Saturday, June 27, 2009

Adam's Tongue (pt 2)

This is the second in a series of posts detailing my notes and thoughts about the book Adam's Tongue as I prepare to lead a book discussion meeting July 6, 2009 in the DC metro area (see my first post here. UPDATE: My third post is here).

Ch 1 - The size of the problem
  • This chapter is designed to walk through what's wrong with other theories of language evolution.
  • The basic point of the chapter seems to be this: no animal communication system (ACS) allows itself to refer to things distant in time and space, therefore they are not likely the precursors of language. Everyone who has taken or taught a Language Files course knows these two criteria as Hockett's two communication features unique to human language (Bickerton get's to Hockett in due course).
  • On the very first page of this chapter, I noted, "Is there a gavagai problem here?" By which I meant, how can we know what one of these ACS references really refers to? Bickerton's index lists nothing for either "Quine" or "gavagai," though he skirts this issue repeated for the next few chapters (and possibly the whole book). This dilemma become particularly critical in chapter 4 Chatting Apes, but I'll come to that later.
As a background, here's a passage from Wikipedia's Indeterminacy of translation page describing Quine's famous example:

Consider Quine's example of the word "gavagai" uttered by a native upon seeing a rabbit[1]. The linguist could do what seems natural and translate this as "Lo, a rabbit." But other translations would be compatible with all the evidence he has: "Lo, food"; "Let's go hunting"; "There will be a storm tonight" (these natives may be superstitious); "Lo, a momentary rabbit-stage"; "Lo, an undetached rabbit-part." Some of these might become less likely – that is, become more unwieldy hypotheses – in the light of subsequent observation. Others can only be ruled out by querying the natives: An affirmative answer to "Is this the same gavagai as that earlier one?" will rule out "momentary rabbit stage," and so forth. But these questions can only be asked once the linguist has mastered much of the natives' grammar and abstract vocabulary; that in turn can only be done on the basis of hypotheses derived from simpler, observation-connected bits of language; and those sentences, on their own, admit of multiple interpretations, as we have seen.
  • No gradual move from ACS to human language (17): Since evolution is gradual and slow, there would have to be a "missing link" (my term, not DB's); an ACS that made the jump from referring to the here and now to referring to the distant and far. No such link exists
  • Therefore, ACSs grew out of non-communication behaviors
  • Uniqueness of language also not relevant because many species have unique features (Pinker's elephant trunk, 20).
  • Humans suddenly had something else to "talk" about other than the here and now and THAT'S what spurned language.
  • The new thing humans had was abstract concepts (22). We can talk about dogs as a category (he makes an important distinction between categories and concepts much later in chapter 4 at the bottom of page 87).
  • This new ability to abstract is not associated with evolutionary fitness.
  • Critical Point: other species didn't develop language because they didn't need language (p 24).
  • Bickerton's 4 tests for any theory of language evolution: 1) uniqueness, 2) ecology, 3) credibility, 4) selfishness (p28). Bolles' blog Babel's Dawn discusses these criteria at length here.

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