Friday, July 30, 2010

when good physicists go bad...

According to a recent article in The New Scientist, the ground-breaking physicist Murray Gell-Mann* has been spending his twilight years (he's now 80) trying to "trace the majority of human languages back to a common root." This tower of babel quest is roughly the Grand Unified Theory of linguistics. And just like the GUT of physics, it is about as fruitless. Many have tried, all have failed. Where Einstein failed with GUT (as well as many others), Murray Gell-Mann is likely to fail in linguistics. It may be the case that all human languages are descendant from a single progenitor (doubt it), but I see no reason to believe there exists evidence to prove it one way or the other. Language has simply not been preserved the way fossils have and language doesn't have the sort of physical reality that elementary particles have. So chasing that tail is is going to end up exactly the way all tail-chasing adventures end.

*fyi, his ground-breaking work involved categorizing elementary particles.


Glossy said...

On the intuitive level it's hard for me to imagine the capacity for language arising independently in different human populations. My intuition tells me that this most likely only happened once.

Everyone knows that wings arose independently in insects, birds and bats and that whales and dolphins acquired their fishy shapes completely independently of fish, but I don't think that knowing those facts can be very helpful in thinking about the initial development of language.

First, it seems that everyone who's ever used language on Earth has belonged to the same species. Second, adaptation to new physical environments (the air for the ancestors of bats, the sea for the ancestors of dolphins) is a pretty typical direction for evolution to take. There's nothing typical about the direction in which evolution has taken humans. Seems like a very ancient fluke.

I agree that the reconstruction of a universal proto-language is impossible, but that's not because I think that it likely didn't exist. It probably did exist, but it existed so long ago (perhaps more than 100,000 years ago) that all traces of commonality would have been erased by now.

Glossy said...

Just wanted to express my point more clearly:

The rise of language was weird enough by itself, apparently so weird that until Homo sapiens came along, it had never happened in all the hundreds of millions of years that complex organisms had existed on Earth.

Thinking that once it finally happened, it would happen again almost from scratch several more times in quick succession and among close relatives too - that seems absurd to me. I think that a more likely scenario is that all of those close relatives (human populations) inherited this unusual genetic breakthrough from a single ancestor population.

Chris said...

Glossy, you make a fair point. And the question of language evolution is truly complex. It's not my area of expertise. Although it's worth noting that reasonably complex non-human communication systems have arisen independently. Also, it's possible, I think, that some key component of human language (like FOX2P or Bickerton's abstraction capacity) can be traced back to a single mutation that spread, but that language itself evolved later and independent in various humans.

I'm not wed to this hypothesis, it's more of a hunch. But I do believe this will remain an unsolved mystery as again, I just don't think there is extant evidence to follow-up.

Glossy said...

"Also, it's possible, I think, that some key component of human language (like FOX2P or Bickerton's abstraction capacity) can be traced back to a single mutation that spread, but that language itself evolved later and independent in various humans."

Why would the mutation spread? Because it would confer some sort of advantage. It's likely that language itself was that advantage. I'm thinking that a bearer of such a mutation would also have been a bearer of language, and the two would spread together. Since the mutation likely arose once, language may also have arisen only once.

I'm kind of skeptical of the idea that language could have arisen as a side effect of a mutation some time after a mutation had spread. To spread it would have needed to be beneficial, and what other benefit could it have conferred? Language seems like such a complicated, narrowly specific thing.

I mean, it's not impossible that language was a side effect of some other adaptation. Perhaps I'm wrong to be so skeptical of this.

Chris said...

Glossy, again you make a fair point. A mutation should not spread "just 'cause." But I could imagine advantages that are non-linguistic per se. For example, if Bickerton is right (his theory is highly speculative, but intriguing) then the crucial factor that led to language was a cognitive ability to abstract. I could imagine this abstraction ability to be advantageous without directly leading to language right away.

And skepticism is a generally admirable trait, especially wrt language evolution.