Exploring W. Tecumseh Fitch’s The Evolution of Language

2019 July image of book cover The Evolution of Language

As part of my professional training as a tutor and tutor supervisor, I’m taking an online course called the Isakson Literacy Program. The purpose of the program is to teach students how to break into the seemingly locked language vault of any textbook, but especially a complex textbook. I have an assignment to apply a “Launch” and “Met Purpose” practice to a textbook I’m reading. Truth: I don’t really know if the book I’m reading is a textbook. It’s certainly set up like one, and I can imagine its use in an advanced linguistics classroom. The name of the book is The Evolution of Language, by W. Tecumseh Fitch. It is truly a complex book. But it’s growing on me.

The last step of this part of the literacy practice is to take action(s) to confirm to myself that in the course of reading I met my purposes. Writing about a new idea is the best practice I have for confirming I’m approaching understanding of a topic.

Before I “launched” into Section 1 of the book, I laid out my purposes as questions. I wrote down 11 questions I had, based on an earlier practice that required I skim the chapter and “snatch” what I supposed would be predictably important questions, explanations, terms, goals of the book, etc. One of the ways the course suggests I confirm to my satisfaction that I’d met my purposes (or answered my questions) was to participate in a study group. But I’m not in a course, so I have no cohort or study group. I’m on my own journey to explore the nature of language and its effects upon the quality of human cognition and human life and answer the question, Is human language a man-made environment?

So, will you, dear readers, those of you who are interested in language and have such patience with my fixation on the subject, be my study group?
Here are 7 of my 11 questions, the ones I’m most interested in. These questions cover ONLY Section 1 of the text. Please discuss, ask questions, or pose challenges. If you participate, you’ll probably notice that some of the questions I ask and the answers I pull from the text will not only apply to language’s evolution, but also to discussion of nearly any topic. Note: Fitch’s home discipline is biology, so he tilts the lens that direction. This makes sense for a lot of reasons, but I just thought you ought to know.

1) Why has it been often suggested that tracing the evolution of human language is considered “the hardest problem in science”?

Many sciences roll on wheels of empiricism: observable conditions, measurable effects, etc.—i.e., on sense experience and evidence. As Fitch notes, we can build theories about the evolution of species and extinction patterns from fossils, studies of matrix strata, etc. But strictly speaking, language has not left a fossil record of its development. We can’t examine its adaptive elements (what made it grow and change) empirically or make close, direct observations of critical developments in language evolution. As a result, Fitch says, many scientists dismiss the possibility of constructing a meaningful theory of language evolution and have “concluded that scientists might spend their time more constructively on tractable topics” (p. 14).

2) If it’s the hardest problem in science, and no direct empirical route into the problem exists, how can we solve it?

Fitch points out that many “legitimate pursuits” in science have appeared inhibited by their being “several steps removed from the direct, conclusive evidence we might desire” (p. 14). Examples: the Big Bang and the origin of life. Thus, the difficulty of having no empirical evidence to discover and examine hardly disqualifies the problem of language evolution from legitimate pursuit.

The real problem, he says, is that constructing a language evolution theory will require “insights in multiple, independent disciplines which lack a shared framework of terminology, problems, and approaches” (p. 14). But current discussion on language evolution as it exists is beleaguered with problems of meaning. Fitch notes that the idea of “meaning” itself remains a problematic subject in philosophy and linguistics (p. 14). As a result, the study of the evolution of language has become something of a Tower of Babel (my words, characterizing Fitch’s description). While Fitch is “optimistic” that the hardest problem in science can be solved, he says,

My optimism is tempered by a depressing sociological realization: the very breadth of difficulty of the problems often invites an amateurish attitude, where the strictures that accompany “normal” science (e.g. hypothesis should be testable, alternative viewpoints enumerated and discussed, and previous scholarly sources must be noted) are lifted. This is sometimes accompanied by a reliance on intuition and presumption, unsupported by rational argument, or by passionate denouncements of other ideas (often based on misinterpretation) masquerading as “debate” (p. 16).

To support this point, Fitch quotes Langer’s dictum:

The chance that the key ideas of any professional scholar’s work are pure nonsense is small; much greater the chance that a devastating refutation is based on a superficial reading or even a distorted one, subconsciously twisted by a desire to refute.

All this, of course, adds an interesting layer to “the hardest problem in science”—problems that the language we use about language pose. This dilemma is hardly restricted to science, but it’s one that interests me.

3) What “comparative, pluralistic approach” does Fitch propose for solving not only this hardest problem in science but the almost equally intractable problem of people in the discussion not sharing a common framework of terminology, approaches, or problems?

Fitch proposes a “multi-component approach,” because language is a complex system, reliant on “several independent sub-systems” (p. 17). His comparative route includes biological viewpoints, i.e., comparing elements of animal communications systems with human language. He says, “biology can provide solid empirical anchors for linguistic approaches….” His personal background in biology forms the basis of his own training, and he feels able to engage in “critical judgment in this area” (p. 17).

He will not approach language as a “monolithic whole,” as he believes many linguists tend to. Independent subsystems will help demonstrate that “Although no other species possesses language as a whole, many species share important subcomponents” (p. 18). I find this approach valuable, as the fact that human language shares important subcomponents with animal communication systems often leads people to leap to the conclusion that animals communicate just like we do, when, in fact, they don’t. The fact that animal communication is not like human language may be key to finding evolutionary departures where human language, as Bickerton puts it, made some kind of prison break from the confines of animal communication systems.

Fitch isn’t the first one to note that animal communication differs in critical ways from human language; Bickerton offers his explanation for the differences in Adam’s Tongue, George Steiner remarks on the key difference between animal communication and human language, and others have made legitimate arguments based on empirical evidence. Nevertheless, the fact that human language shares subcomponents with other species can provide valid ground for exploring both similarities and differences, possibly leading to discovery of beaten evolutionary paths in the development of language.

4) What are the broad (FLB) and narrow (FLN) senses of the word “language,” as Fitch proposes to apply them, and how will these distinctions help de-cloud the debate surrounding the evolution of language?

Fitch believes that a big part of problems muddying the waters of the evolution of language debate arise from confusion over what is and isn’t language: on what’s language and what’s communication. So he proposes a possibly valuable set of distinctions to help clarify the discussion. The faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB) takes in “all of the mechanisms involved in language acquisition and use” which humans often share with animals.” The faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN), refers to those language capacities “unique to humans and special to language” (p. 22). Fitch hopes that these terms will help people discussing language clarify what aspects of language they’re talking about, and what others are talking about, de-babelifying (yeah, I know—just made the word up) the debate.

Defining terms should be an important part of any discussion. While completely avoiding misunderstanding or misrepresentation of others’ meaning often approaches, and sometimes goes beyond, the level of impossible, taking time to understand what people mean by the words they use will help reduce the number of talking points where confusion might erupt.

As an aside, Fitch says that no subcomponent of language is unique to humans—humans operate on a language component combo that other animals don’t use and perhaps lack the ability to use.

So, FLB=all mechanisms involved in language; FLN=the subset of mechanisms unique to humans and to language (p. 22).

5) How does Fitch distinguish between language and communication?

As per FLB and FLN, not all communication is language. Fitch says, “All animals communicate…[and] all of [their] fascinating systems of communication, and many others, have been termed ‘language,” but…none of [those fascinating systems of communication] are [language]” (p. 25). This is because, where humans are concerned, “language represents and communicates meaning in a different, and much more flexible and detailed, way that these other systems” (p. 25-26). For Fitch, the hallmarks of language are the “combination of unlimited specificity of meaning, combined with a free flexibility to use language in novel ways” (p. 26).

Fitch is definitely an member of the Human Language Is Special Club.

6) According to Fitch, what is the source of limitations on animal “language”?

Fitch doesn’t say specifically in Section 1 but argues that “our best current evidence suggests that no other living species has a communication system that allows it to do what we humans do all the time: to represent and communicate arbitrary novel thoughts, at any desired level of detail” (p. 26). This isn’t because animals simply can’t learn (i.e., it isn’t that they aren’t smart enough to learn). Fitch postulates that the animals’ inability to learn and apply language with human variety and creativity suggests “some deeper limitations, with a powerful biological basis that is not easily overridden” (p. 26). Derek Bickerton would say that the communications systems they already have accomplishes everything they need for genetic success and the spinning of their genetic tales into the future. They don’t need anything else, so they haven’t developed anything else.

7) How does Fitch resolve the “Nature v. Nurture” debate?

Fitch calls the “Nature v. Nurture” dichotomy dangerously misleading, “one of the most persistently fruitless debates in science.” He resolves it by saying, like Bickerton does, that language acquisition and facility arises from both nature and nurture. Like Bickerton, Fitch acknowledged the role niche construction plays in language. He approaches the role of niche construction in human language development via the concept of epigenesis, an interactive “nature via nurture” system that includes interplay between cells and local environments in the body during development, and then, at birth, outside of it. In epigenesis, the “environment” is both internal to the body, as per this interplay, and external via nutrients, oxygen, etc. He calls the view that “environment” only comprises those systems and characteristics of surroundings that exist outside the body a “hopelessly depauerate view” (p. 28). Fitch says that epigenesis does not end when an organism is born but continues through phenotypic plasticity—the ability of an individual to adapt to patterns of stimuli. Humans, Fitch says, are a generalist species, but “we are specialists in as least one domain: the early and rapid acquisition of language” (p. 29). Ultimately, Fitch proposes that we “are born with instincts to learn,” that learning language is part of that learning instinct, and a perhaps more meaningful way to approach the “is language innate” question would be to ask, “What are the constraints on language learning?” (p. 31).

I’m interested in learning whether Fitch steps more directly into the question, Is language a man-made environment? than Bickerton does. Bickerton says language operates like a niche construction relationship where language is like an environment and the human brain like a species at work constructing and being constructed by its environment, but he stops short of calling language an environment. I’m wondering if, given Fitch’s acknowledgement of process of epigenesis and what the term requires when applying another term, “environment,” he practically locks himself into an understanding that language is, indeed, an environment. Or if, like Bickerton, he draws up short before entering that argument. I would also guess that, if he does step up to the language qua environment model, given his background in biology, he’ll apply a more thoroughly developed model of niche construction to human language than Bickerton does.

10 thoughts on “Exploring W. Tecumseh Fitch’s The Evolution of Language”

  1. First, sorry it has taken me so long to get to this. I have been busy beyond my normal parameters this week.
    Second, as a language dabbler and not a professional, I’m gonna have to do these one at a time if I want to have anything more than drivel, if I rise that high at all, to offer. Even so, I hope that my limited short contributions are not just a waste of time for anyone who reads them.
    Q1. This was the part that really stood out to me as something to examine and comment on.
    “But strictly speaking, language has not left a fossil record of its development.”
    Well, certainly not of the earliest origins and mutations/derivations/changes. But, we DO have recorded history, kinda by definition, to look at, and observe how language has evolved from the early records on through how language is being used today. And just in case I’m failing to explain what I mean sufficiently well … the earliest records that we have were recorded in SOME form of written language, and we can examine how the language used in that record was used. Assuming that the culture that recorded that history has continued, we can then observe any changes in the language, how it was used, when it was used in certain ways, and what concurrent social or historic events were transpiring when those changes happened, and try to examine how those factors caused or influenced the changes in the language or its usage. In circumstances where the culture producing the record no longer survives, we can look at the records at the end of the culture and try to examine what may have brought about the end of the culture, or examine the language and records of the culture that ended or supplanted the other culture and see if their language usage was different or similar. And certainly, as the records get closer to our modern era we can examine more concrete and complete records of language usage and cultural/historical events and how they have impacted each other.
    I would also postulate that, and this is clearly the gospel according to Bill, that while history and culture and such change and move on, that human nature itself is relatively constant. Our ancestors, had they been born in our day and age, would have behaved quite like we do … as a whole. They would have had the same basic desires, survival, desire for comfort, love, entertainment etc. Conversely, had we been born back when they lived, we would likely have behaved much as they did, being raised in the cultural and environmental setting that they were. So, I theorize that we can, with at least a minimum amount of success, look at changes in language usage/historical events, and to the extent that we are able to get outside of our own cultural training and biases, make some guesses as to how the changes in society at that time may have affected the language of the time, and how the use of language may have impacted the history.
    We can also look at how language usage and culture and history interact with each other in our own day, and construct some rudimentary tools for theorizing about how they interacted in the past. Will these things be perfect? Of course not, but through trial and error, and rigorous examination from others poking and probing at what we CAN examine, we can make at least minimal headway … or so I believe.

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    1. Bill said, “Q1. This was the part that really stood out to me as something to examine and comment on.
      “But strictly speaking, language has not left a fossil record of its development.”
      Well, certainly not of the earliest origins and mutations/derivations/changes. But, we DO have recorded history, kinda by definition, to look at, and observe how language has evolved from the early records on through how language is being used today. And just in case I’m failing to explain what I mean sufficiently well … the earliest records that we have were recorded in SOME form of written language, and we can examine how the language used in that record was used.”

      This was my first reaction, too. Fitch sounded as though he were making a sweeping claim about language’s development, and we have all these written records extending from, so far, about 3300 B.C., and linguists certainly do have a field day comparing changes and patterns of development based on these written language. However, as I read further, I think I came to understand why he said this.

      First, Fitch distinguishes between language and communication. “Communication” encompasses all elements of expressive behaviors as a whole, from signalling (including body functions and body warning signals) to a range of non-verbal vocalizations, to other cognitive capacities that many species of animals employ to get their points across. He labels this broad category of expression, “Faculty of Language in a Broad Sense” (FLB). Most of these manners of expression have been around since well before written language and are still employed today among all living species, including humankind. When most linguists and biologists talk about the systems animals use to communicate, they refer to them as “animal communication systems” (ACS). Scientists typically don’t talk about ACS as “language,” except in the very broadest sense where “language” may be considered synonymous with “communication.”

      However, humankind is unique in how Fitch says it combines several subcomponents of communication to create something the likes of which does not exist in any other species. I don’t know yet what subcomponents Fitch sees as exclusively forming human language, but whatever they are, not only have other species not put together the same combo but evidence points toward the fact that they can’t, probably because of biological obstacles that prevent their re-inventing that special combo or even of imitating it when exposed to it through consant human contact. Human language is in a class all its own, and Fitch calls it the Faculty of Language in the Narrow Sense (FLN). FLN contains those elements of communication “unique to humans and special to language.”

      When Fitch says we don’t have a fossil history of language, he’s referring specifically to FLN, or human language.

      Okay, so why is that distinction important? Because the record we have of written language, and that could at least metaphorically be called a “fossil record,” occurred after language made the quantum leap from FLB to FLN. We have frogs today, and we even have evolutionary records (empirical evidence) of frogs showing divergence or changes in morphology or coloring or behavior during previous centuries. But we also have a fossil history (again, empirical evidence) of how frogs became frogs as they developed from an earlier form of amphibian.

      So prehistorically, early ancestors to humankind probably at some point developed one ACS or the other, like they must have evolved other critical characteristics and ploys for survival. But back then, early human ancestors, like other critters, only had FLB, or ACS. Derek Bickerton certainly thinks this the case, and his book predates Fitch’s by a year. Humans are still fully capable of communication with each other and with other animals by FLB. But this is not “language” as Fitch thinks of it, and it is not the core problem central to the question, How did language evolve?–nor is it language as Bickerton thinks of it, or even Charles Taylor. The problem is not, What is the evolutionary history of language as written language shows us?” The problem is how we got from FLB that many species have–even “primitive” ones–to the narrower and unique FLN that has more or less contributed to humans evolving faster than any other species on the planet.

      Spoken FLB predates written FLN by hundreds of thousands of years. Written language, of course, caused its own kind of revolution around 3300 B.C. But what happened in the interim between the development of FLB and FLN, and well before written language appeared on the scene? What happened in FLB that among humans caused it to suddenly develop characteristics uniquely comprising FLN, an “autocatalytic process,” as Bickerton calls it? How did humans do what Steiner and Bickerton call escape the limitations of ACS/FLB to explode onto the scene with FLN? We have no empirical evidence–evidence directly available to the senses–to tell us. This is Fitch’s point.

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      1. Also, about this: “I would also postulate that, and this is clearly the gospel according to Bill, that while history and culture and such change and move on, that human nature itself is relatively constant. Our ancestors, had they been born in our day and age, would have behaved quite like we do … as a whole. They would have had the same basic desires, survival, desire for comfort, love, entertainment etc.”

        This is intuitive thinking, and while some elements of human nature have remained constant–in my opinion, for instance, the “animal mean” is still active in human nature generally–I think at least Pinker would not agree with you, probably not Bickerton, definitely not the physicist David Deutsch, George Steiner, Wittgenstein, Charles Taylor, and a host of others. Language (FLN) alone probably changed human nature dramatically, and the linguists/philosophers/human behavioralists who study language have developed careful arguments for saying so. Also, Pinker proposes that for most of history (and prehistory), humankind operated on the animal mean model–“might makes right.” However, literacy and laws began to develop a few centuries back, resulting in a shift away from the animal mean. That is, FLN began to move away from the animal mean and toward the Golden Rule. The change has been slow, and not all cultures have stepped up to it, but where the change has occurred, it has been dramatic. This journey continues and was unlikely to have even started if humans, like animals, had remained trapped in ACS/FLB.

        My point here is to demonstrate understanding of Fitch’s ideas, but Bickerton, Pinker, Taylor, etc. have heavily influenced me over the last 10 years. I can’t help but drag them in for comparison.

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  2. “The problem is how we got from FLB that many species have–even “primitive” ones–to the narrower and unique FLN that has more or less contributed to humans evolving faster than any other species on the planet.”

    OK, THAT is a much harder to trace phenomenon AND surely has no accessible fossil record. (Gee, my “F” key sure seems reluctant to cooperate) So, I think, a more accurate or complete observation might be we don’t have a complete fossil record, or a record of the timeline that we need for understanding that particular conundrum.

    However, as I understand it, and I may be crossing the line between science fact and fiction, some o the higher apes ARE making progress there, and Dolphins seem to have some rudimentary progress as well. Perhaps studying their movement through this phase will help understand our own.

    Sorry again for the tardy response. Finding the time to access this in a serious and deliberative fashion is not getting any easier.

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    1. First, “finding the time to engage in a serious and deliberative fashion … not getting any easier.” Same here. But it is nice to have someone to talk to about this passage from The Evolution of Language. I’m grateful for your willingness to take the deep dive.

      Second, this: “So, I think, a more accurate or complete observation might be we don’t have a complete fossil record, or a record of the timeline that we need for understanding that particular conundrum.”

      The question as Fitch presents it is, How did language evolve? Fitch uses the word “language” in a very narrow sense to mean the faculty of language in the narrow sense–i.e., as humans use it.

      I agree that language is still evolving. Not just in manners of expression, but in how vocabulary has become increasingly fluid and changeable, and in kinds of language currently in use within a given language group. I think that instrumental language has reigned supreme for most of human history–not a surprise, because it enables survival–but another kind has evolved more slowly alongside of it that shows up mostly in the sciences and arts.

      That said, given the very narrow definition of language as Fitch uses it–and admittedly, he hasn’t come quite clear on that definition yet–the question is not, How did language, as a whole, evolve to what it has become at this point in time. His questions seems to be, How did the evolution of function of language in the narrow sense happen?

      The distinction is, perhaps, subtle, but important to understanding his focus. He’s all about definitions, since without clear definitions and distinctions–lacking, as we do, a fossil record of how FLB became FLN–the language we use to discuss language becomes dysfunctional.

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  3. Now, for this: “However, as I understand it, and I may be crossing the line between science fact and fiction, some o the higher apes ARE making progress there, and Dolphins seem to have some rudimentary progress as well. Perhaps studying their movement through this phase will help understand our own.”

    What Bickerton calls “human intervention” has resulted in some animals learning signs. But these signs are very limited in range (FLB but not FLN). Also, since repeated experiments from 1910 to today show that “chimpanzees raised in close contact with humans have universally failed to speak, or even try to speak, despite rapid progress in many other intellectual and motor domains” (p. 14), these experiments and others strongly suggest an underlying biological obstacle to animals acquiring FLN.

    Here’s another quote from Fitch on this subject:

    Despite their greater abilities in the non-vocal channel, however, such “language-trained” apes still plateau at a relatively modest level, with a small productive vocabulary of a few hundred symbols and very simple rules for combining vocabulary items that are dwarfed by a five-year-old child. Perhaps most tellingly, such apes mainly use their system to make requests for food or tickles. Unlike ahuman child, who seems to possess a drive to name the world, to express their inner world, via questions, stories, and make-believe worlds, even the most sophisticated language-trained apes would make boring conversationalists. This is not because they have nothing to say: research on chimpanzee cognition reveals a complex and sophisticated mental world. Apes use tools insightfully, draw inferences about other individuals based on what they have and have not seen, solve novel problems on the first go based on causal reasoning, and in general would, one supposes, have plenty to talk about if they felt like it. For some reason, they don’t. (pp. 14-15)

    Some linguists and theorists of other kinds propose this is because animals are very much present in the moment. So present in the moment as to be trapped in “the prison of the here and now” (Bickerton).

    To bring in Bickerton for a moment, when it comes to language that helps solve survival problems, animals are indeed on a continuum with humans: “[T]he capacities of nonhuman animals do indeed form a continuum with those of humans when it comes to solving physical problems in the real world” (Adam’s Tongue, p. 196). However, Bickerton says, “The question is not whether animals can solve problems–they obviously can–but whether they have concepts that they can summon at will and manipulate so as to manage, and thus produce, novel behaviors” (Adam’s Tongue, p. 197). The reason they can’t? Because evolution is about survival, and ACS (with FLB) is tied to surviving the moment. Anyone who’s been out in nature and witnessed the nitty-gritty of animal competition can see (and possibly experience firsthand) that condition. Bickerton says in his book More Than Nature Needs that animals haven’t developed the dimension human language has because what they already have has sufficed for survival.

    Here’s a quote from the literary critic George Steiner, as presented in John D. Niles’ book on oral narrative, Homo Narrans:

    Language is naively regarded as a way of imitating or describing the
    world. As George Steiner has maintained, it also fulfils a precisely
    opposite function: “Language is the main instrument of man’s refusal
    to accept the world as it is. Without that refusal, without the unceasing
    generation of the mind of ‘counterworlds’—a generation which cannot
    be divorced from the grammar of counter-factual and adaptive forms—we
    would turn forever on the treadmill of the present. Reality would be (to
    use Wittgenstein’s phrase in an illicit sense), ‘all that is the case’ and
    nothing more. Ours is the ability, the need, to gainsay or ‘un-say’ the
    world, to image and speak it otherwise” (1975:218). Whether we regard
    the life of art as one version of the vita contemplativa—a love affair with
    the Other, the absent object of our bemused imaginings—or as one
    version of the vita activa—“a form of resistance to the imperfection of
    reality” (Brodsky 1992:221), it is a species-specific human activity.

    In my own experience with a wide range of animals, from childhood through adulthood thus far, animal language appears to be quite different from human language, except in the FLB senses where common characteristics of communication overlap, especially in immediate physical circumstances. Animals can use tools, as do humans, but human language does more than simply solve problems in the present in the physical world via tool use, including the tool we call language. But somewhere in the human past–in that area where we have no fossil record–human language jumped off the treadmill of the present and began engaging in the construction of “counterworlds.” Animals have yet to manage that leap.

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