Monday, February 16, 2009

Charles Darwin & W. Tecumseh Fitch & Derek Bickerton on the Evolution of Language

Over at Language Log there are two very nice guest posts on the occasion of Darwin's 200th Birthday and his view of the evolution of language. The first post, by W. Tecumseh Fitch of St. Andrew's University, in which he reexamines Charles Darwin's proposal that the ancestors of humans first developed a emotionally expressive musical protolanguage which later developed into modern meaningful symbolic language. He discusses this view in the light of present-day evidence and concludes that
"suitably updated, [it] provides a compelling fit to both the phenomenology of modern music and language, and to a wealth of comparative data. "
He further argues that:
"This year of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday seems an opportune time for Darwin' own model of language evolution to regain the prominence it deserves."
In the second post, Derek Bickerton comments on Fitch's essay and critices his verdict that

"Darwin's view of language was ahead of its time, and his model and arguments remain surprisingly relevant."
Instead, he argues, although Darwin got a lot of things right,

"in many cases he was, inevitably, limited by the state of knowledge in his time."
In regards to the speculations on the evolution of language, Darwin's lack of knowledge about the ancestral environments of pre-humans ist the graves limitation.

In a savanna environment in which much of homo evolution supposedly took place, a musical, singing way of communication would simply be bizarre and even extremely dangerous because it would attract predators.

This is a problem Bickerton sees with a lot of theories of language evoltion. For example, he also critized the lack of regard for the environmental context of language evolution in a review of James Hurford's fantastic book, "The Origins of Meaning:"
"Hurford gives a favorable mention to niche construction theory, and I kept hoping he was going to draw the conclusion I drew from it: that the key to the origin of language must be sought somewhere among the niches constructed by human ancestors between the date of the last common ancestor of humans and other apes and the present—niches very different from any occupied by other apes. But he did not."
For Bickerton, Darwin, unknowingly, and Fitch, unwittingly, have made the same mistake:

"The notion of a terrestrial and heavily-predated primate indulging in any form of vocal activity-especially one that must, in quantity as well as quality, have exceeded those of all other primates barring gibbons-is simply bizarre,."

Both posts make for very interesting reading and I'm looking forward to the publication of both Bickerton's "Adam's Tongue" (out next month) and Fitch's book "The Evolution of Language" which apparently is in press as well.

Update: W. Tecumseh Fitch has replied to Bickerton's criticism with a post with the entertaining title ""Silence on the Savannah!" On Bickerton's Yodeling Australopithecines and Missing the Point of Musical Protolanguage"


Jim said...

Bickerton has made some very interesting and important observations on the origin of language. Language did not "evolve," however. For an original and rational observation on this matter, check out

Michael said...

If you look at all the other posts on this blog you will see that my discussions of the evolution of language, human cognition, and related matters are deeply embedded and part of a firm evolutionary framework.

Not only do I think that all of the observations on this blog are in agreement with as well as lending additional support for the fact of common ancestry and descent with modification, I also think that some aspects of language & cognition have (!) to be evaluated from broad evolutionary perspective to be made sense of.

Above all, this blog's inquiries into the communicative and cognitive capacities of non-human primates show a very deep evolutionary continuity between human and other forms of animal communication. (For much more examples of this sort, see also

For examples of the overhwelming empirical support for evolution and the errors of anti-evolutionary positions, I kindly refer you to

As well as a rebuttal of your claims that can be found at


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