Review: Adam’s Tongue

I just completed reading a very engaging book on the evolution of the capacity for language in human beings, Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, by linguist Derek Bickerton (published by Hill and Wang, 2009). I’ll attempt a brief summary of his thesis here, but I hope to follow up with more detailed comments in later posts. Bottom line: this is a highly informative, provocative, and entertaining book — I recommend it highly.

  • He insists on there being a fundamental discontinuity between human language and the forms of communication found in other animal species. Understanding how human language came into being is a very hard problem, partly because language doesn’t leave fossils, but also because biologists and linguists are inclined to look for continuities in evolution; novelties and radical discontinuities are difficult to account for. However, “[language] was an evolutionary anomaly at least as great as the emergence, in a world filled exclusively with single-celled creatures, of the very first multicellular organisms. Greater, in fact . . . . Language . . . was a pure novelty.”

  • He argues that language, more than just another system of communication, is what enabled the emergence of all the mental capacities that radically separate human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. He puts it baldly: “Chomsky believes that human thinking came first and enabled language. I believe that language came first and enabled human thinking.” The evolution of language is the key to the evolution of the human being as not just another animal, albeit a relatively intelligent one, but as a creature unlike any other, with the capacity to produce art, literature, science, philosophy, political institutions, technology, and so on.

  • The key innovation in the emergence of language was the appearance of words, which have an essentially symbolic dimension. Non-human communication, according to Bickerton, always refers to the immediate situation, the here and now (such as a warning call that might be translated: “Leopard! Climb a tree!” or a hostile gesture that might be translated: “Stay away from my mate / dinner / infant!”). Words (based on concepts), on the other hand, may refer to things and acts that are general or remote in space or time (”displaced”).

  • The evolution of language must be understood within the context of the evolution of the human being. It didn’t appear magically, but, like any new adaptation, it emerged as a response to a real need within a specific ecosystem. And so the challenge is to find what might have triggered the emergence of something as unique as symbolic reference, and thus of words. Much of Bickerton’s argument involves an exploration of the current consensus regarding the course of hominid evolution during the period between 1 and 3 million years ago.

  • From the current evidence, Bickerton concludes that the specific adaptation that led, about 1.5 to 2 million years ago, to the emergence of words and proto-language was “power scavenging,” foraging as high-end scavengers of deceased mega-fauna (mammoths, etc.) by using cutting tools and working cooperatively in large groups to compete effectively against large predators. And here is the most speculative (and, though plausible, least convincing) part of the argument: that recruiting enough people once the carcass was spotted required communication skills that involved “displacement,” vocalizations and gestures that referred to more than what was immediately present. This is where Bickerton sees the seeds of symbolization, since indexical and iconic references tied to the here and now would not have sufficed to cause others to join a risky task miles away.

  • A special focus was on the idea of “niche construction,” a relatively new name for an idea that’s been around a while. The idea is that an organism modifies the niche it inhabits and then adapts to the modified niche — there’s a feedback loop that, in effect, gives the organism a role in guiding its own evolution. The classic example is the beaver, which has adapted to living in the very environment it creates. The extension of this idea to the genus homo is that early man’s evolution became in part an adaptation to an environment in which proto-language was an important component, and this adaptation, probably over the course of more than a million years, led to the emergence of language in its full sense, including syntax with recursive structures, as well as to conceptual thinking and to other behaviors that we would now call “culture.”

The book has a popularizer’s style, sometimes breezy or irreverent, sometimes polemical towards other scholars, and seldom very technical. It’s a style that was irritating to me for a while — until I encountered quotations from the scholarly writings of others in the field, an experience that made me grateful for his informality and straightforwardness.

A lot of the book is devoted to characterizing and/or refuting the views of others, but that effort is usually well integrated into the development of his own thesis. I am pleased that he was in substantial agreement with the core ideas of Terrence Deacon’s book, The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain (1997), which I read about a dozen years ago and found thought-provoking and compelling.

I would have liked him to have included Richard Wrangham’s views, presented in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), but I suspect it appeared too late. Wrangham argues that the mastery of fire and of cooking (perhaps as much as 2 million years ago) had a decisive impact on the physical evolution of early man, and may even account for the emergence of homo erectus about 1.8 million years ago. How would this have fit with Bickerton’s scenario for the emergence of words and proto-language about the same time?

I’m no expert and am hardly in a position to critique much of the substance of Adam’s Tongue, yet I was disappointed that it didn’t really deliver on the promise in its subtitle. About 90% of the book, maybe more, had to do with “how humans made language,” but very little had to do with “how language made humans.” And that is a topic I would find very interesting indeed.

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