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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pom-Pom Journalism of the Mainstream Science Writers

There is a certain viewpoint about US Presidents and military actions that cheerleaders for the President and the military like to present. The viewpoint is a kind of rose-colored viewpoint that is highly idealized. Below are some of the ideas that we might find in such a viewpoint.
  1. The President of the US always acts as a benevolent or fair figure who metes out kindness or justice to foreign nations.
  2. If a US president ever decides to take military action against a foreign nation, it is because he was forced into such an action, and such a nation (or people in it) deserved such a response.
  3. The US president never authorizes or continues military actions mainly or largely because such actions might benefit himself, his friends, or his party.
  4. Once the US military has been ordered to engage in military action, they engage in this violent activity with great reluctance, and take great care to minimize enemy deaths and civilian deaths.
  5. The military acts to keep any military engagement as brief as possible, and keep US soldier deaths to a minimum.

But sadly a great deal of historical evidence argues against this idealized outlook, and favors a more realistic outlook. If you take a close historical examination of the US military actions in places such as Vietnam, Iraq, Cambodia, and the Philippines, you might adopt a very different perspective with some of these ideas:

  1. The President of the US often initiates or continues military action largely for selfish reasons, to benefit himself, his campaign donors, or his political party – partially to make himself look strong or decisive or heroic, in a way that improves his election prospects, and partially to help corporate interests that may contribute to his re-election campaign.
  2. A US president may decide to order US military force when no such action is forced on him, and no such action is deserved by the nation that suffers from the military action.
  3. Once they are ordered into action, a very tiny fraction of the soldiers in the US military may proceed with excessive brutality, having little concern for civilian casualties.
  4. Rather than trying to minimize the damage and deaths in the country under attack, some untypical members of the military may attempt with relish to maximize such damage and deaths.
  5. In some cases, members of the US military may act to prolong or escalate a war, for doubtful reasons such as vengeance, achieving a more resounding victory, terrifying the enemy into subjugation, proving the prowess of particular weapon systems, or justifying the sacrifice of those already dead.
  6. Some untypical officers in the military may recommend particular attacks for dubious reasons such as winning medals, getting promotions, demonstrating their executive prowess, or testing their pet theories.

There is a great contrast between these two viewpoints. Just as it possible to view the activity of the US president and the military in two very different ways (one idealized and another more realistic), it is possible to view the activities of scientists in two different ways: one viewpoint that is very idealized and another viewpoint that is much more realistic. It is much more common for people to be exposed to the idealized, rose-colored viewpoint about scientific activity. Below are some of the ideas of this viewpoint:

  1. Scientists are people who judge truth in the same disinterested and dispassionate way that judges or jurors consider court cases.
  2. A scientist's statements on a scientific question are always dictated entirely by the relevant facts, and such statements are not heavily influenced by the scientist's ideology or by selfish considerations having to do with the scientist's economic interests or career prospects.
  3. Scientists are very careful about only making statements that are warranted by facts and observations.
  4. When a theory gains popularity among scientists, it is always because a great mass of evidence has accumulated showing that such a theory is very probably true.
  5. Unlike people in religion, scientists do not believe on the basis of authority.

The viewpoint above is a kind of an idealized rose-colored viewpoint that puts scientists on a pedestal, and attributes to them a kind of intellectual virtue that few humans have. There is a more realistic viewpoint you can have about scientists and scientific activity. Below are some of the ideas of that viewpoint:

  1. While most of the assertions of scientists are well supported by observations or evidence, it is also very common for scientists to assert claims that are not well supported by observations and evidence, particularly speculative theories that have gradually spread among scientist communities through a kind of bandwagon effect, a social contagion effect.
  2. Scientists often describe as “science” or “scientific” doubtful claims that are not actually science in the strictest sense, because they have not been well established by observations or experiments.
  3. Because there are very strong financial and professional penalties for being a “renegade” scientist who disagrees with the majority on some topic, scientists are under strong peer-pressure to conform to community norms of belief, even when such norms are unwarranted.
  4. Conformism and yielding to authority are very strong factors influencing scientific assertions, with scientists being under great pressure to conform to the opinions of revered scientific authority figures, living and dead.
  5. There is great overconfidence and hubris among many scientists, who often claim to understand things they don't understand, partially because such assertions enhance their prestige or the prestige of their group, making it appear they have a topic mastery that is not actually possessed.
  6. There are many problems in current science practice, including excessive jargon and obfuscation, research results that very often are never reproduced, and excessive hype of marginal results.

To do intelligent science journalism, a writer should at least occasionally take a viewpoint like the second of these viewpoints. Such a viewpoint involves some of the sociological insight that is needed for realistic analysis. But such a critical perspective is very rarely taken by our mainstream science writers, who seem to almost always be taking “looking up from under the pedestal” viewpoints toward the modern scientist. These pom-pom writers seem to act more like cheerleaders than journalists.

Let us imagine a country in which the press reported uncritically the assertions of the government. In this country, each time the leader of a country stated something, it would be reported as gospel truth by the press. In this country when some group of government officials such as a Senate committee came to a decision, the journalists would report that decision as if it were something that could scarcely be doubted. And whenever a president wanted to start a war, the press would publish the White House spin without criticism. Now clearly in such a country the press would not be doing its proper job. The proper job of the press is to not to just report what authorities in power are saying, but to subject such claims to critical scrutiny.

Thankfully we do not live in a country with a press that is a lap-dog to authorities in government. But we do live in a country where the press is pretty much a lap-dog to authorities in academia. Our science writers act like servile handmaidens to professors, treating them with kind of the same reverence that North Korean journalists treat the officials of their government.

Mainstream science writers seem to think that their mission consists of the following:

  1. To get the public interested in science papers that are written in prose that is typically rather boring.
  2. To get people to understand scientific progress that may be written up in some jargon-filled prose that is hard for the layman to understand.

But there are additional important roles that science writers should be undertaking:

  1. To subject the claims of science authorities to critical scrutiny, which may involve sometimes pointing out that the evidence does not back up the claim being made.
  2. To point out inconsistencies, weaknesses, implausibilities or unwarranted assertions in the claims of science authorities, whenever such things occur.

But these two roles are hardly being performed by mainstream science writers, who seem to typically act like cheerleaders, like people no more prone to challenge the pronouncements of authorities than journalists in China or North Korea. 

Let us look at an example of how pom-pom science journalists failed to do their job. A scientific paper was published claiming to have produced evidence for memory traces in the hippocampus. Some mice were trained to fear an electric shock delivered in a particular spot. Then some fancy gizmo was hooked up to their brains, which supposedly delivered a kind of energy burst in some particular area of the brain where the scientists thought the memories were stored. The "fear freezing" behavior of the mice was reported as being different when such a burst was delivered, and the scientists reported this as evidence that parts of the hippocampus contain "contain memory traces for fear-inducing contexts." 

Our pom-pom science journalists reported such a result uncritically. But adequate coverage of this paper would have put such a paper in a proper light by discussing all of the following things:

  • The results were produced testing a number of mice, but the paper doesn't tell us how many mice were tested. If only a few mice were tested, we should have very little confidence in the results.
  • A mouse receiving a burst of energy may freeze not because some previous fear-training memory was activated by the energy, but because the mouse is responding to a novel, unexpected stimulus.
  • The paper was based on judgments of fear-freezing in mice, which is a very subjective thing to judge, the type of thing where an experimenter bias could easily have crept in.
  • The paper was experimenting with mice, but no such results have been produced with humans; so the result may not reveal anything about human memory.  
  • The result suggested by the experiment contradicts the result produced over many years of experiments by Karl Lashley, who did all kinds of experiments testing memories in animals after removing or damaging parts of their brains, and could find no evidence that any particular memory was stored in any particular part of the brain.
  • The leading journal Nature published an article entitled “Brain-manipulation studies may produce spurious links to behavior,” pointing out that shooting energy into one part of a brain (the technique used by the paper) may cause other parts of the brain to fire off, resulting in unpredictable effects.
  • The graphs of the scientific paper show only very small differences between the behavior of the mice that received the burst of energy and those that did not. After 10 or 20 tries, any experimenter could have probably produced such marginal results testing with a meaningless stimulus such as saying the word “Abracadabra,” because of mere chance variations.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

He Tries to Pump Some "Star Wars" Glamour into Panpsychism

In his post “Why Panpsychism is the Jedi Philosophy,” BigThink.com columnist Scott Hendricks starts out by describing the Force, the mysterious cosmic energy source depicted in the Star Wars movies. Here is how Obi-Wan Kenobi first describes the Force in the first Star Wars movie:

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

Yoda the Jedi master of the Force explains it this way: “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us."

After describing the Star Wars depiction of the force, Hendricks says, “There is a name for this philosophy in real life, panpsychism.” But Hendricks errs. The depiction of the Force in the Star Wars movies is not any statement of the philosophy of panpsychism.

Panpsychism is the idea that all matter is to some degree conscious. But the Star Wars idea of the Force is not an idea about matter.  It is an idea about a cosmic energy. No one in the Star Wars movies ever makes the panpsychist claim that all matter is conscious, nor does any such character claim that any nonliving material thing is conscious.

Hendricks incorrectly describes how the Force is depicted in the Star Wars movies. He tells us, “While only some things, notably Force-sensitive characters, can manipulate the Force, every object in the universe appears to be able to interact with the Force.” He provides a link to try to back up this claim, which merely takes us to the first description of the Force in the Star Wars movies:

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

But that quote does not at all back up the claim that “every object in the universe appears to be able to interact with the Force,” an idea never presented in the Star Wars movies. To the contrary, the two quotes above (by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda) tell us that the force is created specifically by living things, not by material things in general. 

Poster of the latest Star Wars movie

In the Star Wars movies, the Force is associated with psychic powers such as telepathy and psychokinesis. The masters of the Force known as Jedi can influence the minds of others through thought suggestion, as Obi-Wan Kenobi does when he gets out of a jam by telepathically influencing the mind of a security guard. A Jedi can also sense distant important events by sensing a disturbance in the Force, as Obi-Wan does when he detects a “great disturbance in the Force” when the Death Star destroys a distant planet. A Jedi can even use the force to move objects such as a light saber. Someone can also use the Force to achieve things he could never normally do, such as when Luke Skywalker uses the Force to help him perform the difficult task of blowing up the Death Star.

None of this has anything to do with panpsychism, and panpsychism is not associated with any claims or beliefs about psychic powers. Panpsychism has never been associated with any types of claims about a cosmic force, mysterious or non-mysterious.

From the table below we can see there is basically nothing that panpsychism has in common with the Star Wars concept of the Force.

Panpsychism Star Wars concept of the Force
Make a claim about matter? Yes No
Claims all matter is conscious? Yes No
Makes a claim about a cosmic energy field? No Yes
Makes a claim about psychic powers (telepathy, psychokinesis)? No Yes
Differentiates between living and non-living things? No Yes (the Force is described as a product of all living things, not all matter)
Suggests some cosmic will? No Yes (“will of the Force” in episode 1)
Associated with post-mortal survival? No Maybe (ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi twice seen)

Although the Star Wars movies tell us nothing about how the Force might relate to life-after-death, the movies hint that there may be such a relation. In Episode 4 we hear the voice of the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker to “use the force.” In Episode 5 we see the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi appearing to Luke Skywalker. In Episode 6 we the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader and Yoda all appearing to Luke Skywalker. Since these were all great masters of the Force, we can infer some relation between the Force and their post-mortal survival.

Hendrick's attempt to glamorize panpsychism by calling it “the Jedi philosphy” is erroneous. If we want to find philosophical ideas that partially mirror the metaphysics of Star Wars, the two below are much better matches:

Vitalism: Vitalism is the idea that there is some mysterious life force involved with all living things. This sounds a little like the claim twice made in the Star Wars movies that the Force is created by all living things.
Spiritualism: Spiritualism is the idea that people survive death, and can communicate with the living. When the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi communicates to Luke Skywalker in Episode 4 and Episode 5 of the Star Wars series, this is very much a fictional expression of the idea of spiritualism. 

Panpsychism is largely an attempt to help deal with the problem that there is no apparent reason why the neurons in a brain could ever generate a mind such as humans have.  The panpsychist kind of tells us that such a thing is not so unthinkable, because every little neuron (and every other little thing) is a tiny bit conscious. The problem is that similar reasoning would lead us to believe that the boulders at the seashore or the trees in the forest have bigger minds than we have, since they have even more material particles than are in our brains.  A better way to deal with the "How could minds arise from brains?" problem is to simply conclude: they don't.  The claim that minds arise from brains has been asserted countless times, but never proven.  There are good reasons for doubting such a claim, as you will sometimes read about on this blog. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why the Origin of Language Is Inexplicable Under Orthodox Assumptions

There are several paradoxes that cast doubt on whether human language and the biology enabling it could have naturally originated through any type of process yet imagined by anthropologists, linguists, or evolutionary biologists.

The “You Can't Start a Language Without a Language” Paradox

Under orthodox assumptions it is extremely difficult to imagine any plausible scenario that might have begun human language. We might perhaps imagine some extraordinary caveman determined to start teaching language to some of his fellow caveman. But how could such an individual ever have even had a thought such as, “I will now start teaching some words to my cavemen pals” when no language yet existed?

We can imagine such a caveman inventing some nouns useful to himself and his other cave dwellers. But in order to get anything like a real language started, you need some rules of grammar. How could rules of grammar ever have been taught to anyone, before a language had appeared? You can't explain a rule of grammar to someone unless you already have a language for the explanation.

In order for a language to get started to any significant extent, it would need to be established in some group larger than some tiny little tribe of 10 or 12 people. If there was any type of government or large social organization, even one consisting of as few as 100 people, then such a government or organization could force all of its members to standardize on some particular language. But it seems that no such government or social organization could ever get started in the first place unless there was already a language existing.

We can summarize such difficulties with the slogan, “You can't start a language without a language.”

The Inferiority of Primitive Speech Paradox

Michael C. Corballis has argued that a hand gesture language existed before human speech. It is indeed true that a very wide variety of signals can be made with human hands. That is demonstrated by the sign language used by the deaf. But the possibility of a hand gesture language does nothing to explain the origin of spoken language. To the contrary, there is a very strong reason why such a possibility makes the origin of spoken language much harder to explain.

The possibility of a hand gesture language creates a large paradox that I may call the IPS paradox. IPS is an acronym standing for Inferiority of Primitive Speech.  I can describe the paradox or difficulty as follows:

  1. Before any spoken language, it would have been possible for humans to communicate fairly effectively and clearly using hand gestures, in which particular words are expressed by particular hand gestures.
  2. If humans first started speaking before developing all the specialized biology needed for clear speaking, they would only have been able to speak in a very unclear and garbled manner, like a modern person trying to speak while holding his tongue against the bottom of his mouth, or trying to speak with a mouth filled with rocks.
  3. Such a primitive mode of oral communication would have been greatly inferior to hand gestures as a mode of communication.
  4. It therefore seems that oral language never could have become established before organisms developed good speech biology like modern humans have, and that there would never have been any gradual progression from primitive, garbled speaking to the type of clear speaking like humans now have.

You can get a better grasp of this difficulty by imagining some time in which a hand gesture language had been established among cavemen. Now, imagine that someone tries to introduce oral language. But it wouldn't have been like someone trying to teach new words by pointing to a rock and saying, “Sog,” or pointing to the sun and saying, “Wof.” It would not have been nice, clear intelligible words like that. Instead, given the non-existence of specialized speech biology, it would have been like someone pointing to one object and saying, “Aaaaa,” where “Aaaaa” is the sound you might make trying to speak the word “rock” while holding your tongue to the bottom of your mouth.

Trying to establish a spoken language under such a limitation would have been effectively impossible. People would not have switched from an effective form of communication (nice, clear, easy-to-understand hand gestures) to a very ineffective form of communication based on garbled, barely intelligible vocalizations. It seems, therefore, that there is no plausible way under orthodox assumptions to explain the natural origin of oral language and the human biology needed for its clear articulation. This is the IPS paradox.

Even if you imagine some lucky individual who was blessed by some random mutation making it easier for him to speak clearly, such a person would have started out in a social group in which he was the only one with such a mutation. You can't get spoken language started with only person in the group being able to speak clearly.

In the graphs below we see a visual representation of the IPS paradox. In the first graph, we see that human speech starts out being much less effective for communication than a hand-gesture language. The second graph depicts a time many thousands of years later, after an anatomical progression which has caused spoken language to become as effective as a hand gesture language. The third graph depicts a time many thousands of years later, after an anatomical progression which has caused spoken language to become more effective than a hand gesture language. The problem is that the tale told by this series of graphs is an unbelievable story. If spoken language had started out being much less effective than hand gestures, primitive humans or their ancestors would never have started using such spoken language, and would have instead kept communicating with hand gestures. 

origin of language

The claim that a hand gesture language would have been much easier to get started than a spoken language is supported by the fact that scientists have succeeded in teaching a gorilla named Koko to communicate with hand gestures, but no one has succeeded in teaching an ape or a monkey anything like a spoken language.

Naturalistic Attempts to Overcome the IPS Paradox

Let us look at some ways you might try to resolve this paradox without straying too much from Darwinian orthodoxy. One possible way out would be to deny the claim that spoken language must have been much less efficient than hand gestures as a communication tool. You might claim that when the first words were spoken perhaps 80,000 years ago, people were able to speak almost as well as we can speak today.

But such a claim can only be made by ignoring the specialized biology humans have that enables speech. This biology is mentioned on page 174 of the book How Language Began by  Daniel L. Everett, who states the following:

The creation of speech requires precise control of more than one hundred muscles of the larynx, the respiratory muscles, the diaphragm, and the muscles between the ribs – our “intercostal muscles”-- and muscles of our mouth and face – our orofactal muscles. The muscle movement required of all these parts during speech is mind-bogglingly complex.

And here Everett is not even mentioning specialized biology in the brain. Stroke victims often lose much of their ability to speak. So there is not only a good deal of the brain specialized to allow speech, but also a good deal of speech-specialized biology in the area around the mouth, throat and lungs. There is no natural reason why humans would have had so much speech-specialized biology when humans first started to speak.

Another way to try to overcome the IPS paradox would be for someone to admit that the first use of spoken language was very ineffective, but to claim that only a tiny use was made of such language. For example, a person might suggest a scenario like this:

80,000 B.C: 99% hand language, 1% spoken language
60,000 B.C: 98% hand language, 2% spoken language
40,000 B.C: 95% hand language, 5% spoken language
20,000 B.C: 50% hand language, 50% spoken language
10,000 B.C: 100% spoken language

The problem with such a scenario is that the very small use of language at the beginning would be insufficient to cause all the biological specializations related to speech. If speech is the only method of communication, there might be some natural selection reason that might cause those who spoke better to survive much longer, resulting in biological specializations over generations favoring speech. But if speech were merely a minor effect completely overshadowed by hand language, then there wouldn't be any major “survival of the fittest” advantage that might be evoked to help explain the appearance of many biological specializations favoring speech. So it seems that a scenario like the one above would be insufficient to explain how human vocalization abilities could ever progress to the point that spoken language could become as effective as hand language.

The “Too Hard for a Language-Improvement Mutation Achieving Fixation” Paradox

We should not at all reduce the origin of language problem to the mere problem of explaining the origin of a non-physical language. The broader problem includes two things: (1) the origin of a nonphysical language; (b) the origin of physical changes in human biology that made language possible.

As the previous quote by Everett shows, there are many biological features below the brain that are specialized for producing language. There also is a significant part of the brain involved in interpreting or producing speech, as we can tell when a stroke causes someone to lose his ability to speak, or damages his ability to understand speech.

An evolutionary biologist would attempt to explain such biological features by imagining random mutations that were blessed by natural selection. But such features would require multiple favorable mutations. One problem is that at the time such random mutations supposedly occurred, the human population was very small – supposedly no more than about 20,000. The smaller a population, the less likely that any particular set of favorable mutations will occur in it (just as the smaller the pool of poker players, the less likely it will be that at least one of them will be dealt a royal flush in spades). So we must imagine some incredibly improbable luck for all of these favorable speech-enhancing mutations to have occurred.

Here is the generic way in which evolutionary biologists attempt to explain biological innovations:
  1. First, they imagine there was some lucky mutation that produced some benefit.
  2. Then they imagine that this benefit caused a survival benefit, leading to more offspring for the person who had this mutation.
  3. They then suppose that the genetic trait caused by the mutation became more and more common in the gene pool, because of the increased reproduction of those who had the trait.
  4. Finally, they suppose that after this “classic sweep” was completed, the trait became established in all of the population, and the mutation is said to have achieved a fixation.

This explanation does not work to explain complex biological innovations requiring multiple mutations, but it might explain some simple cases of a biological improvement. For example, we might explain an increase in fur in an animal through such a technique, if we can imagine that there was one mutation that caused an animal to have more fur, and that such a mutation caused an immediate survival benefit.

But the general type of explanation given above would seem to be worthless for explaining a biological improvement in speaking ability. Let's consider an example. Imagine there are only about 20,000 humans, all but one of which lack the ability to speak clearly. Now suppose one of these humans is blessed by some extremely unlikely mutation that causes him to be able to speak more clearly. Would this result in an improved survival for this individual, with a higher likelihood of reproduction? Not at all. The reason is that successful use of language always requires at least two people.

So the individual who had this lucky mutation would not see any survival benefit during his peak reproductive years. Although this individual might be better capable of speech, he would be living in some little tribe in which speech wasn't common. So he would very probably get no survival benefit at all.

It is true we can imagine some highly improbable scenario in which a language-improving mutation might lead to a survival that would not have occurred otherwise. For example, if you were a caveman 80,000 years ago blessed by a language-improving mutation, you might be not able to speak to anyone until your son grew up, but your son might inherit that mutation. And perhaps your son might save your life by saying, “Look out Dad, there's a bear behind you.” But the chance of this seems very slim, about the chance that a randomly chosen person today will have saved his father's life by saying something like, “Look out Dad, there's a car coming.” We can also just as easily imagine reasons why language ability might cause someone to die early. For example, if one caveman could speak to another, they might get into a verbal fight leading to a physical fight in which one of them might die. Or if there is some chatting going on in a caveman hunting expedition, it might be a distraction that reduces the chance of success. Or maybe the chatting will alert some lion hiding in the grass to the presence of the hunting party, increasing the chance that some of its members will be devoured by predators.

In short, we have the problems that (1) given the very small human population about 100,000 years ago, it would have been extremely unlikely that there would have occurred the mutations necessary for clear spoken language; (2) if a particular individual happened to get such a mutation, it would be very likely that the mutation would be wasted, and would not achieve fixation in the gene pool, because it failed to produce a survival benefit for the individual who got it. So it is very hard to explain the origin of both the first language (a non-physical thing), and also the physical biological improvements that would have made language possible.

Unorthodox Attempts to Overcome These Paradoxes

Now let us look at some ways you might try to resolve these paradoxes paradox through radical ideas. Below are some possibilities:

Possibility 1: Speech may have originated after visiting extraterrestrials established human language (such extraterrestrials may also have endowed humans with modifications supporting speech).
Possibility 2: Speech may have originated because of some action of some higher divine power (such a divine power may also have endowed humans with modifications supporting speech).
Possibility 3: The origin of spoken language may have been facilitated by reincarnation. The first speaking humans may have been using language they learned in a previous lifetime, which might have occurred either on our planet or in some other dimension or realm of existence.
Possibility 4: In the distant past humans may have had telepathy much stronger than anyone experiences today. So even though the first spoken language was garbled speech, people may have been able to clearly understand it because they read the minds of the person trying to speak.
Possibility 5: We may be living in some kind of simulated reality, possibly a computer simulation created by extraterrestrials. The simulation may have actually began at some point in which language already existed (such as 3000 B.C.), so there may have been no real origin of language occurring at some time such as 60,000 years ago.
Possibility 6: There may be some kind of life force or driving force of biological organization (perhaps impersonal), something far beyond natural selection, that might be responsible for biological innovations that are poorly explained by natural selection; and such a force may have had a hand in the appearance of language and language-enabling biology in humans. 

Such possibilities will probably be ignored by the next few professors writing books on the origin of language, who will continue to write accounts that ignore the main difficulties in explaining the origin of language and the origin of language-enabling biology,  such as the three paradoxes I have mentioned here.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Origin of Language Theorists Are Like a Circular Firing Squad

One of the great unsolved problems is the problem sometimes called the problem of the origin of language. But to use that term is actually to oversimplify the problem. It is better to refer to the problem as the problem of the origin of language and linguistic biology. What needs to be explained are two different things:
  1. How what is it that any language was ever able to originate?
  2. How was it that humans were ever able to acquire particular biological features used in speaking and understanding language?
There is a kind of “which came first, the chicken or the egg” problem involved here. Let us imagine a certain time thousands of years ago when human ancestors had a primitive larynx and pharynx. At such a time it would not have been possible to speak words with any clarity. Trying to speak words would have been like trying to say “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain” while keeping your tongue on the bottom of your mouth (or like trying to speak with your mouth filled with rocks). It seems that language could not have got started under such conditions, because spoken language would have been too ineffective as a communication tool. But if language never could get started under such conditions, how could there ever have been any reward-propelled evolution of speaking ability that resulted in humans able to speak like we can speak?

Then there's the problem of how some particular language ever could have been invented and spread about to achieve any following greater than that of just being the custom of a single little tribe. If there was some bright and domineering tribe member determined to teach language, we can imagine him teaching a few words to his fellow cave men (such as words for cave, bear, hunt, day, night, cook, and eat). But how could the first language teacher ever have thought up a grammar? And how could such a teacher ever have taught a grammar or abstract non-noun words to those who had no language?

Imagine you arrive by boat on some remote island in the Pacific consisting of people who don't speak English. You'd be able to teach them quite a few noun words, and a few verb words. But how could you possibly teach rules of grammar to such people? And how could you possibly teach abstract words such as “soon,” “possibly,” “tomorrow,” “went,” “hope,” “try,” “almost,” “towards,” “beyond,” “until,” and a thousand other words that you couldn't teach by using gestures?

And even if some teacher might get a language to be adapted by some little tribe, how could such a language possibly spread beyond that little tribe? It would seem that the only way a language could get a decent following would be if it were mandated or encouraged by some little form of government or some organization greater than a tribe. But such a form of government or organization could never get started, it would seem, until there was already some type of language existing. So we have another “which came first, the chicken or the egg” problem.

These very great problems are ignored by two recent books on the origin of language. The first is a book called The Truth About Language: What It Is and Where It Came From by Michael C. Corballis. In Chapter 2 of this book, Corballis attacks the thinking of language theorist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has suggested that language arose rather suddenly, perhaps about 60,000 years ago when somehow humans acquired an ability to create a “universal grammar” that he thinks is the key to the origin of language.

Chomsky's theory deserves to be attacked, as it offers no real explanation for the problems discussed above. But Corballis doesn't offer a better theory. He merely advances the idea that language arose from bodily gesture. His theory is that before there was a spoken language there was a gesture language. This is an idea that has never made sense because of the impossibility of giving a plausible explanation as to how humans might have made a transition from a hand gesture language to a spoken language. A gesture language would not be a stepping stone to a spoken language, so the idea of a gesture language that preceded spoken language has no explanatory value.

The “first a gesture language, then a spoken language” theory of Corballis is attacked on page 241 of the book How Language Began by Daniel L. Everett. Everett states, “Gestures could not have been the initial form of language.” The language theorist Everett attacks both the theory of the language theorist Corballis and the language theorist Chomsky. So we see that the modern circle of origin-of-language theorists is kind of like a circular firing squad, with no consensus and lots of volleys being fired back and forth. This may suggest that we should have no confidence that anyone has any credible explanation for the origin of language. 

Everett's book offers no real explanation for the origin of language. His book should have been entitled When Did Language Begin? rather than How Language Began, for rather than offering any substantive attempt to explain the origin of language, his book is mainly devoted to defending the claim that language first appeared in the species Homo erectus. We can make a good guess as to why Everett has advanced this strange idea: probably in order to make the origin of language seem like nothing very impressive and miraculous. If we can believe that dumb Homo erectus used language, then we might think that the origin of language was not very astonishing.

But the idea that Homo erectus invented language is an extremely unbelievable claim. On page 129 Everett says that Homo erectus had a brain size “roughly two-thirds the size of a modern human's.” Explaining the appearance of language in a species with the brain size of a human's is hard enough, and you are compounding the difficulties if you try to suggest language originated in some species with a brain much smaller than ours.

Everett admits on page 5 that “few linguists claim that Homo erectus had language.” Everett tries to support his claim by making the strange claim on page 16 that grammar “really is at best only a small part of any language,” an erroneous claim he repeats on page 105 with the weird claim that “there are several reasons to reject the idea that grammar is central to language.” He apparently wants us to think that Homo erectus organisms too dumb for grammar might have still had a language.

On page 88 Everett makes the claim that “there is nothing in the body dedicated to language,” but on page 174 he completely contradicts this claim by giving us the real truth:

The creation of speech requires precise control of more than one hundred muscles of the larynx, the respiratory muscles, the diaphragm, and the muscles between our ribs – our “intercostal muscles”-- and muscles of our mouth and face – our orofacial muscles. The muscle movement required of all these parts during speech is mind-bogglingly complex.

Exactly, and the specialized biology required for speech also includes substantial brain biology (as we know from some stroke victims who may lose the ability to speak but not to understand speech, and other stroke victims who lose part of their ability to understand speech).  Because Homo erectus didn't have a great deal of this specialized biology, that is a good reason for thinking that Homo erectus should not have been able to speak.

Everett tries to get us to believe that Homo erectus had language by arguing that Homo erectus used symbols, and “symbols are just a short hop away from language” (as he states on page 106). The idea that we can assume some creatures had language because they had symbols is not sound, and Everett is only able to produce very weak evidence that Homo erectus used symbols. He refers us to a sea-shell with some scratches on it, and includes a picture of a 300,000-year-old bone that looks rather like a penis. Hardly very convincing evidence of symbolism. The wikipedia.org article on the bone in question (called the Erfourd manuport) says no evidence of carving or shaping has been detected in it. Everett also wants us to think that spears are evidence of symbol use. On page 94 he says, “For their original owners these would have elicited thoughts of, thus symbolized, hunting, of bravery, of caring for their families, and of death.” This is strained reasoning indeed – spears are not evidence of symbolic thinking. There is, in fact, no substantive evidence that symbolic thinking appeared in Homo erectus.

One huge difficulty in any theory of Homo erectus using language is that such an organism would have lacked the complex vocal biology to produce speaking. Everett has an answer to this objection – an extremely lame answer. He states the following on page 188:

In fact, computers show that a language can work just fine with only two symbols, 0 and 1. All computers communicate by means of these two symbols....All the novels, treatises, PhD dissertations, love letters and so on in the history of the world can ...be translated into sequences of 0 and 1. So if erectus could have made just a few sounds, more or less consistently, they could be in the language game, right there with [Homo] sapiens.

This is completely fallacious reasoning. Let us consider the dependencies that are involved when something like a novel or a marketing plan is stored on a computer system. The first dependency is the existence of a particular language – if you imagine a dictionary, you can visualize that dependency. Then there is the dependency of a particular alphabet. Then there is the dependency of the ASCII system, a complex table used to map alphabetic letters to decimal numbers. Then there is the dependency of there existing an algorithm to translate decimal numbers into binary numbers. This ends up being a huge set of symbolic dependencies vastly more complicated than the simplicity of 0 and 1. So you cannot at all argue from the simplicity of binary numbers in binary computers that some organism would “be in the language game” if it merely “could have made just a few sounds.” No organism would ever be able to understand a complex meaning when it heard another organism use some “two sound” language with sentences such as “oh-ah-ah-oh-oh-ah-ah-ah-oh-ah-oh.” There has never been a natural spoken language that used only a few sounds.

And, of course, trying to argue that sub-human organisms would have been capable of something because computers are capable of such a thing makes no sense, and is like arguing that a human or sub-human could sort 20,000 words in 30 seconds because a computer can do that.

On page 106 Everett summarizes his evidence that Homo erectus used language:

The evidence thus strongly supports the claim that Homo erectus possessed language: evidence of culture – values, knowledge structures and social organization; tool use and improvement (however slowly, compared to Homo sapiens); exploration of the land and sea, going beyond what could be seen to what could be imagined; and symbols – in the forms of decorations and tools.

Some of these claims are dubious or debatable, and even if all of these claims were true, none of them would be evidence of language use. Everett completely fails to substantiate his very implausible claim that Homo erectus invented language.

As for the claim of Corballis that a gesture language preceded spoken language, such an idea does nothing to explain the origin of spoken language. To the contrary, there is a very strong reason why the possibility of a gesture language makes the origin of spoken language very much harder to explain. I will discuss this reason in my next post. 

Postscript: In this article Chomsky states the following:

There is little evidence of anything like human language, or symbolic behavior altogether, before the emergence of modern humans. That leads us to expect that the faculty of language emerged along with modern humans or not long after, a very brief moment in evolutionary time.

This is very much at odds with the claims of Everett.