“a post on Pinker and Bloom’s original paper, and how the field has developed over these last twenty years, at some point in the next couple of weeks,”
“any system composed of many interacting parts where the details of the parts’ structure and arrangement suggest design to fulfill some function” (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 709).
“the differential reproductive success associated with heritable variation is the primary organizing force in the evolution of organisms,”
“a system of such complexity that its selective value [still was] difficult to imagine”(Studdert-Kennedy/Knight/Hurford 1998: 3).
“According to the ISI Web of Knowledge index, the rate at which language evolution work appears in the literature increased tenfold in the decade following the Pinker and Bloom paper. Thus, when counting the papers that contain both “language” and “evolution” in title, keywords, or abstract, the publishing rate for 1981-1989 was 9 per year, whereas it was 86 per year for the period 1990-1999, and 134 per year between 2002 and 2002. (Christiansen/Kirby: 3)
Surely there were other crucial factors for these massive expansions, like the technological, neurobiological and overall scientific advances made in the ‘Decade of the Brain’ and in subsequent years. Still, in the “Language Evolution and Computation Bibliography” Pinker & Bloom’s paper is listed as the most cited with 135 Citations (that was in 2008, as of now it has risen to 165), followed by Terrence Deacons’s “The Symbolic Species” with 116 (2010: 141), and Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” with 94 (2010: 116).
Edmund Blair Bolles writes that:
“Like it or quarrel with it, Pinker-Bloom broke the dam that had barricaded serious inquiry since 1866 when the Paris Linguistic Society banned all papers on language’s beginnings.”
“I think it’s historical importance will, to echo Bolles, be its value in opening up the field: with the questions of language origins and evolution turning into something worthy of serious intellectual investigation.”
W. Tecumseh Fitch, on the other hand, seems to think differently about the importance of Pinker & Bloom’s paper. In his 2010 book “The Evolution of Language”, he writes that:
“The running joke is that the Paris Linguistic Society banned discussion of language evolution in 1861 (According to Pinker & Bloom and Christiansen and Kirby it was 1866, M.P.), and the ban remained in force until 1990 (with the publication of Bickerton (1990) and Pinker and Bloom (1990)). In the interim, the story goes, all that happened was a comical series of silly unscientiﬁc hypotheses, nicknamed “bow-wow,”“heave-ho,” and “ding-dong” to expose their basic absurdity. This view of the field is a myth (emphasis in the origninal, MP). Darwin himself, and subsequent linguists such as Jespersen,made important contributions to this literature after the famous ban, and there was a major, important revival of interest in the 1960s and 1970s when many of the issues under discussion today were already debated insightfully (e.g. Hockett and Ascher, 1964; Hewes, 1973; Harnad et al., 1976). The fact that these works are rarely read or cited today seems explicable only byreference to the low scholarly standards tolerated by the ﬁeld as a whole.”
It is certainly true that there was already some very interesting work on the evolution of language, but to me it seems that under the strong and dominant influence of Chomsky (and his adaptation of a Gouldian view of evolutionary change) this interest diminished strongly, at least within the field of linguistics.
As Christine Kenneally wrote in her 2007 book “The first word”:
“[Chomsky's] most damning evaluation of the idea that language was an adaptation was that it was ‘hard to imagine a course of selection that could have resulted in language.’
Such was his eminence that when Chomsky said things like it’s ‘hard to imagine,’ it was taken to be a truth about the intractable nature of the problem rather than the limits of imagination. “ (p.39)
I agree with Wintz that the historical importance of Pinker and Bloom’s paper probably lies in the fact that they argued forcefully against the Chomskyan notion of (or lack of interest in) language evolution. By this, they inspired linguists to take this issue seriously and see it as a respectable topic worthy of scholarly attention.
Bickerton, Derek (1990). Language and Species (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press).
Christiansen, Morten H. and Simon Kirby 2003. “Language Evolution: The Hardest Problem in Science?” In: Christiansen, Morten H. and Simon Kirby (eds.) 2003. Language Evolution. Oxford / New York: Oxford University Press. 1-15.
Fitch, W. Tecumseh (2010): The Evolution of Language. Cambridge: CUP.
Harnad, S., Steklis, H. S., and Lancaster, J. (eds) (1976). Origin and Evolution of Language and Speech (New York: New York Academy of Sciences).
Hewes, G. W. (1973). “Primate communication and the gestural origin of language,” Current Anthropology 14, pp. 5–24.
Hurford, James R.1990. “Beyond the roadblock in linguistic evolution studies.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4, 736.
Kenneally, Christine. 2007. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. New York: Viking.
Lewontin, R.C. 1990. “How much did the Brain have to Change for Speech?” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4, 740-741.
Lieberman, Philip 1990. “Not invented here.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 741.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2003. “Grammar is grammar and usage is usage.” In: Language 79: 682-707.
Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo 1990. “An Ideological Battle over Modals and Quantifiers.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4, 752-754.
Pinker, Steven, & Bloom, Paul (1990). Natural Language and Natural Selection Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13 (4), 707-726.
Studdert-Kennedy, Michael, Chris Knight and James R. Hurford 1998. “Introduction: New Approaches to Language Evolution.“ In: James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy and Chris Knight (eds.). Approaches to the Evolution of Language. Social and Cognitive Bases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-5.