Bickerton on Fitch

« previous post | next post »

In response to W. Tecumseh Fitch's post "Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited"  (2/12/2009), Derek Bickerton sent the commentary presented below.

[Guest post by Derek Bickerton]

I yield to no-one in my admiration of Darwin.  But admiration should not blind us to the fact that in many cases he was, inevitably, limited by the state of knowledge in his time.  Not only Mendelian genetics, but also almost the entire ancestry of humans, was wholly unknown to him; ethology and the study of non-human communication had yet to be systematically developed, and linguistics still lay in the womb of philology.  It is truly amazing, not that he was sometimes wrong, but that he was so often and so stunningly right.

He was right when he saw language as the seed, rather than the fruit, of human intelligence.  But appealing as the notion is, he was wrong in proposing a scenario in which language issued from a "musical protolanguage".   Tecumseh Fitch argues that his own account, developed from Darwin's, is soundly based on principles of evolutionary biology.  It is therefore somewhat surprising that his account pays as little attention to the evolution of humans (and the ways in which this evolution differed from that of other primates) as do those of biologically-naïve linguists or psychologists.

The notion of a terrestrial and heavily-predated primate indulging in any form of vocal activity-especially one that must, in quantity as well as quality, have exceeded those of all other primates barring gibbons-is simply bizarre, as I point out in a chapter of my book Adam's Tongue (out next month) devoted to the "singing ape" hypothesis:

"What could possibly have been the functions of song for a pre-human species in largely treeless grasslands?  Song as a pair-bonding mechanism is highly unlikely.  Human ancestors probably weren't monogamous-great apes aren't, and neither are we, even if we try or pretend to be, so a monogamous interval at any time in the past looks unlikely.  But suppose we did go through a monogamous period.  If two mates don't happen to be out of sight of one another up two different trees, there are countless more effective ways of bonding than yodeling at each other.

"Human ancestors probably weren't territorial, either-at least not in the sense of holding small, well-defined chunks of territory.  Most likely they had a fission-fusion social structure, like that of contemporary apes, that's to say groups would be continually splitting up and reforming, merging with other groups.  In open terrain, where different groups might utilize the same areas at different times without conflict or even contact, what would be the point of noisily-defended frontiers?

"Furthermore, the terrains in which gibbons and human ancestors lived were such that for maintaining contact sound was essential in one and useless, even dangerous, in the other…On the savanna, where there are beasts with keen hearing far larger and more lethal than our ancestors, to sing out with any frequency would have been to write one's own death warrant.  Moreover, the absence of trees and the level or undulating nature of most savannas means that, in contrast with the rain-forest, animals are visible at considerable distances.  To be out of sight is, under those conditions, almost always to be out of earshot–there's little point in yelling and hoping your friends will hear you.

"To assume that, even if our ancestors had sung before, they would go on singing under these conditions is absurd-something you can do only if you think that behavior and environment are completely divorced from one another… Conditions on the savanna were such that while they lived there our ancestors very probably produced less sound than our ape relatives, not more.  If this was indeed the case, a single source for music and language becomes highly unlikely. Unless, of course, someone succeeds in coming up with some function pre-humans had to perform, under those same savanna conditions, that they couldn't have performed by any means other than by singing.  It's unlikely anyone will, but never say never in science."

To persuade us of the "musical protolanguage" theory,  Tecumseh will have to come up with a scenario in which singing (of some kind) somehow increased human fitness.  Here he has proposed mother-child interaction (as already suggested by Dean Falk in a recent article, "Prelinguistic evolution in early hominins: Whence motherese?", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27(4):491-503, 2004).  The problem with this is that all other primates have mother-child interactions, but only one has picked on this kind.  Why?   Why humans?  And this doesn't end the problems that "musical protolanguage" raises.

Tecumseh recognizes that the severest of these problems ("the greatest explanatory challenge for all musical protolanguage theories") is how sound acquired sense-how a continuously variable medium with no specific reference turned into strings of discrete chunks with individual meanings.  However, he skips nimbly over the solution:

"Supporters of the more intuitive "synthetic" model of protolanguage, in which words evolved first followed by syntactic operations for combining them (e.g., Bickerton, 1990), have subjected holistic models to extensive criticisms (Bickerton, 2007; Tallerman, 2007, 2008). However, I argue that most of these critiques miss their mark if the notion of a musical protolanguage is accepted as a starting point (cf. Fitch, in press).  Jespersen/Wray's model of holistic protolanguage thus dovetails nicely with the musical protolanguage hypothesis, in ways that I believe resolve many, if not all, of these criticisms (cf. Fitch, 2006; Mithen, 2005)."

As I don't have a copy of Fitch (in press), I remain in the dark as to what these ways are.  All I know is that when Dean Falk made the same proposal, I wrote a commentary that, inter alia, pointed out she gave no account of how symbolic meaning — symbolic use of  words or signs to refer to particular classes or individuals — emerged from originally meaningless sounds.  Significantly, she responded to all the points I made… except for that one.

Maggie Tallerman and I have made some very specific and pointed criticisms of the "holistic protolanguage" model, most of which have never been satisfactorily answered by anyone, as far as I know.  If Tecumseh believes he can answer them, he should show how.
He does point out that "Darwin… embraces all three of the major leading theories of word origins of his contemporaries" but he fails to point out that at least two of these are incompatible with one another.  For according to Darwin, "the attachment of specific and flexible meanings to vocalizations required only that 'some unusually wise ape-like animal should have thought of imitating the growl of a beast of prey'" (and of course that some even wiser primates should have understood what was meant-a lion coming, or lions often hang around here, or one was seen here last week, or "Gee, guys, see how well I can imitate a lion!").  But of course this onomatopoeic proposal is incompatible with "musical protolanguage", since it avoids the holistic phase altogether and goes straight to the kind of compositional, already-symbolic protolanguage that Tecumseh rejects.  The "lion's roar" idea needs a good bit of tweaking, but at least it's nearer the mark than a holistic protolanguage.

A major motive behind "musical protolanguage" is Strict Continuism — the belief that language grew seamlessly from animal communication.   Animal calls — if translated into humanese, and that turns out to be a very dodgy business in itself — are, like holophrases, often the equivalents of whole clauses: "Mate with me"; "Stay off my territory"; "Terrestrial predator coming — get up a tree".   Split these into their components and for a few glorious moments it seems that the transition problem has been solved.  But in Adam's Tongue I go more deeply into the transition problem than anyone ever has before.  And it's the transition problem — how any species could get from a standard animal communication system to even the crudest and most basic kind of protolanguage — that lies at the very heart of language evolution, and without which all "explanations" are mere hand-waving, smoke and mirrors.

[Above is a guest post by Derek Bickerton, responding to W. Tecumseh Fitch's post "Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited"  (2/12/2009).]


  1. Tereza Snyder said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    Pardon me if this seems hopelessly naive, but there is another use of song that could have been of use to our remote not-yet-language using ancestors: choral singing—and perhaps even dancing—as a method of fostering group cohesion, rousing participant emotions, and providing a context for social differentiation. Not a matter of individuals yelling a each other on the prairie, but of the group making a fearsome noise, a joyful noise, a mournful noise: and eventually from those ever more subtly varied noises developing the physical mechanism (breath control, lip and tongue flexibility, larynx, etc) required for making phonemes and cadences and later words and sentences. Even from the beginning there would be meaning: fear, bravado, hunger, satisfaction, comfort. Later the associations might arise: lion's growl, nut's crunch, baby's distress…

  2. Dan T. said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    Music is, of course, used in modern times for a whole variety of purposes including social cohesion (national anthems, patriotic songs), attracting mates (rock stars get groupies), calming down babies (mothers singing lullabies), getting people into a desired emotional state (scores of movies), etc. How many of these occurred in primordial times and contributed to the evolution of the ability to make music (and perhaps also language) is the interesting (and perhaps unknowable) question.

  3. Derek Bickerton said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    Botj Tereza and Dan entirely miss my point. It matters not how useful, functional, or whatever singing might be in the abstract–it's the fact that, given the ecological circumstances in which our ancestors had to survive. it would have been extremely dangerous and often fatal. You can thank God they had the sense to shut up, or neither you nor I would be here!

  4. Language Log » Musical protolanguage: Darwin’s theory of language evolution revisited « The Haruspex said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    […] And a response by Derek Bickerton, here. […]

  5. dr pepper said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 1:25 am

    Makes sense. But how about later, after we stopped being leopard snacks?

    It seems to me that the "pep rally" model of transition is a reasonable one.

  6. Derek Bickerton said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 3:30 am

    Dr. Pepper, according to latest evidence, some of us were hyena snacks as little as 200.000 years ago! And surely some form of protolanguage was around long before then

  7. Jesús Sanchis said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 5:58 am

    I think the 'musical protolanguage' theory is one example of how a comparison, or a metaphor, is taken at face value and developed into a definition or an explanation. Something similar happens in Chomskyan linguistics, and in general in most of American linguistics: the metaphor of language as a set of rules and parameters has been confused with language itself, which is a great mistake.

    Language and music have things in common but they are perceived as being quite different. Why should language have been born as something that is not language? Rather than music, I would focus on other types of animal communication, such as calls, etc. 'Holophrases' are another highly unlikely process for language origin, designed in the laboratories of American theoretical linguistics, which are rather detached from reality. They remind me, at a completely dfifferent level of analysis, of Indo-European laryngeals, the set of imaginary phonemes that have been devised in order to fulfil the needs of a given theory. I think many of the debates and discussions about the origin of human language derive from the application of theoretical views based on abstract ideas. I don't think we can ever understand the languages of prehistory by looking at rules, holophrases, paremeters, etc. Language is not the metaphor of language. Language is language (whatever it is).

  8. Greg Kochanski said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:08 am

    The trouble with the "musical protolanguages" theory is that — like most theories of the origins of language — it is just a story. There's no plausible way to tell if it is true or false, so it falls outside the range of science and is more properly thought of as a contribution to humanity's collection of creation myths.

    Now, that doesn't make it bad or wrong. And Fitch's stuff even might kinda sorta be science if it inspires someone else to figure out how to test the idea. But, until that happens, Fitch is acting in the grand tradition of homonids, telling stories to gain social status.

    Personally, it wouldn't surprise me if human language evolved from sexual selection run amok, much like the peacock's tail. Just think of the selective advantages! You can gain the credit for a successful hunt without the risk of actually hunting, if your language skills are good enough. So, maybe proto-language was theatre/mime with a bit of hooting: recreating the day's activities to a (hopefully) admiring audience. Who knows? This is a myth, too, until someone can prove it.

  9. Ken Grabach said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    I see a panel interview in the March 2009 issue of Discover magazine. Moderated by Carl Zimmer, and entitled "Brain Trust", it is a symposium of neuroscientists answering questions about the brain and cognition, memory and other functions. One of the first questions raised concerns musical memories, their accuracy and "clues into how the brain stores information." Daniel Levitin, McGill University, took the question. His reply suggests some posible means to experimentally test accuracy of musical memory as compared with memory for speech. Other tests could compare (if not already done) the way the brain maps and processes musical memory to the similar functions for spoken words. While this does not directly answer the question of how language evolved in proto-humans, it can get closer to answering the question, Could this be a means for the evolution of language? And further, there could be experiments testing whether words in song can be more easily recalled than words spoken, poetically or prosodically. Are there similarities between memories for sung and spoken poetry?
    An anecdote suggests what I am talking about: I refer you to Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and his son John Hemingway (Bumby). The Hemingways composed a jingle for Bumby to recall the address of his nanny, if he needed to get there if he was lost: Dix-bis, avenue des Gobelins, That's where my Bumby lives. I cannot render the musical notation here, but it was apparently to a line from a French nursery song.

  10. Tadeusz said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    Now, however, when we know that music in proto-human communities (or is it just human?) was logically unlikely to occur there is one plausible question that has to be asked: why do we have music after all?? And I think this is a very important question to ask if the idea that language evolved from music is rejected. As far as I know so-called primitive societies have both a language (or a number of them) and music (and dancing). But obviously they are humans.
    I also think that there are numerous examples of various evolutionary traits that do not seem to be doing the animals concerned much good, like bright colours in plumage in male birds, etc., various exaggerated feathers, appendages, and the like. Cannot music (rhythm at least) in humanoids be considered from this point of view?
    And I like the idea that music was there (perhaps) for social bonding. I also think that, ecologically speaking, any predator would think twice before attacking a GROUP of bipeds. Humanoids or humans, I think they could get quite nasty. Hyenas or lions usually hunt for isolated individuals, separated from the animal groups.
    Anyhow, I am looking forward to having a look into the new books.

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    Well, singing could provide as much pleasure as social grooming, though the evolutionary advantage would be clear.

    The question is still the one given by Bickerton: How did the traits of specifically human language get attached to whatever medium was to be used for expressing them?

  12. Bill Walderman said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    Contemporary humans sometimes become animal snacks even today; yet that doesn't keep us from making music. Maybe our ancestors were able to find or create spaces where they could engage in courtship rituals or nuture their young or do whatever other function singing might have served with a tolerable level of security. How can we be so sure they couldn't?

    We do have solid evidence that that our ancestors were able find enough safety to copulate from time to time. And at least today human babies and small children can be stridently noisy. Somehow some of our ancestors survived childhood without getting eaten by hyenas.

    How can we be certain that we fully understand the ecological circumstances in which our ancestors had to survive? Beyond that, are any of the competing hypotheses about the origin of language testable? Do any of them have any reasonable prospect of being testable in the future? I would express skepticism if I hadn't been admonished to leave that for my biographer.

  13. Terry Collmann said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    As soon as hominids were able to control fire (around one million years ago) they could build campfires to scare the hyenas off AND to sing around …

  14. Greg Morrow said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    Derek, I'm going to argue that making a lot of noise, particularly at the troop level, is a survival characteristic even in a predator-rich environment. First, it alerts the predators that a troop is in the neighborhood, and a troop of humans (or hominids) armed with spears and rocks is a dangerous threat to predators.

    Even if an angry troop kills few predators outright, and even if it takes significant losses itself, it will injure many predators, and injury is devastating to most predators.

    Certainly, chimpanzee troops–which don't have the ranged attack advantage of hominids armed with spears and rocks–show no particular reticence to making large amounts of noise.

    Second, in the event of an actual predator attack, a lot of noise will serve to alert the rest of the troop that help is needed. This is one of the places where meaning can start to work its way into undifferentiated utterances, too–Differentiating "help me I'm being attacked by a leopard" from "forget about me, save the baby" from "there are lions circling around behind you" is a significant survival advantage, which is why we see this kind of thing in quite a few social animals.

    I will also argue that the most likely mode of predation on hominids has always been picking off the isolated, usually in the night. Here, indeed, a small amount of noise might give you away to a stalker more often than it would provide a survival advantage; but the loss of an occasional individual is not a huge blow to the reproductive capacity of a troop (and would tend to select against the individuals ill-equipped to gain the help of the rest of the troop, actually). Arguments that predation on hominids cuts against the development of speech, I think, have trouble because hominids seem much more likely to die from disease, injury, and hunger than predation. How do savanna-dwelling baboons die?

    Perhaps I am being naive and ignorant. I am certainly willing to learn more.

  15. Janice Huth Byer said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    The questions raised about music in relation to language are intriguing. However, in intuiting pleasure as a cause of our ancestors' "yodeling", isn't the cart pushing the horse? Do any other primates enjoy any music? To the extent domestic animals notice it, it appears to annoy them. Even those who crave the sound of our voice or listen to birdsong appear to dislike beautiful human song.

    In contrast, a capacity to thrill at the sound of good singing appears universal among humans, a great gift of nature, that would seem logically to evolve after language, depending, as it does, on a heightened sensitivity to the same sound qualities and patterns that enable rapid speech comprehension. My cats love my tinny talking, but absolutely refuse to stay in the room for opera or country. Yeah, I know neither will a lot of people. :)

  16. dr pepper said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    My experience is that cats dislike sound they can't classify, especially if it starts up without warning, that triggers their instinct to put some distance between themselves and what might be a danger. For instance my cat will knock over a paper bag and crush it down so he can lie on it, but if i accidently kick a paper bag behind his back, he'll run. But talking is something they associate with humans and cats tend to be fascinated with human activity– as anyone who has both a cat and a garden can observe.

  17. Janice Huth Byer said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    dr pepper, your insights make good sense. My cats, never having heard singing from me, which would scare some humans, would surely, as you suggest, regard recorded human song as strange and, being perfectly catlike, be gone.

    I live in an old house that creaks, snaps, and pops as it cools every evening, sometimes rather loudly, none of which disturbs them. In contrast, they hide moments before all knocks at the door – no one else can hear anything – but approach the same door always before family enters.

    It'd be impossible for so guarded an intelligent animal, as I had unthinkingly projected, to objectively contemplate the singing of a strange human.

  18. How do biology and culture interact? « A Replicated Typo said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    […] wasn't too impressed: Animal calls — if translated into humanese, and that turns out to be a very dodgy business in […]

  19. Jose Luis GUIJARRO said,

    January 26, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    The problem with the English word "language" is that it points to, at least, three concepts which in Spanish have three different terminological pointers: "lenguaje", "lengua" and "idioma". According to Edward De Bono, on the other hand, it seems incredibly difficult to jump intellectually outside a given trodden path (associated with a wealth of default assumptions that are almost never explicitly considered). However, if we would achieve such an intellectual feat, De Bono argues, it would sometimes clarify an unsolved issue in an incredibly easy way. From my Spanish point of view, then, I propose to use "lenguaje" (or, say, L1) to point to the human faculty to abstract and formalize elements of the environment and their relationships in order to store them in the mind and retrieve them when needed. This concept would fit neatly with the concept of "machine language", which, if I am right, does exactly that.

    I further propose to use "lengua" (say, L2) to point to the innate human faculty to acquire a native linguistic tool. L2 would then mean, the initial state of this faculty, the universal principles that some believe to exist in our human linguistic capacity.

    I will use the lexical pointer "idioma" (say, L3) to signal the final state of this human faculty, or in other words, the formatted (by social practice) end product achieved by this innate device –if it is indeed innate, which I find no real reason to doubt.

    The moral of this "observational adequacy" effort is that, in my mental representation, "L1 has nothing whatsoever to do with human communication, so it is absurd to try and explain its evolutionary origin by concentrating in ways of pre-hominid communication which somehow mysteriously (or musically!) developed into that cognitive tool.

    Now, Lynn Margulis, and some other biologists, have argued that an unexpectedly large proportion of the evolutionary lineages had their origins in symbiogenesis (the combination of two totally different genomes form a symbiotic consortium which becomes the target of selection as a single entity. This is achieved by the mutual stability of the relationship). I know it is risky to use micro-processes to describe macro-processes, but Margulis seems to believe it may be A GOOD PRACTICE, as she said at the end of a lecture she gave at the University of Valencia: "… la historia natural. Ecología, genética y metabolismo de organismos macroscópicos debe de ser suplementada con un conocimiento preciso del metabolismo y del comportamiento de los microorganismos" (Natural history, Genetic Ecology and macroscopic organ metabolism must be supplemented with a precise knowledge of metabolism and beahviour of micro organs).

    My point here, then, would be that humans did indeed have a communicative system that matched the one other species have acquired through mammal evolution. A communicative system to point to things of the World by using different noises or gestures. But "language (i.e., L1)" had evolved cognitively in order to organize the environment in a handy MENTAL (nothing to do with communication at this stage) fashion, formalizing it with some basic rules (like embedding elements into others, relating them, showing their place in nature, and so on). This development is impossible to find in archaeological strata, for its nature is mental, as I have already stated a couple of times. So, it has to be hypothesised and put to work to see wether it may be a better hypothesis than those we have already. To start with, my hypothesis would explain why we have never found a proto-language anywhere. Language was already formed in its basic universal features when it became symbiotically united to the human communicative systems. It, then, "formed a symbiotic consortium which became the target of selection as a single entity".

    This hypothesis, would also explain why our (de)coding linguistic process strongly under-determines the sense of the messages we try to make manifest to others, for, when we communicate, we seldom (if ever) point to things with our words. What we try to achieve in our communicative acts is to make some of our states of mind clear to others, using linguistic indices which are, granted, a lot more accurate than other noises made by other species. We really achieve what Paul Grice called metaphorically, "mind-readings" which is a feat that I strongly doubt other animals are able to perform.

  20. Blake Adams said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    There are very simple answers to all of these objections, which many of the comments here have almost touched upon.

    First, sexual selection (especially the kind of runaway sexual selection that generates peacock tails and other bright plumage) provides a perfect explanation for why early hominids would have sung– no need to posit the need for 'social cohesion', etc., although that was probably a positive by-product. Singing could easily have been a form of SEXUAL DISPLAY, mating behavior in other words. There are two good pieces of evidence for this: 1) Music is still used, in all human groups, as sexual display, as you can see in the sexual success of musicians from Paganini to Robert Plant; 2) We have a clear precedent in other species: birds use songs as sexual display, and birdsong has many biological components that correspond to human language production (brain lateralization, special vocal apparatus, critical developmental learning periods, 'dialects', and many more).

    If it's plausible to say that almost all birds use music as a sexual display which evolved through sexual selection, and we know that humans use a very similar process (at least from the biological point of view) as a sexual display, then it should be quite plausible to say that human vocalization emerged through sexual selection as a form of sexual display.

    As for how meaning became attached to musical vocalizations: the holistic protolanguage approach is indeed the way to go. In broad outline, musical phrases do have immediate interpretable content– they convey emotions. Just as peacock feathers are visually appealing, human musical vocalizations are appealing because they convey specific emotional states between producers and listeners. This kind of emotional 'telepathy', conveying emotional states from one proto-human to another through sound, would serve most of the social functions of language even as we use it today, even lacking any objective reference or meaning– mothers and babies cooing at each other has no reference but lots of meaning, and the chatting and flirting of mating pairs is pretty empty as far as content goes. The specific word references, in short, are not the point of most speech.

    It is easy to imagine that emotion-transferring musical vocalizations could gradually develop more fine-grained meanings, first through alterations of prosody (as we see in modern language), then through rhythmic and syntactic rearrangements, and only finally through a one-to-one mapping of syllable sequences (words) and concrete references in the external world.

RSS feed for comments on this post