The 20th Anniversary of Steven Pinker & Paul Bloom: Natural Language and Natural Selection (1990)

The day before yesterday Wintz mentioned two important birthdays in the field of language evolution (see here): First, Babel’s Dawn turned four, and second, as both Edmund Blair Bolles and Wintz pointed out, Steven Pinker‘s and Paul Bloom‘s seminal paper “Natural Language and Natural Selection” (preprint can be found here) has its 20th anniversary.
Wintz wrote that he planned on writing
“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,”
and I thought I’d also offer a short perspective on the paper, by reposting an slightly edited post I wrote on the paper in 2008 (yes I know, I do a lot of reposting of old material, but I’m planning on writing more new stuff as well, I promise ;-) ).
So here we go:
ResearchBlogging.orgSteven Pinker’s and Paul Bloom’s 1990 article “Natural Language and Natural Selection” offers a good starting point for giving an overview of discussions about language evolution (Christiansen/Kirby 2003b: 15) because it reviewed the contemporary theoretical Chomskyan paradigm of the field, and then argues against it.
Pinker and Bloom refute the view that language is wholly incompatible with Darwinian theory as well as the theory that language could be an exaptation (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 707). In their opinion, language shows signs of “adaptive complexity”, the term describing
“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).
Natural selection, that is the hypothesis that
“the differential reproductive success associated with heritable variation is the primary organizing force in the evolution of organisms,”
is the only scientific explanation for the development of such complexity (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 708), which could only have evolved gradually (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 711).
The function language evolved for was the communication of complex propositions. As the authors themselves point out, their paper does not so much present a new theory of language evolution as set the methodological framework for a new scientific research program (Pinker/Bloom 1990: 726f.).
The paper had a tremendous impact. In the open peer commentary, Jim Hurford (1990) hailed it as a “Liberation!” and saw it as the crucial step “Beyond the roadblock in linguistic evolution studies” most clearly represented by the 1866 ban on papers about language origin by the Linguistic Society of Paris and the rumored “Gentleman’s Agreement” with a similar notion by the Linguistic Society of America (Indeed, no paper about the topic appeared in the society’s journal, ‘Language’ until 2000 (Newmeyer 2003)).
Philip Lieberman (1990), on the other hand, (rightly) argued that he was making the same claim for years. To others, however, for example Richard Lewontin (Lewontin 1990: 740) and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (Piattelli-Palmarini 1990: 754), language still appeared as
“a system of such complexity that its selective value [still was] difficult to imagine”
(Studdert-Kennedy/Knight/Hurford 1998: 3).
Regarding its impact, Christiansen and Kirby (2002) write that

“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.”

Wintz agrees:

“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.

Hockett, C. F. and Ascher, R. (1964). “The human revolution,” Current Anthropology 5, pp. 135–147.

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.

  • Stevan Harnad


    Pinker & Bloom’s 1990 BBS paper was timely and influential but it begged the most controversial question about language evolution.

    It is uncontroversial that “language” (whatever that may be) evolved through natural selection as well as through learning, culture and historical change. What was controversial was whether the specific capacity underlying universal grammar (UG) could have evolved in that way.

    The problem P & B overlooked was the “poverty of the stimulus” — the fact that what the language learning child hears and says does not provide enough data for either the child or any learning device to learn to recognize and produce all and only the utterances that conform to the rules of UG.

    The rules of UG are not known (except by linguists) and are hence not taught explicitly to the child; and they are too complex for the child to learn by trial and error induction from the impoverished evidence available to it during its language learning years. How would evolution have “induced” the rules of UG, or the mechanism for recognizing and producing all and only the utterances that conform to those rules?

    This question is especially troubling since there has so far been no evidence or argument suggesting that the rules of UG are somehow optimal or even necessary for language in principle. It seems they are just necessary (and universal) in practice.

    But none of this was addressed in P & B’s 1990 BBS paper. Their basic suggestion was that the evolution of language was an unproblematic combination of traits that could plausibly have evolved biologically, and other traits that evolved culturally.

    Now, if worries about the problematic evolutionary status of UG were holding language researchers back from working on the unproblematic evolutionary and cultural aspects of language, then P & B performed a great service by dispelling those worries.

    But they certainly did not solve or dispel the problem of the origin of UG.

  • Michael

    Thank you for your insightful comment. If you take a UG/POS-Argument perspective, how evolution could select for the principles and rules underlying all languages is indeed problematic. In fact, it is this problem which led people like Terence Deacon (1997, Nick Cater, Morten Christiansen, and others (e.g. Chater, Reali, & Christiansen, (2009) to argue that something like a UG simply couldn’t evolve.
    The problematic status of this question surely was one of the reasons why Pinker & Bloom didn’t address it.
    But I think the main thrust of their paper simply was that, no matter how difficult the specific problem in question may be, the answer has to be sought in terms of evolution by natural selecton, which for them, is

    “the only successful account of the origin of complex biological structure.”

    So on this view, it wouldn’t matter how problematic and controversial this ‘evolutionary problem of induction’ really is, because evolution by natural selection simply is the only game in town.
    If one agrees with this view is of course an entirely different matter, and Pinker & Bloom themselves acknowledge that we’ll never be able to answers all questions about language evolution:

    “It is certain there many questions about the evolution of language that we will never answer. But we are optimistic that there are insights to be gained, if only the problems are properly posed.”

  • Wintz

    Hi Steven,

    I’m not convinced the poverty of the stimulus is a problem: so what if children aren’t exposed to all of the data. They simply fill in the gaps with inductive guesses (plus, iterated learning will provide a pressure for the language to become increasingly learnable over successive generations). That children converge on similar solutions is due to them having similar inductive biases embedded within similar learning environments (something that will continue shaping their biases so that a population learning a language will becoming increasingly coordinated with one another). Also, children do make mistakes when learning a language which, due to repeated exposure, will eventually be filtered out. Willem Zuidema has an aptly titled paper on the topic: How the poverty of the stimulus solves the poverty of the stimulus. Here is part of his conclusion:

    Learnability is — consistent with the undisputed proof of [3] — still achieved by constraining the set of targets. However, unlike in usual interpretations of this proof, these constraints are not strict (some grammars are better learnable than others, allowing for an infinite “Grammar Universe”), and they are not a-priori: they are the outcome of iterated learning. The poverty of the stimulus is now no longer a problem; instead, the ancestors’ poverty is the solution for the child’s.

  • Stevan Harnad


    Harnad, Stevan (1976) Induction, evolution and accountability, In: Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech (Harnad, Stevan, Steklis , Horst Dieter and Lancaster, Jane B., Eds.), 58-60. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 280

  • Wintz


    Chater, N & Christiansen, M.H (2010). Language acquisition meets language evolution. Cognitive Science 34: 1131-1157.

    Your move :-P

  • Stevan Harnad

    Harnad, S. (2008) Why and How the Problem of the Evolution of Universal Grammar (UG) is Hard. [Commentary on Christiansen & Chater] Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31: 524-525

    ABSTRACT:Universal Grammar (UG) is a complicated set of grammatical rules that underlies our grammatical capacity. We all follow the rules of UG, but we were never taught them, and we could not have learned them from trial and error experience either (not enough data, or time). So UG must be inborn. But for similar reasons, it seems implausible that UG was “learned” by trial and error evolution either: What was the variation and competition? And what were UG’s adaptive advantages? So this leaves the hard problem of explaining where our brain’s UG capacity came from. Christiansen & Chater (C&C) suggest an answer: Language is an organism, like us, and our brains were not selected for UG capacity; rather, languages were selected for learnability with minimal trial and error experience by our brains. This explanation is circular: Where did our brains’ selective capacity to learn all and only UG-compliant languages come from? Chomsky suggests it might be a combination of optimality and logical necessity.