.” In: Language 79: 682-707.

Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo 1990. “An Ideological Battle over Modals and Quantifiers.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4, 752-754.

Pinker, Steven & Paul Bloom 1990. “Natural Language and Natural Selection.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 707-726.

Studdert-Kennedy, Michael, Chris Knight and James R. Hurford 1998. “Introduction: New Approaches to Language Evolution.“ In: James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy and Chris Knight (eds.). Approaches to the Evolution of Language. Social and Cognitive Bases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-5.

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