A review of the book Why Only Us: Language and Evolution by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky.
Everybody knows, or used to know, that only men speak. Animals make noise, but men make words. A tweet or a bellow is not a language—though a bellowing tweet is. Why?
The standard classical answer—an answer that is not incompatible with the central thesis of Berwick and Chomsky that man is unique—is that man is different in essence than every other animal. What they might not hold with is the proposition that man is possessed of, among other things, a rational soul. He also is equipped with a sensitive soul, just like other animals. Yet man is an entirely different creature.
Saying man alone among other animals possess a rational soul is not an thorough explanation for why only us. Why can’t otters, say, or crows or dolphins also possess a rational soul? After all, if evolution via some physio-environmental-chemical process is what “created” animals, and man is partly an animal, why can’t this physio-environmental-chemical process cause, or has caused, more animals to posses rationality? (Saying evolution is not to name the process.)
The answer is that those parts of us that comprise our rationality, our intellects and will, are not made of physical stuff; they are immaterial. (The proof of this can be found in many places.) Accepting that, even for the sake of argument, means that a physio-environmental-chemical process cannot account for those parts of us which are rational, for the very simple reason that physio-environmental-chemical processes cannot affect non-material substances.
So we are not here because of evolution; or, rather, not wholly. Some physio-environmental-chemical process could have (and I think did) brought us to the point at which our frames were sufficiently able to interact with non-material intellects and wills. But at the point some Higher Power must necessarily have intervened.
It’s not likely Berwick and Chomsky would agree with this explanation. They argue that some physio-environmental-chemical process created all animals, including us, and including those parts of us that create and process speech—and they assume, but of course cannot prove, also those parts that comprehend speech.
In search of this, much of the book is given over to anatomical discussion of neural pathways, brain structures, and so on. We see pictures of the dorsal pathway “Part of the AF/SLF connecting to precentral premotor cortex” in humans, chickens, macaques, etc. Lots of supposition where in the brain noise-making and noise-recognition is processed. About how it all works they say their guesses are “necessarily speculative because we do not really know how the Basic Property is actually implemented in neural circuitry.” This non-answer is satisfactory for the philosophical reader, but obviously won’t be for the biological one. I’ll not say anything more about physiology, as I’m in the philosophical camp. I also won’t here discuss what they call the Darwinian “Modern Synthesis”, “fitness”, about which they are critical, and “random” and “fully stochastic” evolution, and the like except to say “random” or “stochastic” are not substitutes for cause.
We are unique. There have been they say eight major transitions of lifeforms “ranging from the origin of DNA to sexuality to the origin of language—six, including language, appear to have been unique evolutionary events confined to a single lineage” (emphasis added). We don’t have to agree with what process caused these events to agree with this observation. Quoting Ernst Mayer about our uniqueness, “Nothing demonstrates the improbability of the origin of high intelligence better than the millions of … lineages that failed to achieve it” (ellipsis original).
Evolution (by whatever process) is punctuated, even in the genus homo. “What we do not see is any kind of ‘gradualism’ in new tool technologies like fire, shelters, or figurative art.” Examples in animals of “instantaneous” phenotypic change are also noted.
Only certain birds, they say, come anywhere close to us, but even that distance is unbridgeable. The most advanced birdsound is not a language; neither are any other animals sounds languages.
Human language has these key properties: “(1) human language syntax is hierarchical, and is blind to considerations reserved for externalization; (2) the particular hierarchical structures associated with sentences affects their interpretation; and (3) there is no upper bound on the depth of relevant hierarchical structure.” These structures aren’t found in any other animal sounds. “Linear processing,” which is found, “does not even come close to being adequate for human language.” There are “plenty of animal communication systems. But they are all radically different from human language structure and function. Human language does not even fit within the standard typologies of animal communications systems…” These terms are all explained and defended at length, leaving no doubt about our uniqueness.
True, other primates communicates, for instance as we do by gesture, “but this is not language, since, as Burling notes, ‘our surviving primate communication system remains sharply distinct from language.'”
In a “for whatever it is worth” aside a fundamental truth is revealed: “the overwhelming use of language is internal—for thought. It takes an enormous act of will to keep from talking to oneself in every waking moment—and asleep as well, often a considerable annoyance.”
This hints at why language is necessary. They echo neurologist Harry Jerison who thought language necessary “for the construction of a real world.” How else do you name the animals? Tattersall agrees there was a sudden “innovation” in homo sapiens that accounted for language (ellipses original) “a neural change … in some population of the human lineage … rather minor in genetics terms [which] probably had nothing whatever to do with adaptation”.
In this adaption (they say) “there is no room in this picture for any precursors to language…There is no rationale for positing such a system: to go from seven-word sentences to the discrete infinity of human language requires emergence of the same recursive procedure as to go from zero to infinity, and there is of course no direct evidence of for such ‘protolanguages’.”
Berwick and Chomsky emphasize “that language is optimized for the system of thought, with mode of externalization secondary.” We think first and talk second. The natural question is why, especially since no physio-environmental-chemical process could have brought this about. Something else must have.