Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tom Wolfe on the Evolution of Language

Sorry for not posting anything in such a long time, but the end of the semester is drawing near and I had a lot of presentations to prepare, I still have to write some term papers and also have to prepare for my year abroad in Nottingham, which will start by mid-September.

But anyway, Neurophilosopy brought to my attention a cool discussion between well-known cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga and famous author Tom Wolfe, who has described himself as the “social secretary of neuroscience.” Here’s his take on the evolution of language:

"Tom Wolfe: „To me the crucial point is something […] about speech and language. […] Speech is an artifact. It's not a natural progression of intelligence […]. It's a code. You're inventing a code for all the objects in the world and then establishing relationships between those objects. And speech has fundamentally transformed human beings.“


Tom Wolfe: I think speech is entirely different from other survival benefits. Only with speech can you ask the question, "Why?"


Tom Wolfe: Animals cannot ask why. In one way or another, they can ask what, where, and when. But they cannot ask why. I've never seen an animal shrug. When you shrug, you're trying to say, "I don't know why." And they also can't ask how.


Tom Wolfe: Humans got language and they were suddenly able to say, "Hey, why is all this here? Who put it here?" And my assumption is that they said, "There must be somebody like us but much bigger, much more powerful, that could make all these trees, the streams. God must be really something, and you'd better not get on the wrong side of him." I think that's the way it started."

This is of course an interesting line of thought, echoing some aspects of moderate versions of the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis, and also José Luis Bermúdez’s (e.g. 2003) and others’ theory that language “rewired” the human brain.

It is also akin to statements made by the famous German philosopher and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1839), who had a wide-ranging influence both on inquiries into the relationship between language and thought (and also on Chomsky’s nativistic stance):

“As the particular sound steps in between the object and the human being, the entire language, too, steps in between him and the world that affects his inside and outside. He surrounds himself with a worlds of sounds, in order to be able to internalize and process the world of objects. The human being lives with objects, mainly, or even exclusively in the way they are supplied to him by language.” (Humboldt 1992, translated by Frank Polzenhagen).

I tend more towards the universalist side of the debate, given that this blog focuses a lot

1. on the amazing displays of complex intelligence and behavior-reading in language-less nonhuman primates and other non-human animals (see for example this Neurophilosophy post on 5 amazing feats of animal intelligence including youtube video of the behaviors)

2. the amazing intention-reading, goal-attributing and social cognition/frame of reference skills of prelinguistic human infants

3. the complex cognitive system that enables us to take the perspectives of other people and objects, and which seems to consist of many parts (e.g. complex cognitive spaces (or systemic spaces), frame of reference-enabling coordinate systems, visual figure/ground phenomena), that seems to function, at least to a certain degree, in a way not determined/influenced by language, mainly because many of its parts are either present in nonhuman animals and/or prelinguistic human infants, or are necessary precursors for the ability to be even able to learn a language in the first place.

But it is also certainly true that language has fundamentally changed human cognition and plays an important role both in higher-order thought and social interaction. Another important aspect is that specific languages seem to be an accumulation and embodiment of the conceptualization and perspectivation efforts of historically previous speaker communities (e.g. Köller 2004, Tomasello 1999). One example would be the the stock of cognitively important and perspective-creating wh-questions Wolfe alludes to.

However, when Wolfe says

“Humans got language and they were suddenly able to say, "Hey, why is all this here? Who put it here?"
I think he’s skipping several steps. Firstly, it is perfectly possible that the ability to ask for the unobservable causes of a phenomenon - and relate and reinterpret events in a causally and relationally structured representational system - evolved in humans prior to the ability to speak and was itself a driving factor in the evolution of language (e.g. Penn et al. 2008, Hurford 2007). Secondly,

saying that only humans have language [and that, therefore, language explains fact x of human behavior] is like saying that only humans build skyscrapers, when the fact is that only humans (among primates) build freestanding shelters at all. Language is not basic; it is derived. It rests on the same underlying cognitive and social skills that lead infants to point to things and show things to other people declaratively and informatively, in a way that other primates do not do, and that lead them to engage in collaborative and joint attentional activities with others of a kind that are also unique among primates. (Tomasello et al. 2005: 690)

In my next post I’ll continue with Dieter Wunderlich’s presentation on the topic.


Bermúdez, José Luis (2003). Thinking without Words: Oxford. Oxford University Press,

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

Köller, Wilhelm (2004): Perspektivität und Sprache. Zur Struktur von Objektivierungsformen in Bildern, im Denken und in der Sprache. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter.

Penn, Derek C, Keith J. Holyoak. and Daniel J. Povinelli (2008): Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 109-130.

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

Tomasello, Michael Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, und Henrike Moll (2005): Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:5, 675-691

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