Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dieter Wunderlich on the Evolution of Language (Part 2): Mirror Neurons, Gestures, and Imitation

As I already said, according to Wunderlich’s review of the archaeological and primatological evidence, it is likely that homo erectus already possessed a substantial number of the design features that make human language possible. In his presentation, Wunderlich then goes on to speculate about the relationship between language evolution and mirror neurons, neurons that were first observed firing both when a monkey either saw someone perform a grasping movement or performed the grasping movement itself. For Wunderlich the mirror neurons system gives a possible explanation for two crucial features of language:

- Intentionality ( Speaker intends to produce a certain effect in the Hearer)

- Parity (Speaker and Hearer are able to seamlessly switch roles in conversation)

Mirror Neurons also make plausible a gestural origin of language, because (Arbib 2005, Corballis 2003):

- Chimps are much better at controlling their hands than controlling their vocal apparatus, indeed, chimps are able to learn some kind of sign language and other forms of symbolic communication (i.e. via symbol keyboards), but have problems with learning a vocal-based arbitrary communication system

- We still use gestures when talking, and, as Susan Goldin-Meadow has shown, these speech-accompanying gestures are part of an language-independent knowledge system, so that, for example, in some experimental settings children sometimes indicate the right answer with their gestures but still give the wrong answer verbally.

- There are a lot of sign languages spoken either by the deaf or in some religious communities, and these are just as morphosyntactically fully-fledged as any spoken language

- deaf children born to deaf parents learn sign language just as quickly as hearing children learn spoken language

- in deaf children born to hearing parents, who are thus unable to expose them sign language, there is even a phenomenon of so-called home sign, a kind of spontaneously produced “signed pidgin” ,with the intention to communicate and express needs and desires, which exhibits a very rudimentary grammatical and morphological structure, something which speaks for some kind of innate communicative structuring.

- Also, manual gestures often still bear a closer link to their original motivation, and although arbitrary, they may have the tendency to be more transparent as to their iconic motivation, which could make them easier to learn

- If you consider the cognitive implications of toolmaking described in the last post, gestural language would also be a more natural explication of these, especially because they can combine Topic and Comment in a very visual and illustrative manner, namely manual.

- It is also only a small step from ritualized gestures to symbols. In chimpanzees, for example, there is the phenomenon of ontogenetic ritualization, in which the demand to have access to the breast of her mother is ritualized by child and mother: At first the child pushes her mother’s arm away in order to get to the breast, but after a while she just has to touch her mother’s arm so that she lifts it for her child to be able to be breastfed. But this specialized gesture vanishes by the time the child doesn’t need to be breastfed anymore, and every mother-child generation has to develop this ritual anew. Humans somehow transcend this ritualistic confinement and turn behavior like that into long-lasting symbolic behaviors (see e.g. Tomasello 1999: 31f.)

Another advantage of the mirror neuron hypothesis is that it helps understand the instinctive imitation capacities of children, which can not only be seen as a motor of language acquisition and thus further language evolution, but also as a crucial factor in cultural evolution via iterative learning by members of successive generations, each time with slightly differing input. Indeed as recent experiments show, imitation may be one of the key cognitive specializations that sparked the success of the human evolutionary story. Particularly intriguing are experiments done by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten from the Unviersity of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Derek Lyons and his colleagues from Yale University: Children aged 3-4 and young wild-born chimpanzees were shown how to get a little toy turtle/ a reward either 1) out of a transparent puzzle box or 2) out of an opaque puzzle box. Here’s the catch: the right solution is much simpler as the one shown by the demonstrator, who includes a lot of unnecessary steps.

(You only have pull out the red thing at the bottom, to get at the reward, but the demonstrator also removes the tube on the tope and pushed a stick intot he box)

The stunning result: In this task, the chimps prove smarter than human children.

If the box is opaque, that is, if chimps and children are unable to look at the internal workings of the puzzle box and are thus unable to assess which steps are necessary and which are unnecessary, both copy all the actions done by the demonstrator.

If however, the puzzle box is transparent, and children and chimps are in principle able to make out which steps are unnecessary and which aren’t, chimps only copy the relevant actions – and human children still copy every action, including all the obviously unnecessary ones.

taken from Horner & Whiten 2005

This phenomenon is called overimitation. For most tasks in the real world whose causal or internal structure we don’t understand, it pays to closely match the behavior of a more knowledgeable person. However, although in general it is a very powerful learning strategy, it often carries a cost and, as it seems, in children this process is sometimes so automatic that it overrides any relevant causal reasoning about the task itself:

Children who observe an adult manipulating an unfamiliar object show a strong tendency to encode all of the adult’s purposeful actions as causally meaningful, revising their causal beliefs about the object accordingly.” (Lyons et al. 2007: 19756)

Whiten and Horner (2005: 179) concur:

“differences in the behaviour of chimpanzees and children can best be explained by a combination of a differential focus of attention on actions, results and goals, with the latter possibly influencing the interpretation of the actions of the demonstrator as purposeful.”

However, they also see this as part of a more general tendency of adhering to cultural conventions and norms (Whiten and Horner 2005: 164), something which, albeit in a rudimentary form, is also present in chimpanzees (Whiten et al. 2005: 164)

Thus it is certainly right to say that:

“Much of the success of our species rests on our ability to learn from others’ actions. From the simplest preverbal communication to the most complex adult expertise, a remarkable proportion of our abilities are learned by imitating those around us Imitation is a critical part of what makes us cognitively human and generally constitutes a significant advantage over our primate relatives.” (Lyons et al. 2007: 19751)

But is it right then to say that chimpanzees “Don't Give a Hoot About Unnecessary Actions”?

Well the problem is that the experiments of Whiten and Horner where done with wild chimpanzees.

But what about enculturated chimpanzees raised by humans?

Buttelman et al. (2007) tested just that. They used the “rational imitation” paradigm, which features two conditions a) the subjects are shown an action in which the specific manner of the action is not purposive but result from the demonstrator being occupied with something else, e.g. carrying something so that has to use his foot to turn on light. b) the subjects are shown an action in which the demonstrator chooses a specific manner of performance on purpose, e.g., he has his hands free but still chooses to turn on the light with his foot.

taken from Call & Tomasello 2008

Another instance of the paradigm is an experimental setup in which the subject observes someone sitting on a chair with a light-box on the table in front of her. The person has a blanket wrapped around her. Now in one condition a) her hands are occupied (she is shivering and holding the blanket) and she leans forward and illuminates the light with her head, in the other condition b) her hands are free and she leans forward and illuminates the light with her head.

taken from Gergeley et al. 2002

In the experiment done by Gergeley et al. (2002), most 14-Months old human children re-enacted the demonstrator's way to illuminate the light in condition b) but not in condition a). The explanation for this is that in a) they probably see the demonstrator as being forced to use her head because her hands are occupied, whereas in b) they see the demonstrator as rationally choosing to illuminate the light with her head, because had she wanted to use her hands, she would’ve done. They thus encode her performance as causally meaningful and purposive, and re-enact it.

Interestingly, in Buttelman et al’s (2007) study, in both experimental setups presented here, the enculturated chimpanzees also copied

the demonstrator’s action more often when he freely chose his action than when he was forced to use it by some constraint” (Buttelman et al. 2007: F37).
On a rich interpretation of these results, one could opt for the

“possibility that all great apes possess the ability to understand others’ intentions as rational choices of action plans to achieve goals, but that only some of them are able to show this understanding in these types of experiments due to special attentional or motivational qualities.” (Buttelman et al. 2007: F38).

Thus chimpanzees may even have a rudimentary Theory of Mind, which enables them to

"understand others in terms of a perception–goal psychology, as opposed to a full-fledged, human-like belief–desire psychology (Call & Tomasello 2008: 187)

As to the whole mirror neurons business, and Wunderlich’s remarks, I’m not sure how the socio-cognitive capacity of purpose-encoding rational imitation can bee seen as being motivated by a mirror neuron system, especially when it comes to language evolution. The language evolution link was motivated by the hypothesis that the premotor cortex of the macaque brain, which is the place where most mirror neuron activity takes place, was an evolutionary cousin, a homologue, to Broca’s Area in humans. But as recent research has shown, this is not the case, and Broca’s Area doesn’t show any mirror neuron activity. (Morrin & Grezes 2008).

I will return to Wunderlich’s presentation in my next post (If I proceed in this manner I’m going to spend the whole year writing about his presentation, given that today’s elaborated on a single slide and I’ve only reached page 10 of 29…)


Arbib, Michael A. (2005) From monkey-like action recognition to human language: An evolutionary framework for neurolinguistics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(2):105--124.

Buttelmann, David, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello (2007). Enculturated chimpanzees imitate rationally. Developmental Science 10.4: F31-8. doi:DESC630.

Call, Josep, and Michael Tomasello. (2008): Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12.5: 187-192. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.02.010.

Corballis, Michael C. (2003) From hand to mouth: The gestural origins of language. In M.H. Christiansen and S. Kirby, editors, Language Evolution: The States of the Art. Oxford University Press.

Gergely, György , Harold Bekkering, and Ildikó Király. 2002. Developmental psychology: Rational imitation in preverbal infants. Nature 415 (February 1): 755.

Horner, Victoria, and Andrew Whiten. (2005): Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens). Animal Cognition 8.3: 164-81. doi:10.1007/s10071-004-0239-6

Lyons, Derek E., Andrew G. Young, and Frank C. Keil. (2007): The hidden structure of overimitation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 50 (December 11): 19751-19756. doi:10.1073/pnas.0704452104

Morin, O., and J. Grezes. (2008) What is “mirror” in the premotor cortex? A review. Neurophysiologie Clinique/Clinical Neurophysiology 38, no. 3 (June): 189-195. doi:10.1016/j.neucli.2008.02.005.

Tomasello, Michael (1999): The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press

Whiten, Andrew, Victoria Horner & Frans B. M. de Waal. (2005): “Conformity to Cultural Norms of Tool Use in Chimpanzees.” Nature 437: 737-740.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thriller-Writer Lee Child and Linguist Dieter Wunderlich on the Evolution of Language

Lee Child is one of my favorite Thriller-authors. Normally I don’t find the time to read non-studying related fiction, but I especially enjoy his audio books because of the cool American accent of the narrator. However, when I stumbled on an essay by Lee Child called “The Origin of the Thriller”, I was a bit confused. Here’s his take on the evolution of language: According to Lee Child, a couple of hundred thousand years ago, Neanderthals and humans, the only homo “contenders” left were competing for resources, and Neanderthalers had the upper hand:

“They were heavier and stronger and faster. They were superb tool makers. They were much better equipped to survive the brutal conditions of prehistory.

But they didn't survive. We did. Why?

Because Homo Sapiens developed language. Many primitive species could communicate by making sounds — and many still do: prairie dogs make distinctive noises if a predator is spotted — one noise for a ground predator, and another for an airborne predator. But Homo Sapiens went beyond two words. After a random mutation our brains grew large and the new capacity was colonized by language, with a theoretically infinite number of available words, and more importantly with syntax, such that as well as reporting we could plan and speculate. Not just: a predator is coming, but also: a predator will come, or might come. Not just reaction, but also prediction: if we do this, we'll be OK, or if we do that, we'll be in trouble. “

But here’s the gem According to Child, humans are weak and fragile and in disorganized groups we would quickly be killed by predators:

“But a coordinated crowd of two hundred humans is the most powerful animal on earth. The heaviest, the strongest, the hardest to stop, the hardest to kill. Thus, grunting Neanderthals slowly died out, despite their muscle and bone and strength and speed, and talking humans marched on toward the present, despite our slender limbs and fragile skulls”
The last Sentence is faboulus isn’t it? We better don’t tell him anything about Neanderthal-DNA, Neanderthal Vocal Anatomy, FOXP2, Introgression, etc.

But I want to present a more plausible and worked out view on the topic. Yesterday I was searching for material on the evolution of syntax, because a friend of mine asked me to comment on a section of his MA-Thesis in which he shortly discusses the topic. (For a discussion of the speculation, that certain features of language are ‘living fossils’, or vestiges of an older proto-language, see this post).

On my search I found the slides of a talk given by German linguist Dieter Wunderlich on the evolution of language, that he held in Leipzig, Germany, in December 2007. The talk and the slides are in German, but because he offers a very comprehensive and nice review on some aspects of the current state of the art in language evolution research/evolutionary linguistics, I decided to write an English summary of it.

Key Questions

When looking at the evolution of language, there are three question that guide our inquiry:

1. How exactly did language get started? What is hotly debated is whether it evolved in a gradual manner (continuist/adaptationist position: see e.g. Pinker & Bloom 1990) or in a ‘sudden leap’ (discontinuist/ exaptationist: see e.g. Hauser et al. 2002)

2. When did language evolve? Depending on our answer to question 1., the question would be when each step toward language took place, or when the big leap happened.

3. Did language evolve only once or several times?

What is language?

Basically, language can be described as a system for expression, that relates Utterances and meaning to one another, in relation to certain contexts.

Morphosyntax governs the construction of complex utterances out of smallest units of language, namely lexical entries (=”words” in your mental lexicon) as well as morphemes (-s, -ed, un-, -er, etc.). Its system is compositional, that is every construction leads to complex expressions of meaning which are determined by the single lexical entries as well the rules that govern their combination. The rules governing the compositional construction of utterances are recursive.

There are two interfaces to non-linguistic abilities:

1. an interface with the system responsible for the production and perception of sounds and gestures (In generativist terminology this would be the Sensori-Motor System (SM) or the Articulatory-Perceptual (AP) System)

2. an interface with our mental representations and our discourse intentions (in generativist terminology: the Conceptual-Intentional (CI) system. cognitive linguists would probably call it our conceptual system)

Important events which shaped the current state of language

There are 5 important events that have shaped how languages and our mental structures that enable us to use it look:

In chronological Order:

1. There was an expansion of the cortex (frontal lobe) in early hominids such as homo erectus, who lived approx. 2 million years ago. In just 1 million years, brain size rose from 600 to 1400ccm. This may be related to the begin of an ice-age about 2.5 million years ago.

2. Anatomically modern man (homo sapiens) probably evolved about 170.000 years ago in east Africa.

3. Starting from about 50.000 years ago, there is archaeological evidence of improved tool-making capacities, burials, ornaments, and figurative art in several parts of the world (the so-called Upper Palaeolithic Revolution). In Africa these features can be found even earlier, as is especially salient from about 85.000 years ago, which even led some researchers to call this period an “African Upper Palaeolithic” (see e.g. Dubreuil 2008).

4. From 12.000 years ago onwards, there was a spread in agriculture which seemed to have happened independently in several parts of the world (The Neolithic Transition)

5. Starting from 6000 years ago, writing systems were developed independently in several parts of the world.

Of these 5 events, the first three are biological of nature, whereas the last two are cultural events. A diversification of biological events brought about by mutations and selection led to one single event: genetically modern man. In principle, every human being can reproduce with every other opposite-sex human, which fulfils the criterion of biological species. Furthermore, every child, regardless of its parents, can learn every language of the world when it is put into the critical environment at the right age. Thus language is a common and uniting feature of humans, and we all share the genetic structure that enables us to learn language (but for evidence that there is still genetic variation on a small scale, see these two posts)

What are the differences between and non-human communication systems?

Influential linguist Charles F. Hockett has posed 13 ‘design features of language’, 7 of which are especially interesting regarding the evolution of language. These are:

1. For the majority of human languages, the vocal-auditory channel the basic mode of communication.

2. Parity/Interchangeability: hearer and speaker constantly switch roles during conversation, which also means that a communicator is able to both produce and receive the same signal, which isn’t the case with say, gender-specific calls in sticklefish.

3. Semanticity/Arbitrarines: specific signals can be equipped with specific meaning in a manner where there is no necessary or logical connection between form meaning (“table” has nothing to do with any actual properties of a table)

4. Displacement: humans can talk about things that are not present in their immediate environment, or even things that do not exist at all (say, for example, my comprehension of mathematics). Human reference thus extends “beyond the horizon” and the perceptual space, but extends to mental spaces and shared systemic spaces.

5. Honey bee communication about the location of nectar of course is also displaced, but it only built to convey very specific information, and is not unbounded and productive like human language.

6. Traditional Transmission/Learnability human children are able to learn the language of their environment. As W.v.O. Quine said “language is a social art”, which essentially depends on the ability to be part of and interact with a complex culture that transmits complex behavior and knowledge. This complexity and language-specificness is probably the dividing feature, because song-birds also have to learn their songs from other birds, vervet monkeys need to be reinforced in their innate tendencies to hiss at snakes and have to zoom in on the exact referent for eagle alarm callas through positive reinforcements by other group members, and chimpanzees have been shown to adhere to some forms of social transmission and conformity as well as for rational imitation (e.g. Whiten et al. 2005)

7.Discreteness/Duality of Patterning the smallest units of language combine with each other in a systematic and combinatorial manner (that is Phonemes/Sound units combine to form Morphemes) , which then also combine in a systematic fashion (Morphemes built whole words and then sentences). This method allows for “infinite expression by finite means” (Humboldt) and is responsible for the diverse displaced productivity of language.

Wunderlich argues that homo erectus already possessed most of these features, but maybe not 6. and 7.

So what could homo erectus do?

Although he certainly didn’t have full-fledged human language, he was able to perform complex and social tasks. From 1.5 million years ago onwards, he was able to keep a fire burning, and from 0.8 million years ago he could even make fire.

He was able to make hand-axes (1.4 million years ago) and was also able to throw them, which, according to William Calvin, is suggested by neuropaleontological evidence. He way able to hunt together with other group members. He was very mobile: signs of him can be found in Georgia (1.8 million), later on there are also signs in China, Indonesia, and Europe.

Homo erectus was divided in several species that probably lived alongside each other. The last ones co-existing with us were the Neanderthals.

Tool use

Chimpanzees and orangutans use tools (see here, for a cool post on spear fishing in orangutans)such as sticks for termite fishing, stones to crack open nuts, and leaves to soak up water, but these tools are contextually available, that is they do not have to be crafted in the same complex way as hand-axes, for example. Interestingly, there is population level handedness of 2:1 in chimpanzees. Termite fishers are mostly left-handed, whereas nut-crackers and wadge-dippers are mostly right-handed, this means that handedness seems to be heritable. In humans, the left-right ratio is 9:1. The distribution of handedness means that handedness is task-specific, and “

that the motor and cognitive demands of different tasks can have a significant influence on handedness in human and nonhuman primates” (Lanson & Hopkins 2005).
This means
“that antecedents of lateralization of function associated with hand use were present at least 5 million years ago, before the Pan-Homo split,”
and that due to tool-use the human-brain specialized, probably making possible further changes in human neurology and cognitive behaviour (for evidence that there is a neurological link between tool-making and speech, see this post). It is interesting to consider what the cognitive preconditions were that enabled tool-making. The Oldowan technique, which
can be found from 2.6 million years ago. This technique is used to make cutting tools by breaking off sharp-edged flakes from a larger stone. This is achieved by striking a core stone with a hammerstone, thereby knocking flakes from the core (see Ambrose 2001).

This technique definitely requires intentional planning that isn’t bound to the here-and-now, but directed at the future. Also, and more important for language, it requires the ability for complex propositional thought. Thus the following conscious key cognitive mechanisms found in language are also necessary for tool-making and thus already existed 2.6 million years ago:

1. Predication: the same referent (core stone), can be subject of different predications, a structure that can be called “Topic-Comment”-structure (see also this post):

George (Topic) is eating brains (Comment) / George (Topic) is a Zombie (Comment) / George (Topic) is (Comment).

2. Qualification of predications that have already been made and higher-order temporal hierarchical ordering.

To wit, what this basically means is that both in linguistics and tool-making you first have an initial structure which you change by commenting/acting on it. This new structure can then be the topic of new comments or actions, and the new structure arising from these computations/ actions can again be the topic of new predications and ad infinitum. Consider for example the sentence: The living homeless, who wanted money, had infested South Park, but then they went to California

A hierarchical behavioral sequence like toolmaking seems to have similar properties:

I don’t know about you, but for me this looks like recursion, the only difference being that for toolmaking the recursive operation are applied to a physical object, and for language they are applied to a mental object. However, if toolmaking requires intentional planning, there had to be at least some recursive mental operations that in mental action planning. This would mean that, pace Hauser et al. (2002), recursion is neither special to language nor recently evolved.

As Wunderlich writes in his (2006) paper “What forced syntax to emerge?”

"Both fast processing and mapping from hierarchical structure to temporal ordering, two other fundamental features of human language, can be attributed to progresses in the timing of actions necessary for producing and using hand axes, [as well as throwing] that is, to sensomotoric skills that could have been adapted for language.”

All this is made all the more exciting by converging evidence that combinatorial and hierarchical structure of any kind (be it linguistic, cognitive, or sensori-motor are constructed by the same part of the brain and via the same mechanisms:

“Similarities exist between the architecture for sentence structure and blackboard architectures for combinatorial structures in visual cognition, derived from the structure of the visual cortex” (van der Velde & de Kamps 2006: 1)

“Evidence is mounting that much temporally sequenced hierarchical structure is constructed by the same part of the brain – roughly Broca’s area and subcortical areas connected to it – whether the material being assembled is language, dance (Lieberman 2005: 297), hand movements (Lieberman 2005: 294; Wilkins 2005: 279), or music (Patel 2003). Nor, within language, is Broca’s area confined to syntax, as often asserted: it also appears to play a role in phonological and semantic combinatoriality, possibly in distinct though overlapping subareas (Hagoort 2005; Poeppel and Embick 2005)" (Jackendoff 2007: 388)

“On the basis of all these results, it can be hypothesized that [the recursive morphosyntax of modern language] is the computational output of a cortical premotor network originally evolved to control/represent the hierarchical structure of goalrelated action When in evolution, selective pressure led to the emergence of language, the same neural circuits doing computations to control the hierarchy of goal-related actions were ‘exploited’ to serve the newly acquired function of language syntax. A similar functional overlap between action and language acquisition is indeed evident during children’s development, i.e. children parallel their capacity to master hierarchical complexity both in the domain of language and goal-related action.“ (Gallese 2007: 666)”

That’s it for today. In my next post I will continue my summary of Wunderlich’s presentation.


Ambr Ambrose, Stanley H. 2001. Paleolithic Technology and Human Evolution. Science 291, no. 5509 (March 2): 1748-1753. doi:10.1126/science.1059487.

Dubreuil, Benoît (2008): “What do modern behaviours in Homo sapiens imply for the evolution of language?”, in A. D. M. Smith, K. Smith, and R. Ferrer i Cancho (eds.), The Evolution of Language. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference (Evolang 7), World Scientific, 99-106.

Gallese, Vittorio (2007). Before and below 'theory of mind': Embodied simulation and the neural correlates of social cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 362 (1480):659-669

Hagoort, Peter (2005). On Broca, brain, and binding: a new framework. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9: 416–423

Hauser, Marc D., Noam Chomsky and W. Tecumseh Fitch (2002). “The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?” In: Science 298, 1569-1579.

Jackendoff, Ray (2007): Linguistics in Cognitive Science: The State of the Art, The Linguistic Review 24, 347-401.

Lieberman, Phillip (2005): The pied piper of Cambridge. The Linguistic Review 22: 289–302.

Lonsdorf, Elizabeth V., and William D. Hopkins. 2005. Wild chimpanzees show population-level handedness for

tool use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102, no. 35 (August 30): 12634-12638. doi:10.1073/pnas.0505806102.

Patel, Aniruddh D. (2003). Language, music, syntax, and the brain. Nature Neuroscience 6: 674– 681.

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

Poeppel, David, and David Embick (2005). Defining the relation between linguistics and neuroscience. In Twenty-first century psycholinguistics: Four cornerstones, A. Cutler (ed.), Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Van der Velde, F. & de Kamps, M. (2006). Neural blackboard architectures of combinatorial structures in cognition. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 1-72.

Whiten, Andrew, Victoria Horner & Frans B. M. de Waal. 2005. “Conformity to Cultural Norms of Tool Use in Chimpanzees.” Nature 437: 737-740.

Wilkins, Wendy K. (2005). Anatomy matters. The Linguistic Review 22: 271–288.

Wunderlich, Dieter (2006): “What forced syntax to emerge?” In H.-M. Gärtner et al. (eds.) Between 40 and 60 puzzles for Krifka. ZAS Berlin

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Friedrich Nietzsche on the Origin of Language and Consciousness

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is mostly known for his famous sentence “God is dead” and his concept of the “Übermensch”/”Superman” which later was horrendously misinterpreted and misused by the Nazis. In fact, some of the widespread misinterpretation of Nietzsche’s works are really his own fault, because he often expressed himself in very dark and obscure ways open to several readings. There is a joke in the Nietzsche scholarship community that everybody who is quoting a single excerpt of Nietzsche’s writing to make his case has to be lying, because you just as easily could find a section in which he says the exact opposite.

This ambiguity and uncertainty can also be found when it comes to Nietzsche’s assessment of Darwinism. Although he seemed to be convinced of the theory of evolution through common descent, he seemed to have differing views on the mechanisms of evolution. There are several aphorisms in his unpublished works and notes titled “Anti-Darwin,” but at least from the view of modern evolutionary Theory his criticisms are mostly due to a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and terms like “fitness.”
I do not know in which way Nietzsche’s criticisms applied to 19th century Darwinism. You should probably ask John Wilkins for that. Nietzsche took the side of biologists like Wilhelm Roux who argued that there had to be internal, systemic selection prior to external selection, something readily acknowledged in modern evolutionary theory, especially the systems theory of evolution.
Nietzsche also thought that life wasn’t only about self-preservation and mere survival (a position he took Darwinists to be arguing for) but that life was intrinsically aiming toward multiplication and extension, that it was governed by fundamental “a will to power” (here we have another very problematic concept of Nietzsche which no one really seems to understand).
Be that as it may, there is quite a bit of evolutionary theorizing in Nietzsche’s work and sometimes he even invokes notion akin to fitness and survival in order to explain how a certain cognitive property came about.
In Nietzsche’s 1882 “The Gay Science” (Part V, Aphorism No. 354) there are even some speculations about the function and evolution of language and consciousness and their interrelated nature.
For Nietzsche, thinking, feeling, wanting, recollecting and acting need not be conscious in order to be performed, but can come about sub-consciously. Nietzsche then asks:
“What then is the purpose of consciousness generally, when it is in the main superfluous?”
Nietzsche proposes that consciousness is always in proportion with an animal’s capacity for communication. This capacity again is seen as being related to an animal’s need for communication:

“where necessity and need have long compelled men to communicate with their fellows and understand one another rapidly and subtly, a surplus of the power and art of communication is at last acquired, as if it were a fortune which had gradually accumulated, and now waited for an heir to squander it prodigally.“

Language then, is seen as an adaptation that evolved gradually and provided a selective advantage in a hostile environment in which quick and efficient group coordination and cohesion were of utmost important. This is eerily familiar with the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology, especially Steven Pinker’s view of language as a gradual adaptation that evolved for the communication of complex propositions. Interestingly, Pinker also has written about our intrinsic “urge to communicate" (Pinker 1994).
Nietzsche sums up his hypothesis thus:
consciousness generally has only been developed under the pressure of the necessity for communication “

Furthermore, consciousness is mainly necessary in social settings:

“consciousness is properly only a connecting net between man an man, - it is only as such that it has had to develop, the recluse and wild-beast species of men would not have needed it.”

Humans are seen as the “most endangered animal” in need of help and protection. This is also eched in famous German philosophical anthropologist Arnold Gehlen's concept of humans as "Mängelwesen" (deficient creatures), i.e. organisms with deficient instincitve capacities which leave them ill-prepared to respond to challenges from their environment. I think formulated in the way Gehlen does it the notion is crap, but it is certainly true that human are adapted for the "cognitive niche" and do not rely on predatory skills such as lions, etc, and are much more fragile and helpless to such attacks.

In order to express and coordinate this need, they needed to make themselves understood, and they needed to have a capacity for conscious introspection in order to know and communicate what they needed and wanted. In modern terminology, this would probably be called metacognition. To be more precise, given modern terminology, Nietzsche would probably hold that animals may display metacognitive regulation, e.g. higher-order sub-conscious uncertainty monitoring, as it has been shown in macaques and dolphins (Smith et al. 2003). This sort of higher-order subconscious thought would probably be what Nietzsche would refer to as unconscious thinking. However, together with other modern philosophers, he would probably hold that only humans display metacognitive knowledge (a distinction introduced by Flavell 1979, see also Hurford 2007: 23ff.).

Again, this neatly fits with the perspective of evolutionary psychology and Steven Pinker who see language and consciousness as “adaptation to the cognitive niche”, which then led the ‘environmental’ niche humans constructed for themselves: culture.
Nietzsche’s view on the evolution of language and consciousness even links to concepts such as Ernst Cassirer’s “homo symbolicus” or Terrence Deacon’s “Symbolic Species” as well as to the Social Intelligence Hypothesis, which holds that the driving motor of primate brain evolution as well as of human conscious cognition were large social groups:

“The sign-inventing man is at the same time the man who is always more acutely self-conscious, it is only as a social animal that man as learned to become conscious of himself“”

The term social animal of course can be traced back to Aristotle’s notion of man as a zoon politikon, which basically means “social aninmal.”
Now here’s the catch: according to Nietzsche:

“consciousness does not properly belong to the individual existence of man, but rather to the social and gregarious nature in him; […] as follows therefrom, it is only in relation to communcal and gregarious utility that it is finely developed; and that consequently each of us, in spite of the best intention of understanding himself as individually as possible, and of “knowing himself”, will always just call into consciousness the non-individual in him, namely, his “averageness.”"

This sounds similar to neuroscientists who see the conscious self as an illusion, a fiction that just came into existence as a regulatory social mechanism. They see that consciousness in essence as a socially and culturally imposed and imprinted idealized role model we link and ascribe our actions and states to. (see e.g. Metzinger 2000)

But Nietzsche goes even further: given that conscious is essentially something that develops in group interactions, if we translate our actions into conscious decisions, they all have to adhere to the same conscious group format, and thus lose their personality, uniqueness, and individuality:

“The nature of animal consciousness involves the notion that the world of which we can become conscious is only a superficial and symbolic world, a generalised and vulgarized world; […] everything which becomes conscious becomes just thereby shallow, meagre, relatively stupid, a generalisation, a symbol, a characteristic of the herd; […] with becoming conscious of something there is always combined a great, radical perversion, falsification, superficialisation, and generalisation.”

Nietzsche’s closes with a sceptically remark that is very similar to the viewpoint of modern, evolutionary epistemology, and which is also close to the following fear espressed by Charles Darwin:

"But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”

Nietzsche also shares this scepticism. If consciousness is merely a group function and not responsible for higher-order thought, then

“we have not any organ at all for knowing, or for “truth”: we “know” (or believe, or fancy) just as much as may be of use in the interest of the human herd, the species; and even what is here called “usefulness,” is ultimately only a belief, a fancy, and perhaps precisely the most fatal stupidity by which we shall one day be ruined”


The translation I took these quotes from is pretty shitty. I have also looked at the original text and asked myself how I could translate it better, but Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic style is sometimes hard to follow if you’re a native speaker of German, and my English skills are wholly deficient for the task I’m afraid.


Flavell, John. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist 34, 906–911.

Hurford, James M. (2007): The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford: OUP.

Metzinger, Thomas (2000): The Subjectivity of Subjective Experience: A Representationalist Analysis of the First-Person Perspective. In: Thomas Metzinger (ed.): Neural Correlates of Consciousness – Empirical and Conceptual Questions. Cambridge, AM: MIT Press

Pinker, Steven 1994. The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. London: Lane Penguin Press.

Smith, J. D., W. E. Shields, and D. A. Washburn (2003a). The comparative psychology of uncertainty monitoring and metacognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 26, 317–339.