Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review of 'The Origins of Human Communication' in Science Magazine

The April 3rd issue of Science Magazine features a review of Michael Tomasello's "The Origin of Human Communication" (see my ongoing summary of the book here, here, and here) by Nick Enfield, who works at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguists in the Netherlands and is co-editor of "The Roots of Human Sociality" (part of which I discussed briefly here. See also Enfield's Reviews of James Hurford's The Origins of Meaning and Peter Macneilage's The Origin of Speech here).

Here's how Enfield neatly sums up Tomasello's position on the evolution of language

Requests form one of three classes of social action on which Tomasello builds his account of human communication. The others are informing-helping (e.g., when one person points to keys that another just dropped) and sharing (e.g., when two people's attitudes toward a third person align in the course of a gossip session). He summarizes research showing that all three social motives are fully evident in the communicative behavior of prelinguistic infants and all but absent among our closest relatives, the great apes. Humans have a special combination of cooperative instincts, prosocial motives, high-level intention attribution, and moral propensities (3). Tomasello contends that without this unique psychological wherewithal in the domain
Although he applauds Tomasello's general solution for evolution of complex language, Enfield rightly points out that one of Tomasello's shortcomings is that he doesn't follow through with his idea how we got from a gesture-based shared intentionality inrastructure to full blown syntactic language. In accordance with Paul Bloom's assertion that

"Every species gets the syntax it deserves" (Bloom 2000)

Tomasello links the social functions of requesting, informing and sharing to rising levels of linguistic complexity.

"He dubs these "simple syntax" (strongly dependent on immediate context), "serious syntax" (for making unambiguous reference across contexts), and "fancy syntax" (for organizing long and complex narratives). But this is essentially as far as his links to grammar go, promissory notes notwithstanding."

In this regard, I'm looking forward to the forhtcoming second volume of James Hurford's Language in The Light of Evolution series which focuses on the origins of linguistic form.

What should also be mentioned is that Tomasello has an aversion to telling "fairy-tales," that is, tentative evolutionary scenarios of how exactly language could have evolved during our evolutionary history. This position is directly opposed to that of Derek Bickerton, who in his new book "Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans" argues that the only way to get even a faint idea of how language could have evolved is to look at the environment and changing niches our pre-human ancestors lived in.
After having read the book, I have very mixed feelings about Bickerton's proposal and will come back to it in a later post.

Hat tip: Deric Bownds' Mindblog