Academia, unlike every other sector of our culture, has apparently been considered too dull and esoteric to merit a reality show, but now there’s a natural vehicle: evolutionary linguistics, an emerging field awash in colorful personalities, wacky experiments and enough conflict to carry several seasons. Don’t let the name throw you; the scientists who study the origins of language are a passionate, fractious bunch, and you don’t have to be an egghead to be tantalized by the questions that drive their research: how and when did we learn to speak, and to what extent is language a uniquely human attribute? Call the show “American Babble.”
In this field, physical evidence is scarce — language, except in its written form, leaves no trace — and scholarly clout depends on a capacity for ingenious inference and supposition. Christine Kenneally, a linguistics Ph.D. turned journalist, shrewdly begins “The First Word,” her account of this new science, with candid portraits of several of its most influential figures. Appropriately, the first chapter is devoted to Noam Chomsky, whose ideas have dominated linguistics since the late 1950s, and who, as Kenneally reports, has been hailed as a genius on a par with Einstein and disparaged as the leader of a “cult” with “evil side effects.”
According to Chomsky, humans are born with the principles of grammar hard-wired in their brains, enabling them, from an early age and without formal instruction, to construct an infinite variety of sentences from a finite number of words. Moreover, Chomsky has suggested, language is a peculiarly human phenomenon, a trait so remarkable that evolutionary theory is virtually helpless to explain it. “It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected,” he wrote in 1988. “In the case of such systems as language ... it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them.” Chomsky’s impatience with the question of language’s origins effectively squelched inquiry into the subject for decades. (In a sense, Kenneally notes, such considerations had been taboo for much longer: although Darwin noted similarities between human speech and sounds made by monkeys and birds, and speculated that language “has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps,” by the mid-1870s the linguistic societies of Paris and London had formally banned all discussion of evolution.)
Lately, however, Chomsky’s grip on the field has loosened, thanks to half a dozen or so determined upstarts, among them his former student Philip Lieberman, who has mined the human brain for evidence that language evolved from organs, like the basal ganglia, that we share with many other species; the primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught a bonobo named Kanzi the comprehension skills of a toddler; and the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, an early champion of the notion that Chomskyan theory is compatible with Darwinian axioms.
In 1989, Pinker and a graduate student named Paul Bloom wrote a paper in which they argued that “language is no different from other complex abilities, such as echolocation or stereopsis,” and that “the only way to explain the origin of such abilities is through the theory of natural selection.” Just as the eye — an organ of breathtaking complexity and specialization — evolved incrementally through the combined effects of random mutations and natural selection over millions of years, so, too, Pinker and Bloom insisted, did language. The authors were invited to present their paper at M.I.T., where Pinker was then a professor, and they learned that Chomsky had agreed to serve as a commentator. Kenneally quotes Bloom on his reaction to this news: “I was absolutely terrified. ... Chomsky is utterly merciless in debate.”
In the end, Chomsky failed to show (apparently he had back trouble), and Pinker and Bloom went on to publish their paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a leading scientific journal, where it appeared along with comments from 31 scientists, including one who titled his endorsement “Liberation!” “From that point on,” Kenneally writes, “more and more researchers felt that studying the origin and evolution of language was a legitimate academic inquiry.”
Liberation has frequently taken a creative form. Lieberman compared the language and motor skills of Parkinson’s patients with those of climbers on Mount Everest. Both groups suffered damage to their basal ganglia: in the first case because of disease, in the second because of oxygen deprivation. Lieberman discovered that the higher the climbers went, the more difficulty they had forming speech — a complicated motor skill — and understanding sentences.One climber displayed such alarming deficits that Lieberman’s research team, which was monitoring the man by radio link, urged him to descend. He refused and several days later fell to his death. It turned out that the man had failed to properly attach his safety harness. The conclusion Lieberman drew from his study — that the basal ganglia, which in animals regulate motor skills, are also crucial for controlling human speech and thought — suggests how such an accident might have occurred. As Kenneally puts it: “It appears that the lack of oxygen supply to the basal ganglia affected the climber’s ability to follow the basic sequence of clipping and unclipping.”
Alas, just as the science gets interesting, Kenneally inexplicably loses her way. She notes that more than a thousand studies on language evolution have been published since 1990, and she seems determined to cite as many as possible. Much of what she describes is fascinating: “gesture researchers” who train hidden cameras on apes in order to capture their repertoires of “muzzle wipes” and hand signals; neuroscientists who recently isolated the first gene known to play a role in communication; and a British linguist who studies the evolution of language by creating computer models in which a population of virtual humans must learn to communicate. But as a whole her book feels disjointed and repetitious, weighed down by superfluous details and lacking a narrative line that could braid the various strands together.
Paradoxically, as Kenneally points out, much of the research suggests that both Chomsky and his adversaries have it at least partially right: on the one hand, humans are uniquely gifted at language; on the other, many species display behaviors and abilities that are necessary for language, and share, to an extent previously thought impossible, our neuroanatomy. No one knows precisely when or why we began to speak, but it seems clear that we developed the capacity in piecemeal fashion rather than in a single, momentous leap.
Kenneally cites the work of Tecumseh Fitch, an evolutionary biologist who discovered that the human larynx, which lies low in the throat, allowing us to make a range of vowel and consonant sounds, is not the unique organ many researchers had assumed. Fitch found that animals like lions and koalas also have a descended larynx, and, equally important, he showed that bigger animals have deeper voices. The reason we evolved a descended larynx, he argues, has less to do with language than with the advantages that come with size. As Kenneally puts it, “If you hear a competitor wooing the female you are interested in, and you can tell from his voice alone that he is much bigger than you, slinking away without direct confrontation makes the most evolutionary sense.”
In 2002, Fitch and Marc Hauser, another prominent evolutionary biologist, wrote a landmark paper with Chomsky, in which they acknowledged some of the recent work on the origins of language and defined the uniquely human aspect of language quite narrowly, as recursion (the capacity to embed phrases inside one another, as in “the woman reading the book about the ape who threw the carrot that the trainer had washed in the morning before arriving at the lab to...”). Three years later, when, at a symposium on the evolution of language, Chomsky was asked what he thought about the field, he remarked, “I wouldn’t have guessed it could go so far.”