Language Instinct, Elephant’s Trunk and Spandrels

‘The Language Instinct’ by Prof. Steven Pinker is a very thought-provoking read, which discusses the language as a gene-modulated evolutionary process tied to natural selection. Professor Pinker’s erudition and the astounding grasp of niceties of English language brightly shine through the book. It was a great piece of writing through and through which can adore any array of dazzling books on a bookshelf.  Irrespective of whether this writer is up to the task of criticizing an intellectual of Prof. Pinker’s caliber, I would like to pick on one or two points that troubled me about the book. If the reader were an arrogant Darwinist, taking all of it on faith, there would be little or no unanswered questions about the material discussed in the book. However, for a doubting Thomas like the writer of this article, the tone of the book is an unsettling eulogy of a one-sided world-view, which seems to scorn even the slightest hint of dissent on the orthodoxy of modern synthesis of evolution.

Professor Pinker’s key arguments about the unique features in animal kingdom arising from the slow natural selection process can be found in a chapter on the essence of Darwinian ideas (Chapter 11 The Big Bang). Unfortunately, the current writer was not convinced about the relevance of those arguments and counter-arguments about the process that gave rise to Language Instinct through the natural selection.  Furthermore, the logical foundation of these arguments seems to be more relevant to a philosophical discussion rather than to a persuasive scientific reasoning. Despite our physiological summersault, which could have well been fatal, of sending food and drinks over the opening to the trachea, to the food pipe, the language skills have evolved. The main point is about the process, which like the Elephants’ trunk, unique in the animal kingdom, produced physiological infrastructure required for our ability to talk.

Prof. Pinker acknowledges that the difference of Language from other animals’ communication systems is as obvious “as the elephant’s trunk is different from other animals’ nostrils (p334: Pinker 1994).” He further says that uniquely human language instinct is no more of a paradox than a trunk of the modern elephant (p342: Pinker 1994). Thus, we are apparently supposed to acknowledge the possibility of a process analogous to, in its uniqueness, what gave rise to the trunk, offering us our unique ability to communicate. This view is inadvertently trying to use an argument of “analogy”, namely, the uniqueness about language skills of humans and the evolutionary path of the elephant’s trunk.  This analogy about these functionally different characteristics does not seem to prove that the language is not a spandrel. On the other hand, each and every species is unique and the uniqueness itself can only support Prof. Pinker’s point to the extent that completely unique evolutionary adaptations can arise. If the elephant could talk like a parrot with the help of  its trunk, it would have been a far more reasonable comparison.

Taking a shot at the work of Professors Gould and Lewontins on spandrels, perhaps latently provoked by their dismissal of “just-so-stories” coming from evolutionary psychology, or dismissing Professor Chomsky ‘s more measured views may not hold any substance as a scientific device.  I do not think for a moment that Professor Chomsky, a true genius insightful enough to propose the widely accepted theory of inborn universal grammar, didn’t master the Darwinian views. He only tiptoed on a topic, which many Dogmatic Darwinists are inclined to believe as the absolute truth. Even if the natural selection produced the elephant’s trunk, there’s no guarantee that the same is true for human language.

Prof. Pinker agrees that “Gould and Lewontin’s essays have been influential in the cognitive sciences, and Chomsky’s skepticism that natural selection can explain human language is in the spirit of their critique (p359: Pinker 1994).”

This is obviously the case when Chomsky writes, as quoted in Prof. Pinker’s book, “These skills (for example, learning a grammar) may well have arisen as a concomitant of structural properties of the brain that developed for other reasons (p362: Pinker 1994).” This clearly is a mention of a spandrel, which may be a more natural treatment of the origin of language. This writer couldn’t find an argument in the book to defend a direct adaptation. Prof. Pinker himself says that only suggestive evidence for a grammar gene is available and its locus, given such a gene exists, is completely unknown (p.325: Pinker 1994). Lai, C.S. et al. (2001), identified a gene FOXP2 as the gene responsible for the language impairment of London Family known as KE family. To their credit, this may be the gene Prof. Pinker’s collaborator, Prof. Myrna Gopnik and Prof. Pinker postulated. However, more likely scenario would be what Jon Cohen says in his article ‘The Genetics of Language’: problems such as language impairment “are caused by subtle aberrations in genes and networks of genes working in concert[1]. But it is still not known whether FOXP2 affects the neurons processing the language or the ones controlling the speech muscles[2]. Until the discovery of such a gene or a network of genes and their direct involvement through natural selection it is more logical to agree with Prof. Chomsky, is it not? The Language faculty may well be a by-product of the encephalization process which accompanied the making of human. If analogy is a good argument, why didn’t natural selection work for talking birds, who can pick our speech and vocalize it so well, to develop language faculty, which is simply “an adaptation for the communication of knowledge and intentions (Pinker and Jackendoff 2005)”?  If they mastered vocalization like our language how well it would serve their survival and dispersion. Their communal behaviours may not be as complex as ours but a complex language beyond a mating or territorial call will still help. We know this from Vervet monkeys who possess a repertoire of alarm calls.

The point I am trying to make here is that the origin of language should not be pigeonholed to a Neo-Darwinian mould without enough supportive evidence. Such procrustean view may lead to wrong conclusions and a hold-up of further development of visionary ideas. This brings me to a story, about the mammoths, that I recently read. It tells the story brought in by the Russian explorers who met the Dolgan, a tribe of reindeer herders, centuries ago. They warned the explorers about the giant moles that avoided sunlight and fresh air. As soon as they broke through the ice cover they died instantly (p 53: Firestone et al). This is an example of the use of the rule of thumb logic by these tribesmen reminding of conceptual similarities to homology; the subterranean life of furry mole and the ice covered bodies of wooly mammoths. The limited knowledge the tribesmen had about their surrounding was extended to a novel situation based on vague similarities between mammoths and known creatures. In the shadow of the status of our current knowledge, such may be the connection between Language Instinct and the effect of the known genetic basis. At this point in time, the experts don’t know any better. But, there is no doubt that Prof. Pinker’s book is an insightful book to read.

Citations

Pinker, Steven 1994 The Language Instinct, Penguin Books

Firestone, R., A. West, and S. Warwick-Smith 2006 The cycle of cosmic catastrophes, Bear and Company, Rochester

Lai, C.S. et al. 2001 A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature 413: 519–523

Pinker, Steven and Ray Jackendoff. 2005 The Faculty of Language: What’s Special About It? Cognition 95: 201–236

 

 

[1] Cohen, Jon (2007) The Genetics of Language, MIT Technology Reviewhttp://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/409215/the-genetics-of-language/page/3/

[2] Prof. Richard Huganir as quoted by Pennisi, Elizabeth (2013) ‘Language Gene’ has a partner,http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2013/10/language-gene-has-partner

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The website aims to show the possible origin of religion through a ‘uniquely’ human process which has links to the seclusion of girls at puberty. It also advocates the view that the Paleolithic Venus figurines are related to these puberty rites and hence, the prehistoric Venus figurines may carry a much larger meaning. Thus, Religion is something more than a throwback from our animal past.

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