It’s not hard to imagine that when elephants finally become fully sentient beings, indelibly aware of their existence and of its inherent fragility, that they will turn their focus inward, like a human sophomore majoring in philosophy, and, wonder why, exactly, they are unique and special…and will conclude it is because of their trunks. Trunks are to elephants what language is to human beings. Language makes us different from all the other animals, as linguist Christine Kenneally repeatedly points out in her survey of the search for the origins of human language. But so too would an elephant trunkist repeatedly point out that the elephant’s trunk makes it different from all the other animals—which is perhaps exactly what the bull elephant in musk is saying through his rampages. There is no other animal possessing anything remotely approaching an elephant’s trunk in power and versatility. And the same can be said of human language. Elephants and humans each have appendages, one real and the other more abstract, that only they possess. Elephants would surely argue that their magnificent trunk makes them superior to all the other animals, just as humans, including everyone from linguists who should know better to evangelical preachers who are paid not to, say about their language. Species bigotry is necessarily a hard-wired perceptual bias for every living creature. But both the elephants and the humans, and particularly Ms. Kenneally, would be wrong. There is no such thing as a superior species, except in the biased mind of the species doing the ranking, which makes any sort of ranking that might be contrived meaningless.
Elephants have trunks and humans have language. “Big deal”, says the ant, or maybe would, if he wasn’t so handicapped as to have to get by without a trunk or Greek or even English. He might also point out that ants are the most successful of earth’s multi-celled creatures, in terms of the number of individuals and in the sheer mass they constitute. If numbers or mass and range constitute success, ants are many times over more successful than any lumbering mammal. And they do it all without trunks or Spanish, though they do have intricate means of communication and can powerfully lift objects many times their size and weight. “Top that” the ant instead might say, if he knew how to taunt in the manner that language makes so easy for humans, on his way to irremediably colonizing your backyard.
It would be nice if an objective perception were common among scientists. But it’s not generally. Scientists by and large suffer the same species bigotry as the rest of humanity, which is not remarkable, considering as they are humans first and scientists second, but the species bigotry they must lug with them wherever they go is a real handicap to understanding, and especially so among scientists who study human language. Noam Chomsky, the Einstein of linguistics, as Kenneally aptly points out, believes (and it could be nothing other than belief from which his views are derived as there is a paucity of evidence, and the evidence fails to accumulate more every day) that humans have been blessed with a Universal Grammar, like a heavenly manna, from which language arises. Chomsky thinks that all languages are more alike than they are different. And on some level, he is certainly correct. No animal but humans have language, but all normally-reared and fully functional humans have language. There is no instance, no remote tribe of hunter gatherers, who have yet to develop a full and functioning language, with words and the rules of grammar required to give the words coherence and meaning. But there are a multitude of ways human languages accomplish the task of communicating, and there are no grammar rules yet found that are common to every extant language.
Perhaps most important to debunking the Chomsky idea of some internal part he labels Universal Grammar for generating language, humans who are not exposed to language by a certain age (the rare but documented cases of feral children) never acquire it. The hardware of the human mind is surely somehow uniquely suited to acquiring human language (could things be any other way?), but can’t properly function without which it is programmed by the experience of exposure at a critical time in its development. Chomsky saw how marvelously inventive and unique is the facility of human language and concluded it must be tied to some quirk of human neural engineering from which it arose, perhaps the result of a fortuitously fortunate but radical genetic mutation. Elephants probably would think the same about their trunks, or perhaps already do, but we humans don’t speak elephant-ese sufficiently well to understand them. Kenneally quotes others in pointing out that Chomsky’s adamant defense of Universal Grammar effectively dismisses the notion that an eye, the iconic product of evolution by natural selection which biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have presented as exemplary of the process, and which is also a marvelous and unique facility, might develop simply by dint of gradual changes arising from random genetic variations interacting with environmental pressures. Chomsky’s is a curious view for a scientist to hold—almost a “God in the gaps” hypothesis (though as an avowed atheist, he would surely object to such characterization), that by some supernatural happenstance, the gift of language was bestowed on humans, after which people immediately started conjugating irregular verbs and employing prepositional phrases to sophistic advantage. We know languages evolved and continue to do so. What’s so hard about imagining that the capacity to develop and use them did so as well?
In the sense that Chomsky proffers mysticism in explaining the origin of language, comparing him to Einstein is especially appropriate. Einstein’s General Relativity has by now become so contorted by observations that don’t fit the theory until fully 96% of Einstein’s universe is invisible. Or, to put matters another way, Einstein’s theory explains the 4% of the universe that is detectable (i.e., you, me, the sun, moon tides and galaxies, etc.) by proposing that 96% of it is invisible (imagine that 96% of you is undetectable—and be happy that it is when you get on the bathroom scales in the morning). The invisible stuff could as well be called magic, or perhaps an aether, to which Einstein and his acolytes would undoubtedly cringe. Likewise, Chomsky posits an undetectable thing—a universal grammar–as the explanation for human language. Chomsky and Einstein are likewise similar in that their celebrity created something of a cult of followers who idolize and worship them, and consider their scientific musings as sacrosanct, no matter how self-contradictory or confused they might be proved (yes, Professor Einstein, God does play dice with the universe). Kenneally ably points out as much regarding Chomsky by poignantly quoting perhaps the most capable of today’s linguists, Steven Pinker, who observed that such dogmatic loyalty to a person dangerously abandons the skepticism needed for proper scientific inquiry. In his career, Pinker has by and large simply ignored Chomsky and the sometimes unhinged defenses he would offer of his ideas, though the two are professors in the same department at MIT. Good for Pinker. It is never a good thing when a scientist gains the status of demigod, but the best work around for when a demigod scientist is wrong is to simply research, discover and explain correctly whatever he has been wrong about.
Kenneally spends a significant portion of The First Word describing how much resistance she and other linguists have encountered in academia over their desire to research how language arose. There is some justification for the resistance. For presumably the vast majority of its existence, human language has constituted nothing more than wisps of air exhaled in a particular way to make particular sounds, and neither exhaled air nor sound makes fossils. Language only started to be written down around the time when a new economy of life arose that required some measure of record keeping (sedentary agriculture, around 10,000 or so years ago). And written language is only vaguely reflective of the spoken word, as legions of adult second language learners quickly realize. As a result, the origins of language will be always a matter of generous speculation. But there should be no objection to its investigation. While it’s quite clear that no such universal grammar organ has evolved as a part of the neural architecture, there have been discovered specific genetic expressions and neural pathways which are critical to a fully functioning linguistic ability. Kenneally (correctly, in my view) points out that research along these lines has the greatest chance of yielding fruit.
Human language, whatever its ultimate origins, simply has to be the product of evolution by natural selection. To imagine, as some do, that language arose as a spandrel* (one of the several explanations proffered by Chomsky), seems absurd. Some of the neural architecture employed for its development may have initially have been a by-product of selection favoring the hardware for other reasons, but once the first grunts turned to words and sentences, language had to have quickly become so advantageous to survival that whatever neural architecture enhanced the capacity for language would have immediately been subject to favorable selection.
Kenneally catalogues the efforts of scientists to understand how capable other species might be at human language (short answer…not very). Our closest ape cousins, chimpanzees, can sometimes, when all the stars are perfectly aligned, and after repeated drilling, learn the meanings of a couple hundred human words [in English, no doubt, which given how utterly nonsensical is the English language, perhaps the chimp handlers ought try another language (e.g., Spanish) which makes a bit better logical sense]. It’s my sense that the effort to find the capacity for human-type language among our close mammalian cousins is misdirected. Humans are alone among mammals in the complexity of their societies, and language is the principle tool humans employed to develop them. The only creatures with societies of similar complexity are the social insects. Figure out how ants, to make further use of their example, communicate their intricate messages, necessary in a colony of highly specialized workers not unlike a modern human economic system, and how the ability arose, and we might find a wealth of insights about the origins of human language. The social insects do with chemicals and physical gesturing what humans do with language and physical gesturing. The chemical messages have got to have an analogue in our words and sentences. How in the world did ants develop the complex suite of chemical signals critical to the functioning of their colonies? The answer, like the origins of human language, undoubtedly lies in the mother of all invention, necessity.
Kenneally does a capable job narrating the status of the search for the origins of human language, and the general state of academia in fields like linguistics and neuroscience and zoology that are implicated in the search. But the narrative suffers from her apparent need to tiptoe around the delicate egos, particularly among linguists, of the leading academicians. The book is a bit stilted in the reading, as if it was written with Chomsky glaring over one shoulder and Pinker over the next. This is a common problem with popular books of science written by practitioners in the field. Practitioners, as Kenneally is here, have a vested interest in advancing their career, and when they write about others in their field, their ability to honestly and objectively evaluate their ideas is necessarily suspect. Tribalism is as rampant among scientific communities as it is among troops of chimpanzees. To remain a member in good standing in the tribe requires acquiescence to its existing hierarchies, implying only the most deferential criticisms might be offered. Probably only a tribal outcast would have the requisite expertise and objectivity to offer unbiased expert opinion on the ideas and personalities that have gained unquestioned acceptance within the tribe. But if Kenneally were an outcast, she surely would not have been afforded the personal interviews and insights of the likes of Chomsky, Pinker, et al. It’s a catch-22. Only an insider could capably criticize the academy, but an insider, by definition, never would.
This much can be taken from the book without fear—that the origins of human language are murky and apt to stay so. But that human language, like elephant trunks and eyeballs and ant signaling, arose by evolution through natural selection. We just don’t know quite how.
*A spandrel is the triangular space created when a column meets a rafter, a space which was often used as a palette for elaborate decoration in medieval architecture. It use as a metaphor for biological features that arise as a beneficial evolutionary incident to the product of other selective pressures is attributable to the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould.