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.