Jim Hurford: What is wrong, and what is right, about current theories of language, in the light of evolution? (2)

This post continues my summary of Jim Hurford’s discussion of two contrasting extreme positions on language evolution in his plenary talk at the Poznan Linguistic Meeting. Here’s the summary of these two positions from my last post:

Position A:

(1) There was a single biological mutation which (2) created a new unique cognitive domain, which then (3) immediately enabled the “unlimited command of complex structures via the computational operation of merge. (4) This domain is used primarily for advanced private thought and only derivatively for public communication. (5) It was not promoted by natural selection.

Position B:

(1) There were many cumulative mutations which (2) allowed the expanding interactions of pre-existing cognitive domains creating a new domain, which however is not characterized by principles unique to language. This then (3) gradually enabled the command of successively more complex structures. Also, on this view, this capacity was used primarily for public communication, and only derivatively for advanced private thought and was (5) promoted by natural selection.

Hurford criticized the position that the biological changes enabling languages primarily evolved for private thought, because this would imply that the first species in the Homo lineage that developed the capacity for unlimited combinatorial private thought (i.e. “merge”) were non-social and isolated clever hominids. This, as Hurford rightly points out, is quite unrealistic given everything we know about human evolution regarding, for example, competition, group size, neocortex side and tactical deception. There is in fact very strong evidence that what characterizes humans the most is the exact opposite as would be predicted by the “Merge developed in the service of enhancing private thought” position: We have the largest group size of any primate, the largest neocortex (which has been linked to the affordances of navigating a complex social world) and have the most pronounced capacity for tactical deception.

In terms of the timing of externalization and the evolution of merge there are two possibilities:

Externalization preceding Merge: On this view, even the simplest conceptual units were externalized from an early stage in hominid evolution onwards (confer Bickerton’s protolanguage). This means that merge would have been public from the start.

The other possibility is that the capacity to merge conceptual units for advanced thought precedes externalization and public communication.

In normal humans it is important to note that complex thought and complex language go together. There are of course pathologies where they are dissociated but overall there is a lot of evidence that there is a correlation between verbal and noverbal IQ, that learning simple public labels modifies thought, especially in children, that bilinguals perform better in certain tasks, and that words can function as and aid to thought.

This suggests a less simple possibility: A coevolutionary spiral of successively more complex language and more complex thought.

This also means there can’t have been only a single mutation: The grammatical system and the system supporting it (storage capacities, working memory, vocal manual skills, pragmatics, etc.) are highly interdependent. They all had to evolve in partnership.

Hurford closed his talk by discussing the question whether evolution has produced a new unique domain. Hurford stresses that our evolved capacities for language have built on pre-existing capacities for, e.g.

  •  Hierarchical organization of behaviour
  • Semantic memory for facts storage
  • Fast routinization  of useful procedures

However, he holds that our language capacities go well beyond these pre-existing capacities, which seems for him indicates that evolution has in fact created a new unique domain. This goes against, for example Ray Jackendoff’s view, who holds that:

“So the conclusion is mixed: The wondrous recursive creativity in language is not as special as it is often claimed to be. Nevertheless language is a special system because of what is does and the particular structural materials it uses to do it” (Jackendoff 2007:  143, see also Hurford 2011: 510 ).

Beckner et al. (2009: 17), in their position paper on language as a complex adaptive system, go even further:

“[I]n a complex systems framework, language is viewed as an extension of numerous domain-general cognitive capacities such as shared attention, imitation, sequential learning, chunking, and categorization (Bybee, 1998b; Ellis, 1996). Language is emergent from ongoing human social interactions, and its structure is fundamentally molded by the preexisting cognitive abilities, processing idiosyncrasies and limitations, and general and specific conceptual circuitry of the human brain.”

According to them

“As soon as humans were able to string two words together, the potential for the development of grammar exists, with no further mechanisms other than sequential processing, categorization, conventionalization, and inference-making (Bybee, 1998b; Heine & Kuteva,2007).”

As a Cognitive Linguist I think that regarding this last point I agree more with Jackendoff and Beckner et al. than with Hurford, although this might also only be a terminology issue of how to define “new” or “unique.” I think it’s perfectly fine to say that the system supporting language becomes a specialized and unique domain due to the kinds of symbolic input it operates on, but many developmentalists would also stress that it is in fact not evolution which created this new unique domain, but ontogeny in a richly socio-interactive cultural setting or a “symbolic niche.” Saying that in normal modern language users’ there is a specialized system for language is quite compatible with Cognitive Approaches and the view of language as a complex adaptive system. However, as people like Elizabeth Bates or Anna Karmiloff-Smith have pointed out, a linguistic cognitive domain can emerge through multiple domain-general cognitive and processing factors in combination with dynamics of social interaction and actual language during a child’s individual development. So in this view it would not be evolution creating a new unique domain, but development, which is quite compatible with what we know about neural re-use:

“According to [theories of neural re-use], it is quite common for neural circuits established for one purpose to be exapted (exploited, recycled, redeployed) during evolution or normal development (my emphasis), and be put to different uses, often without losing their original functions. Neural reuse theories thus differ from the usual understanding of the role of neural plasticity (which is, after all, a kind of reuse) in brain organization along the following lines: According to neural reuse, circuits can continue to acquire new uses after an initial or original function is established; the acquisition of new uses need not involve unusual circumstances such as injury or loss of established function; and the acquisition of a new use need not involve (much) local change to circuit structure (e.g., it might involve only the establishment of functional connections to new neural partners)” (Anderson 2010)

In this perspective language was shaped by and adapted to the organization principles brain, and it is normal development and the connectivity patterns. Language, then, becomes more similar to other highly specialized neural systems like chess or driving (Karmiloff-Smith 1992). Thus, general cognitive capacities and constraints (e.g. constraints from the conceptual system, pragmatics, learning and processing mechanisms, perceptuo-motor factors and others, cf. Christiansen & Chater, 2008) and their interconnectivity might play a more crucial role than Hurford gives them credit for.

As Michael Tomasello (2003: 284) argues:

“Everyone agrees that human beings can acquire a natural language only because they are biologically prepared to do so and only because they are exposed other people in the culture speak- ing a language. The difficult part is in specifying the exact nature of this biological preparation, including the exact nature of the cognitive and learning skills that children use during ontogeny to acquire competence with the language into which they are born.”

So the jury is still out whether the interconnection and co-optation of domain-general processes alone can explain language acquisition and use, and this is a highly active and exciting area of research (see e.g. this paper published a couple of  months ago in a special issue on “Pattern perception and computational complexity“) that plays a fundamental role in answering the question of what is wrong, and what is right in language evolution research.

2 thoughts on “Jim Hurford: What is wrong, and what is right, about current theories of language, in the light of evolution? (2)”

  1. I had a very similar conversation to this with a cognitive linguist I met while manning the Culture Evolves stand at the British Science Festival last week (I’ve directed her here – hello if you’re reading!). A lot of the same issues came up. It was the first time I’d thought about them in this sort of frame, and I found her perspective really helpful when I thought about it later.

    I tend to side more with Jim on this one; children, when immersed in a chess-playing or car-driving environment, don’t seem to have dedicated cognitive architecture for acquiring those skills without explicit instruction – and especially not from infancy. Clearly, our communicative and social cognition is a different sort of animal in this regard – there hasn’t, as yet, been a critical period identified for the acquisition of chess, the capacity for which (I assume) tends to decline at much the same rate as any other skill. I’d say this speaks against language competence being attributable only to neural reuse, which can really only describe the manner in which we acquire skills within pre-existing constraints.

    ” I think it’s perfectly fine to say that the system supporting language becomes a specialized and unique domain due to the kinds of symbolic input it operates on, but many developmentalists would also stress that it is in fact not evolution which created this new unique domain, but ontogeny in a richly socio-interactive cultural setting or a ‘symbolic niche.’ ”

    I’m not entirely on board with this sentiment; the specialised capacities that allow – nay, compel – infants to exploit the ‘symbolic niche’ are the result of selection over phylogeny. The extent to which the symbolic environment shapes this dedicated architecture is certainly a matter of ontogeny, but I conceive of this as operating within the pre-existing domain rather than creating it. This opinion is perhaps biased because we can watch language adapting to the brains of the users in cultural evolution experiments much easier than we can compare the different ways in which brains adapt to symbolic environments, which emphasises the massive constraint cognition has on what the symbolic environment looks like.

    I’m enjoying the Poznan coverage, Michael. Thanks for taking the time to do it.

  2. I struggled a bit with how to phrase “the alternative position” and I’m not sure if I did a very good job at presenting it. Chess and driving probably aren’t very good examples, “action syntax” and “social hierarchies” might be more fitting, for example.

    I agree with you that there are “capacities that allow – nay, compel – infants to exploit the ‘symbolic niche’” and that these are the result of selection over phylogeny – the key question is whether these are specialized for language or if they are more adaptive and plastic. So maybe children have specialized capacities for intention-reading and pattern-finding, including general cognitive processes of cultural learning, a drive to communicated, shared intentionality, joint attentional capacities, Schematization and analogy, symbolic processing, Distributional analysis, and other cognitive Mechanisms for constraining generalizations and language learning that not only apply to linguistic input. These might work together to make language learning possible and create a dedicated architecture for language processing. I think in this regard, I’m more on board with usage-based (e.g. Michael Tomasello, Elena Lieven) cognitive-functional (e.g. Liz Bates), socio-cognitive (e.g. Eve Clark, Jerome Bruner) and emergentist (e.g. Brian MacWhinney) views of language acquisition, use, and processing,

    The extent to which this architecture might also process other input is also a matter of debate. The CAS view for example predicts that:

    “Specifically, language will depend heavily on brain areas fundamentally linked to various types of conceptual understanding, the processing of social interactions, and pattern recognition and memory. It also predicts that so-called “language areas” should have more general, prelinguistic processing functions even in modern humans”

    (Beckner et al. 2009: 18)

    Whether there is domain-specific “dedicated architecture” for language acquisition and processing is of course one of the key controversies in cognitive science. In the view of “language being shaped by the brain”, there might not be any need for a innately specified dedicated architecture selected for over phylogeny if language(s) evolved and are constrained in such a way (e.g. by constraints from the nature of thought, constraints arising from the perceptual and motor machinery underlying language, cognitive constraints of learning and processing (, and pragmatic constraints, as proposed e.g. by Christiansen & Chater 2008) that it could be manipulated, processed, and learned by domain-general processes that interact and become interconnected in such a way as to create a dedicated linguistic system in ontogeny. There might of course be certain constraints and biases which “channel” development in such a way as to create this “dedicated architecture” and one might speak of some form of “Architectural” instead of “Representational Innateness”, but as Jim said when I discussed this with him, this might be more of a matter of terminology. In acknowledging the possible role of certain biases and constraints in “channeling” or “facouring” the ontogenetic development of the linguistic system, I think I agree with Jim (and you) to some extent.

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