In quest of the Big Bark
|The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture by Robert K. Logan
In 1866, the Société de Linguistique in Paris banned all papers on the origin of language and on universal language. The scholarly world honoured the ban worldwide for over a century, until the topic was reopened at the New York Academy of Sciences in 1975.
Why the ban - and why was the ban eventually banished?
Because papers on these topics had been too speculative and - until much more recently - the evidence was far too thin. Like the topic of the origin of the universe and the origin of life, language-origin theory was faced with a one-off event in the remote past - 14 billion years ago for the Big Bang, four billion years ago for life, and between 100,000 and two million years ago for language (the Big Bark, so to speak). But language was the toughest case, because it left no physical traces: No cosmic background radiation, no carbon dating, no fossils, just words. And by the time there was a written record of those words, it was far too late in the day. We spoke much earlier than we wrote, and probably we gestured even before we spoke.
The 19th century was also the era when Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, launching the study not only of the origin of life but also of its evolution through time. Darwin proposed that living things vary randomly, and their design is shaped, through generations, by the survival and reproduction of those variations that are the "fittest" - in that they survive and reproduce the best. This is called "natural selection," and although it may sound a bit circular, it is testable by experiments comparing the "artificial selection," done by animal and plant breeders, with what happens when you let nature take its course. It is through evolution by natural selection that biology has successfully explained the origins and evolution of fins and swimming, wings and flying, so it is only natural to try the same with language and speaking (Ferdinand de Saussure's "langue et parole").
Robert F. Logan is a physicist who for many years taught a course on "the poetry of physics and the physics of poetry" at the University of Toronto. Inspired by the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, he has written a good deal on humanistic aspects of media and technology. In The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture he suggests that language began with the transition from percepts to concepts: Other species only have "percepts" (which seems to mean, roughly, what they can perceive with their senses, and perhaps also what they can remember or imagine from their sensory experience), whereas we have "concepts" (which seems to mean "ideas," or the meanings of our words and sentences). For Dr. Logan, a word is a "strange attractor" (a mathematical construct from dynamical systems and chaos theory) that somehow embodies or integrates vast numbers of percepts associated with it.
How a word is a strange attractor is never quite explained, but we are given analogies, especially in the context of another mysterious process called "autocatalysis," which the author extends from the work of Stuart Kauffman on the origin of life: Life began in a complex dynamical system where certain processes became multiplicative instead of just additive, "catalyzing" one another into becoming independent self-organizing systems that could survive and reproduce.
This is still controversial in life-origins theory, but Dr. Logan draws on it to explain language origins, suggesting that a language too is (literally) a living organism. He also suggests that writing, mathematics and the Internet are all different languages (not just alternative media for encoding all or part of our one, spoken language). Each of these languages has, under the pressure of increasing "information overload," evolved - or rather "co-evolved" with our brains, "extending" them into minds. (According to this theory, other species apparently don't really have minds!) This is co-evolution, because language too is an evolving organism. So is culture.
It is too easy to take an idea or finding out of context and caricature it, as U.S. Senator Proxmire used to do with his "golden fleece" award, especially on a topic with the checkered history of language origins. So Dr. Logan's ideas need to be weighed against competing ideas and how well they predict and explain the existing and future evidence, before we make the usual quip in reviews on this elusive topic: that perhaps it might have been wiser to leave the Société's ban in place.
I would close with just one point on which I think the author seems to have overextended himself: He criticizes Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar (UG) without, I think, quite understanding it. All natural languages seem to be governed by UG, and children do not seem to hear or produce anywhere near enough UG-violating sentences and corrections to have learned the rules of UG by trial and error. This is called "the poverty of the stimulus," and from it Chomsky concludes that UG must therefore be inborn. Dr. Logan thinks UG could have been learned by "imitation." I think he has missed the point.
The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture
by Robert K. Logan, University of Toronto Press, 2007, 284 pages, $39.95, cloth.
Stevan Harnad holds the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Science at Université du Québec à Montréal. He notes that the UQAM Cognitive Science Institute's third Summer School in 2010 will be on the topic of language origin - on the 35th anniversary of the New York Academy of Science conference that re-opened the question.