Monday, February 18, 2008

Language Evolution V: Christiansen & Kirby (2003)

As I’m going home over the vacation and thus will only have relatively infrequent access to the internet, I’ll write some kind of preliminary presentation of my discussion of language evolution by presenting the contributions found in Kirby and Christiansen’s (2003) anthology “Language Evolution.” Kirby and Christansen tried to get together the “big names” in the study of language evolution, and had them write some kind of an introduction to their take on the key issues on the topic. I will present the contributions when I find the time, probably infrequently.

The book includes 17 contributions, with the first chapter being some kind of general introduction by the editors. I will briefly discuss each contribution, trying to give a short overview on the main approaches to the topic.

The contributors are (in order of appearance) :

  • Steven Pinker, who still stands by his incremental, adaptationist view of language evolution, which he first proposed in Pinker & Bloom (1990), though by now he places this view with the broader context of evolutionary psychology.

  • James Hurford, who is now prof.emeritus at the University of Edinburgh and worked at the Language Evolution and Computation there. Hurford’s main focus is a comprehensive framework for identifying the parts of the “language mosaic” which enables fruitful research into the various ‘pre-adaptations’ for language

  • Frederick J. Newmeyer, who is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Washington, and stresses the necessity that linguists engage themselves into the study of language evolution and especially in interdisciplinary discussion, if they really want the field to progress.

  • Derek Bickerton, an Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawai, who, originially specialized in creoles, by now definitely is one of the most prominent figures in the field. He is especially famous for his introduction of the term ‘proto-language’ into the study of language origins.

  • Terrence W. Deacon, who is a , and had a major impact on the field with his 1996 book “The Symbolic Species”. In it he focussed on our ability for counterintuitive, hierarchically organized ‘symbolic reference’ and the role of the prefrontal cortex in these kinds of computations.

  • Iain Davidson, an archaeologist who, mostly together with the psychologist William Noble, has published extensively on the archaeological evidence for symbolic evolution, and insists on the close relation of language and thought.

  • Marc D. Hauser and W. Tecumseh Fitch, who we already know from their paper they published with Noam Chomsky in 2002. Both are champions of the comparative approach to language evolution and human cognition, with Fitch specializing in animal vocal communication and the evolution of the human vocal tract, and Hauser integrating research from primatology, infant cognitive development, and cognitive neuroscience.

  • Michael A. Arbib, a professor involved in the discovery of mirror neurons. These neurons, fire both when an action is performed or perceived and are located in the monkey F5 premotor cortex, a homologue to Broca’s Area, which led Arbib and others to investigate their role in the evolution of language and social cognition.

  • Michael C. Corballis, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, and argues that gestural communication preceded spoken language, drawing on evidence from sign languages, cerebral asymmetry, and the fact that primates are much better at manual than at vocal control.

  • Robin I. M. Dunbar, who is professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool, and does research on the relation of cortex size and number of group members, and argues for the importance (both presently and evolutionary) of language as a mechanism of group cohesion and social bonding.

  • The speech scientists Michael Studdert-Kennedy and Lous Goldstein, who investigate the articulatory aspects of language and speculate on the evolutionary pathway of phonetic and phonology capacity, stressing the importance of biophysical and neurological explanations.

  • Philip Lieberman, who could be described as the enfant terrible of language evolutionary studies, and focuses on the ‘messy’ aspects, namely their direct neural implementation. Lieberman argues for a continuous view of human language evolution and sees motor control as a precursor to syntax, and as a determiner of the structure of language in general.

  • Simon Kirby, who is I think the only lecturer in the evolution of language in the whole world, and Morten H. Christiansen, , who use computational methods and models for genetic and cultural transmission to gain insight into the evolutionary dynamics of language.

  • Ted Briscoe, who also uses computer models but arrives at conclusions somewhat different from that of Kirby and Christiansen, because he poses the existence of some innate genetically transmitted domain-specific structure which aids language learning, something Kirby and Chrisitansen remain agnostic and critical about.

  • Finally, Natalia L. Komarova and Martin A. Nowak, who employ mathematical models and evolutionary game theory to describe language evolution, and give a very clear account for the theoretical underpinnings of language learning and follow Chomsky in posing the necessity of innate expectation for language.

Of course, since then a lot of interesting things happened, and some approaches defintiely have gained importance. The most influential elaborations were I think in the Area of Social Cognition, as illustrated by Tomasello et al.'s (2005) paper, and, for example, this excellent new blog post by Edmund Blair Bolles. The other area were much progress was made was theoretical inquiry into the dynamics of cultural evolution, and especially its (mathematical) application to historical language evolution.

So in my next post I’ll write about Pinker’s approach, or rather about the extensions and modifications of his original framework in (Pinker & Bloom 1990)

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