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vide conditions that have to be met by some future account in terms
of cells. In both cases, it is a two-way street: the discoveries of physics
constrain possible chemical models, as those of basic biology should
constrain models of insect behavior.

On nature and language

There are familiar analogues in the brain and cognitive sciences:
the issue of computational, algorithmic and implementation theories
emphasized by David Marr, for example. Or Eric Kandel™s work on
learning in marine snails, seeking “to translate into neuronal terms
ideas that have been proposed at an abstract level by experimental
psychologists,” and thus to show how cognitive psychology and
neurobiology “may begin to converge to yield a new perspective in
the study of learning.”12 Very reasonable, though the actual course of
the sciences should alert us to the possibility that the convergence may
not take place because something is missing “ where, we cannot know
until we find out.
I have been talking so far about the first of the three theses
I mentioned at the outset: the guiding principle that “Things mental,
indeed minds, are emergent properties of brains.” That seems correct,
but close to truism, for reasons understood by Darwin and by eminent
scientists a century earlier, and that followed from Newton™s discovery
of “absurdities” that were nonetheless true.
Let us turn to the second: the methodological thesis, quoted
from Mark Hauser™s Evolution of Communication: to account for some
trait we must adopt the ethological approach of Tinbergen, with its
four basic perspectives: (1) mechanisms, (2) ontogenesis, (3) fitness
consequences, (4) evolutionary history.
For Hauser, as for others, the “Holy Grail” is human language:
the goal is to show how it can be understood if we investigate it from
these four perspectives, and only that way. The same should be true of
vastly simpler systems: the “dance language” of the honeybee, to se-
lect the sole example in the animal world that, according to standard
(though not uncontroversial) accounts, seems to have at least some
superficial similarity to human language: infinite scope, and the prop-
erty of “displaced reference” “ the ability to communicate information

Language and the brain

about something not in the sensory field. Bees have brains the size of a
grass seed, with less than a million neurons; there are related species
that differ in mode of communication; there are no restrictions on in-
vasive experiment. But basic questions remain unanswered: questions
about physiology and evolution, in particular.
In his review of this topic, Hauser does not discuss mecha-
nisms, and the few suggestions that have been made seem rather ex-
otic; for example, mathematician/biologist Barbara Shipman™s theory
that the bee™s performance is based on an ability to map a certain
six-dimensional topological space into three dimensions, perhaps by
means of some kind of “quark detector.”13 On evolution, Hauser has
only a few sentences, which essentially formulate the problem. The
same is true of other cases he reviews. For example, songbirds, which
are “the success story in developmental research,” although there is no
“convincing scenario” about selection “ or even an unconvincing one,
it seems.
It should hardly surprise us, then, that questions about physi-
ological mechanisms and phylogenesis remain so mysterious in the
incomparably more difficult case of human language.
A closer look at Hauser™s study gives some indication of the re-
moteness of the goal that he and others set “ a worthy goal, but we
should be realistic about where we stand in relation to it. First, the
title of the book is misleading: it is not about the evolution of com-
munication, a topic that receives only passing mention. Rather, it is a
comparative study of communication in many species. That is made
explicit in the comments in Derek Bickerton™s review in Nature that
are quoted on the jacket cover; and in the final chapter, which specu-
lates about “future directions.” The chapter is entitled “Comparative
communication,” realistically; there is little speculation about evolu-
tion, a quite different matter. Rather generally, what Hauser and others

On nature and language

describe as the record of natural selection turns out to be an account
of the beautiful fit of an organism to its ecological niche. The facts
are often fascinating and suggestive, but they do not constitute evolu-
tionary history: rather, they formulate the problem to be solved by the
student of evolution.
Second, Hauser points out that this comprehensive study of
comparative communication is “irrelevant to the formal study of lan-
guage” (an overstatement, I think). That is no small point: what he
calls the “formal study of language” includes the psychological as-
pects of the first two perspectives of the ethological approach: (1) the
mechanisms of language, and (2) their ontogenesis. And what is irrel-
evant to psychological aspects is irrelevant to physiological aspects
as well, since anything that has bearing on physiological aspects
imposes conditions on psychological aspects. Accordingly, the first
two perspectives of the recommended approach of Tinbergen are ef-
fectively abandoned, for human language. For similar reasons, the
comparative study may be “irrelevant,” in the same sense, to con-
temporary inquiry into bee communication, largely a richly detailed
variety of “descriptive linguistics.” That seems a plausible conclusion:
a great deal has been learned about particular species at a descriptive
level “ insects, birds, monkeys, and others. But little emerges of any
The “irrelevance” to human language is, however, far deeper.
The reason is that “ as Hauser also observes “ language is not properly
regarded as a system of communication. It is a system for expressing
thought, something quite different. It can of course be used for
communication, as can anything people do “ manner of walking or
style of clothes or hair, for example. But in any useful sense of the
term, communication is not the function of language, and may even be
of no unique significance for understanding the functions and nature
of language. Hauser quotes Somerset Maugham™s quip that “if nobody
Language and the brain

spoke unless he had something to say, . . . the human race would very
soon lose the use of speech.” His point seems accurate enough, even
apart from the fact that language use is largely to oneself: “inner
speech” for adults, monologue for children. Furthermore, whatever
merit there may be to guesses about selectional processes that might,
or might not, have shaped human language, they do not crucially
depend on the belief that the system is an outgrowth of some mode
of communication. One can devise equally meritorious (that is,
equally pointless) tales of the advantage conferred by a series of
small mutations that facilitated planning and clarification of thought;
perhaps even less fanciful, since it is unnecessary to suppose that the
mutations took place in parallel in the group “ not that I am proposing
this or any other story. There is a rich record of the unhappy fate
of highly plausible stories about what might have happened, once
something was learned about what did happen “ and in cases where
far more is understood.
In the same connection, it is noteworthy that human language
does not even appear in Hauser™s “taxonomy of communicative in-
formation” (mating, survival, identity of caller). Language can surely
be used for alarm calls, identification of speaker, and so on, but to
study the functioning of language in these terms would be hopelessly
A related difficulty is that Hauser restricts the functional per-
spective to “adaptive solutions.” That sharply limits the study of evo-
lution, a point that Darwin forcefully emphasized and is now much
better understood. In fact, Hauser cites case after case of traits that
have no adaptive function, so he argues “ appearing only in contrived
situations with no counterpart in nature.
These matters are barely discussed; what I have cited are scat-
tered remarks, a sentence here and there. But they indicate the immen-
sity of the gaps that we must contemplate if we take the ethological
On nature and language

perspective seriously “ as of course we should, so I believe, and have
been arguing for forty years.14 Hauser™sspeculations about some future
inquiry into the evolution of human language highlight the mystery.
He refers to the two familiar basic problems: it is necessary to account
for (1) the massive explosion of the lexicon, and (2) the recursive sys-
tem for generating an infinite variety of meaningful utterances. For the
latter, no speculation is offered. As for (1), Hauser reports that there
is nothing analogous in the animal kingdom, including his own spe-
cialty (non-human primates). He observes that a precondition for the
explosion of the lexicon is an innate human capacity to imitate, which
he finds to be fundamentally different from anything in the animal
world, perhaps unique. He was able to find only one possible excep-
tion: apes subjected to training. His conclusion is that “certain features
of the human environment are required for engaging the capacity to
imitate in apes,” which, if true, would seem to imply that the capacity
is not the result of the adaptive selection to which he and others insist
we must restrict ourselves in studying evolution. As for the origins of
the human capacity to imitate, he points out that we know nothing
and may never be able to find out when “ or for that matter how “ it
appeared in hominid evolution.
Furthermore, like many others, Hauser seriously underesti-
mates the ways in which the human use of words to refer differs in
its essential structural and functional properties from the rare exam-
ples of “referential signals” in other species, including some mon-
keys (possibly some apes, though the evidence, he says, is uncertain),
a matter that goes well beyond the issues of displaced and situation-
free reference. And he also seriously overstates what has been shown.
Thus, citing some of Darwin™s cautious speculations, he writes that
“we thus learn two important lessons” about “human language evo-
lution”: that “the structure and function of human language can be

Language and the brain

accounted for by natural selection,” and that “the most impressive
link between human and nonhuman-animal forms of communication
lies in the ability to express emotional state.” Similarly, Steven Pinker
“shows how a Darwinian account of language evolution is the only
possible account, . . . because natural selection is the only mechanism
that can account for the complex design features of a trait such as
language” (my emphasis). It would be remarkable if something had
been “shown” about the evolution of human language, let alone the
vastly more ambitious claim cited; or if we could “learn” anything sig-
nificant from speculations about the topic. Surely nothing so amazing
has taken place. Cautious speculation and confident pronouncement
do not show anything, and the most that we learn is that there might be
a useful path to follow. Perhaps.
That aside, the conclusions that have supposedly been demon-
strated make little sense, apart from a charitable reading; uncontrover-
sially, natural selection operates within a space of options determined
by natural law (and historical/ecological contingencies), and it would
be the sheerest dogmatism to issue a priori proclamations on the role
of these factors in what comes to pass. That is true whether we are
considering the appearance of the Fibonacci series in nature, or hu-
man language, or anything else in the biological world. What has been
“shown” or “persuasively argued” is that natural selection is plausibly
taken to be a primary factor in evolution, as Darwin argued, and as
no one (within the circles that Hauser considers) even questions; why
he has decided that I (or anyone) have insisted that “natural selection
theory cannot account for the design features of human language,” he
does not say (and it is manifestly untrue, under the charitable reading
required to grant the statement some meaning). Beyond the generally
shared assumptions about natural selection and other mechanisms in
evolution, one tries to find out what took place, whether studying the

On nature and language

eye, the giraffe™s neck, the bones of the middle ear, mammalian visual
systems, human language, or anything else. Confident pronounce-
ment is not to be confused with demonstration or even persuasive
Though I suppose Hauser would deny this, it seems to me that
on a close look, his actual conclusions do not differ much from the
extreme skepticism of his Harvard colleague, evolutionary biologist
Richard Lewontin, who concludes “ forcefully “ that the evolution of
cognition is simply beyond the reach of contemporary science.15
The remoteness of the proclaimed goals leads to what seem
to me some strange proposals: for example, that “the human brain,
vocal tract, and language appear to have co-evolved” for the pur-
poses of linguistic communication. Hauser is borrowing the no-
tion of co-evolution of language and the brain from neuroscientist
Terrence Deacon.16 Deacon argues that students of language and its
ontogenesis “ the first two perspectives of the ethological approach “
are making a serious error when they adopt the standard approach of
the neurosciences: seeking to discover a genetically determined com-
ponent of the mind“brain and the state changes it undergoes through
experience and maturation. They have overlooked a more promising
alternative: “that the extra support for language learning,” beyond the
data of experience, “is vested neither in the brain of the child nor in the
brains of parents or teachers, but outside brains, in language itself.”
Language and languages are extra-human entities with a remarkable
“capacity . . . to evolve and adapt with respect to human hosts.” These
creatures are not only extra-human, but apparently outside the biolog-
ical world altogether.
What are these strange entities, and where did they come from?
What they are is left unstated, except that they have evolved to incor-
porate the properties of language that have been mistakenly attributed

Language and the brain

to the brain. Their origin is no less mysterious, though once they
somehow appeared, “the world™s languages evolved spontaneously,”
through natural selection, in a “flurry of adaptation” that has “been go-
ing on outside the human brain.” They have thereby “become better and
better adapted to people” “ like parasites and hosts, or perhaps prey
and predator in the familiar cycle of co-evolution; or perhaps viruses
provide the best analogy, he suggests. We also derive an account of
language universals: they have “emerged spontaneously and indepen-
dently in each evolving language . . . They are convergent features of lan-
guage evolution,” like the dorsal fins of sharks and dolphins. Having
evolved spontaneously and acquired the universal properties of lan-
guage by rapid natural selection, one of these extra-human creatures
attaches itself to my granddaughter in New England, and a different
one to my granddaughter in Nicaragua “ actually she is infected by two
of these mysterious viruses. It is a mistake to seek an explanation of
the outcome in these and all other cases by investigating the interplay
of experience and innate structure of the brain; rather, the right par-
asites attach themselves to hosts in a particular community in some
mystical fashion “ by a “magician™s trick,” to borrow Deacon™s term
for the ordinary assumptions of naturalistic science “ yielding their
knowledge of specific languages.
Deacon agrees, of course, that infants are “predisposed to learn
human languages” and “are strongly biased in their choices” of “the
rules underlying language,” acquiring within a few years “an im-
mensely complex rule system and a rich vocabulary” at a time when
they cannot even learn elementary arithmetic. So there is “something
special about human brains that enables us to do with ease what no
other species can do even minimally without intense effort and re-
markably insightful training.” But it is a mistake to approach these
predispositions and special structures of the brain the way we do other

On nature and language

aspects of nature “ the visual system, for example; no one would pro-
pose that insect and mammalian visual organs evolved spontaneously
by rapid natural selection and now attach themselves to hosts, yielding
the visual capacities of bees and monkeys; or that the waggle dance of
bees or the calls of vervets are organism-external parasites that have
co-evolved to provide the capacities of the host. But in the special case
of human language, we are not to pursue the normal course of the nat-
ural sciences, seeking to determine the nature of the “predispositions”
and “special structures” and the ways they are realized in brain mech-
anisms (in which case the extra-organic entities that have co-evolved
with language vanish from the scene).
Since in this unique case extra-organic “viruses” have evolved
that attach themselves to hosts in just the right way, we need not at-
tribute to the child more than a “general theory of learning.” So we
discover once we overcome the surprising failure of linguists and psy-
chologists to recognize that the languages of the world “ in fact, the
possible languages that are as yet unspoken “ may have evolved spon-
taneously, outside of brains, coming to “embody the predispositions
of children™s minds” by natural selection.
There is, I think, a sense in which Deacon™s proposals are on the
right track. The idea that a child needs no more than a “general theory
of learning” to attain language and other cognitive states can be sus-
tained only with quite heroic moves. That is a basic thrust of the third
of the framework theses introduced at the outset, to which we return
directly. Much the same conclusion is illustrated by the extraordinar-
ily rich innatist and modular assumptions embedded within attempts
to implement what are often misleadingly presented as unstructured
general learning theories, and the no less extraordinary assumptions
about innate structure built into approaches based on speculative evo-
lutionary scenarios that explicitly assume extreme modularity.17

Language and the brain

The only real problem, Deacon argues, is “symbolic reference.”
The rest will somehow fall into place if we account for this in evo-
lutionary terms. How the rest falls into place is not discussed. But
perhaps that does not matter, because “symbolic reference” is also left
as a complete mystery, in part because of failure to attend to its most
elementary properties in human language.
I have been giving quotes, because I have no idea what this
means. And understanding is not facilitated by an account of “linguis-
tics” (including views attributed to me) that is unrecognizable, with
allusions so vague that it is often hard even to guess what might have
been the source of the misunderstanding (sometimes it is easy; e.g.,
misunderstanding of terminology used in a technical sense, such as
“competence”). Whatever the meaning may be, the conclusion seems
to be that it is an error to investigate the brain to discover the nature
of human language; rather, studies of language must be about the
extra-biological entities that co-evolved with humans and somehow
“latch on” to them. These proposals have been highly acclaimed by
prominent evolutionary psychologists and biologists, but I do not see
why. Taken at all seriously, they seem only to reshape standard prob-
lems of science as utter mysteries, placing them beyond any hope of
understanding, while barring the procedures of rational inquiry that
have been taken for granted for hundreds of years.
Returning to the methodological thesis that we should adopt
an ethological approach, it is reasonable enough in principle, but the
ways it is pursued raise many questions. As far as I can see, the renewed
call to pursue this approach, as advocated forty years ago in the criti-
cal literature on “behavioral science,” leaves us about where we were.
We can study the genetically determined component of the brain “
and maybe more than the brain “ that is dedicated to the structure
and use of language, and the states it attains (the various languages),

On nature and language

and we can investigate the process by which the state changes take
place (language acquisition). We can try to discover the psychologi-
cal and physiological mechanisms and principles, and to unify them,
standard problems of science. These inquiries constitute the first two
perspectives of the ethological approach: the study of mechanisms
and ontogenesis. Turning to the third perspective, the functional per-
spective, we can investigate the use of language by the person who
has attained a particular state, though the restriction to effects on sur-
vival and reproduction is far too narrow, if we hope to understand
much about language. The fourth perspective “ phylogenesis “ seems
a remote prospect at best, and does not seem much advanced by the
comparative study of communication, a wholly different matter.
Let us turn finally to the third thesis I mentioned, quoting
Gallistel: the substantive thesis that in all animals, learning is based
on specialized mechanisms, “instincts to learn” in specific ways; what
Tinbergen called “innate dispositions to learn.”18 These “learning
mechanisms” can be regarded as “organs within the brain [that] are
neural circuits whose structure enables them to perform one partic-
ular kind of computation,” as they do more or less reflexively apart
from “extremely hostile environments.” Human language acquisition
is instinctive in this sense, based on a specialized “language organ.”
This “modular view of learning” Gallistel takes to be “the norm these
days in neuroscience.” He argues that this framework includes what-
ever is fairly well understood, including conditioning, insofar as it is
a real phenomenon. “To imagine that there exists a general purpose
learning mechanism in addition to all these problem-specific learn-
ing mechanisms . . . is like trying to imagine the structure of a general
purpose organ, the organ that takes care of problems not taken care
of by adaptively specialized organs like the liver, the kidney, the heart
and the lungs,” or a “general purpose sensory organ, which solves

Language and the brain

the problem of sensing” for the cases not handled by the eye, the ear,
and other specialized sensory organs. Nothing like that is known in
biology: “Adaptive specialization of mechanism is so ubiquitous and
so obvious in biology, at every level of analysis, and for every kind of
function, that no one thinks it necessary to call attention to it as a gen-
eral principle about biological mechanisms.” Accordingly, “it is odd
but true that most past and contemporary theorizing about learning”
departs so radically from what is taken for granted in the study of

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