Monday, August 31, 2009

Christine Kenneally, The First Word (2007)

In my worldview, there are three very big subjects for human inquiry: 1) the realm of the very large --- the universe (and whether there is more than one, making the word universe a possible oxymoron), its origin and history; 2) the realm of the very small -- the smallest molecular (sub)units, and their behavior; and 3) the human mind --- how it works, consciousness, intentionality. Some might object and cite Schrodinger's interrogatory --- What is Life? --- as a big subject for human inquiry, and I do not disagree, but I submit that if humanity can get its consensus arms around my three big subjects, the subject of "life," will fall into place in large measure. The first two subjects are critical and fundamental to understanding how physical objects and living beings were first created, died or evolved; the third subject is really about "us" --- a characteristic that is specially defining of human beings.

The first two books I discussed below surveying the "new" science of information theory actually address all three of the very big subjects in one way or another. Christine Kenneally's survey of the current research examining the evolution of human language, The First Word, fits in the third big box - the human mind; yet as you read her survey of language and speech research, one can't help but think about the communications --- computational activity --- going on everywhere in the realm of the very large and the realm of the very small documented by the Lloyd and Seife (see August 23, 2009 and August 17, 2009 posts). The constituents of the entire physical world have been computing --- communicating --- for billions of years, so it should come as no surprise that our species communicates. The form of those communications varies from constituent to constituent -- by collision among atomic particles in the realm of the very small as Lloyd documents -- but how did the human species develop a very sophisticated form of communicating that includes not just speech and written language, but speech acts such as gestures, pointing, and other animated conduct? That is the question that Christine Kenneally investigates in The First Word.

I want to suggest to her that she look to Lloyd's treatment of information theory and complexity theory --- whether we call it communicating or computational activity, there must be emergent properties that cause communications to take on additional complexity in the course of evolutionary history, including gestures, sounds, word formation, symbolic representations, and finally meaning. Kenneally does not address this particular angle, but some of the research she reviews lays the foundation for this type of discussion about human language in light of the types of communications studied in non-human species. She does cite Luc Steels for the proposition that "human language ability is an emergent adaptive system that is created by a basic cognitive mechanism rather than by a genetically endowed language module."

Is human language an adaptation that required many evolutionary events? Or is human language something that is hardwired in our species? Noam Chomsky notwithstanding, the sum of the research reviewed by Kenneally supports only the former view. Not only has the human species evolved biologically to enable our unique type of communicating, but the form of human communications, language, and the meaning of words have evolved as well. Language is a social institution, and social institutions and culture evolve, albeit at a different and faster pace than biological evolution. We seem to be approaching Richard Dawkins' treatment of the evolution of memes here. And while The First Word does not have an answer or definitive conclusion to "the search for the origins of human language," Kenneally does endorse a very Dawkins-like worldview:

"Even if researchers can't pinpoint every evolutionary event that led to the language we have today, and even though we don't know exactly what all the bends in the historical road looked like, the principles for further illuminating the path of language evolution are now self-evident. Fundamentally, the appearance of design in biology and in language can be taken as a sign of evolution, not a designer. Additionally, where complex design does exist, it makes sense not to treat the whole as a monolith that simply developed from nothing to something in one or two quick steps. Finally, the most likely scenario is that both evolutionary novelty and derivation played a significant role in the evolution of a phenomenon as complex as language."

Anyone studying the human mind must investigate speech acts as part of their inquiry, and Kenneally's survey of the recent research on the evolution language is a good place to start. But language is only a piece of the mind's puzzle. How is it that human minds can read other minds without speaking? Speaking and hearing and reading and intentional gestures are not the only forms of communicating.

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