"Silence on the Savannah!" On Bickerton's Yodeling Australopithecines and Missing the Point of Musical Protolanguage

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Last week, in honor of Darwin's birthday, we featured a guest post by Tecumseh Fitch: "Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited". A few days later, Derek Bickerton contributed a critical commentary.  Now Tecumseh has sent in a response to Derek — or, perhaps I should say, Prof. Fitch has contributed a response to Prof. Bickerton — which is presented below.

[Guest post by W. Tecumseh Fitch]

The point of my essay, written on Darwin's birthday, was to revive interest in Darwin's long-neglected ideas about language evolution, not to offer (or defend) my own model. Derek Bickerton's critique of Darwin's musical protolanguage model suggests that our hominin ancestors lived out their terrified lives on the treeless savannah, cowed into silence by their many predators. This "fact" renders absurd, Bickerton claims, Darwin's notion that our ancestors evolved learned, complex vocalizations ("song", for simplicity, hereafter) before language.

By dubbing Darwin's idea "bizarre" and "absurd," Bickerton reveals his unwillingness to engage in a sympathetic interpretation of the musical protolanguage hypothesis first advanced by Darwin (and others who have followed in his footsteps). But as philosopher Suzanne Langer observed "The chance that the key ideas of any professional scholar's work are pure nonsense is small; much greater the chance that a devastating refutation is based on a superficial reading or even a distorted one, subconsciously twisted by a desire to refute" (p. ix, Langer, 1962).

My goal here is only to show that Bickerton's interpretation is of this superficial and distorted sort, and because of this and some factual errors cited below, that his attempt at a devastating refutation misses its mark.

First, Bickerton misses the central point of Darwin's hypothesis: to explain the origin of vocal learning in the hominid line. This is an indubitable capacity in our species, indubitably lacking in other apes, and there must be an evolutionary explanation for it. Although it is possible that vocal learning is a "spandrel", a by-product of some other evolutionary change (e.g. large brains), it does not seem absurd to suppose that this capacity was selected, for some reason or another. If it was not in the mute Australopithecines of the Bickertonian savanna, and did not play a role in pair- or mother-infant bonding, it must have happened at some other time, for some other reason – but it happened.

Darwin simply, and correctly, observed that the capacity for vocal learning is not uniquely human, but is shared with birds, and it was this central observation upon which he built his theory. This observation, and the deductions Darwin drew from it, have subsequently been supported by additional comparative data from many species, from hummingbirds to seals and whales, of which Darwin was unaware. It is true, obviously, that language has many other critical components besides vocal control — vocal learning is one of several speech- and music-related mechanisms in our species, and language per se involves several others in addition (most notably complex syntax and semantics). But vocal learning did evolve in our species, and Darwin's hypothesis of an evolutionary route through song is a reasonable one, well-supported by abundant data.

Further, the human capacity for music has much in common with language: it is another early-developing trait, found in all human cultures, and Darwin's hypothesis has the virtue of explaining the continued existence of music along with language. This too, like vocal learning, needs to be explained if we are to understand human evolution.

From a historical viewpoint, Bickerton's critique is reminisicent of that of Darwin's nemesis, the linguist Max Müller. It was Müller who began coining the (unfortunately long-lived) nicknames for many models of language evolution, dismissing Darwin's "sing song" theory with the same brief sneer as the older onomatopoeia and interjectional hypotheses, which he nicknamed "bow wow" and "pooh-pooh" (Müller, 1861, 1873) Turnabout being fair play, Müller's own theory of semi-mystical resonance between words and things was dubbed the "ding dong" theory [(Noiré, 1917)]. Bickerton's "yodelling Australopithecines" image has the same absurd comic flair. But sneers and derogatory nicknames, however rhetorically effective, are not scientific arguments.

To close, I will only point out three key factual errors in Bickerton's critique:

1) Maggie Tallerman's critique of holistic protolanguage has been answered convincingly, point by point, by Kenny Smith recently (Smith, 2008). In a journal issue that, if I'm not mistaken, Bickerton himself co-edited…

2) Most paleoanthropologists now agree that the environment in which much of human evolution occurred was not the unitary "savannah" imagined by Bickerton, but an ecologically diverse environment better characterized as "mixed woodlands" (Kingston, Marino, & Hill, 1994). Our ancestors probably had plenty of trees to climb, and they probably did so regularly, as the lasting arboreal adaptations of the Australopithecines attest. Indeed it seems likely that Australopithecines built nests in the trees for sleeping, just as do modern chimpanzees and orangutans (Sabater Pi, Veà, & Serrallonga, 1997). Given that all apes persist in using loud vocalizations to stay in contact, for example chimpanzee pant-hoots, it is surprising that someone with an imagination as fertile as Bickerton's can't conceive of any function for loud nocturnal vocalizations in early hominins. He should consult (Mithen, 2005) for some inspiration.

3) Bickerton finds it "absurd" to suppose that a mostly-terrestrial, moderate-sized primate would be highly vocal, producing loud, repetitive vocalizations. What about Theropithecus gelada, the grassland living gelada baboon? These are mostly-terrestrial African primates, preyed upon by leopards, dogs, and humans, and whose fossil remains are also known from Olduvai Gorge. Geladas are extremely vocal and indeed noted for their vocal complexity (Aich, Moos-Heilen, & Zimmerman, 1990; Richman, 1976), and interestingly are one of the only primates for whom claims have been made of rhythmic, synchronized vocalizations (Richman, 1978, 1987). Whether Richman's claims about the musicality of gelada vocalizations hold up or not, there can be no doubt that geladas are highly vocal terrestrial primates, in apparent violation of Bickerton's evolutionary principles, and who evolved in a grassy, nearly treeless environment.

Most primates, whether arboreal or terrestrial, are highly vocal in at least some circumstances, as are humans today, and I conclude that Bickerton provides no good argument to suppose that hominins have ever been otherwise.

In conclusion, the discipline of language evolution is full of questions, and the field is only likely to make empirical progress if practitioners find it in their hearts and heads to sympathetically read, understand and compare multiple hypotheses, even those that initially seem unintuitive or even "absurd". Far too many unknowns remain about our species' past for Darwin's hypothesis to be dismissed so quickly, on such scant evidence and weak argument.

Especially on Darwin's birthday, and the 150th anniversary of his greatest book…


Aich, H., Moos-Heilen, R., & Zimmerman, E. 1990. "Vocalizations of adult gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada): Acoustic structure and behavioral context." Folia primatologica, 55: 109-132.
Kingston, John D, Marino, Bruno D, & Hill, Andrew. 1994. "Isotopic Evidence for Neogene Hominid Paleoenvironments in the Kenya Rift Valley." Science, 264: 955-959.
Langer, Susanne K. 1962. Philosophical Sketches. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Mithen, Steven. 2005. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Müller, Friederich Max. 1861. "The theoretical stage, and the origin of language". In Lectures on the Science of Language. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.
Müller, Friederich Max. 1873. "Lectures on Mr Darwin's philosophy of language." Fraser's Magazine, 7-8: 147-233.
Noiré, Ludwig. 1917. The Origin and Philosophy of Language. Chicago and London: Open Court Publishing.
Richman, B. 1976. "Some vocal distinctive features used by gelada monkeys." Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 60: 718-724.
Richman, Bruce. 1978. "The synchronisation of voices by gelada monkeys." Primates, 19: 569-558.
Richman, Bruce. 1987. "Rhythm and Melody in Gelada Vocal Exchanges." Primates, 28: 199-223.
Sabater Pi, Jordi, Veà, Joaquim J, & Serrallonga, Jordi. 1997. "Did the First Hominids Build Nests?" Current Anthropology, 38: 914-917.
Smith, Kenny. 2008. "Is a holistic protolanguage a plausible precursor to language? A test case for a modern evolutionary linguistics." Interaction Studies, 9: 1-17.


  1. Bill Walderman said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    "Most primates, whether arboreal or terrestrial, are highly vocal in at least some circumstances, as are humans today, and I conclude that Bickerton provides no good argument to suppose that hominins have ever been otherwise."

    Though I can't produce quantitative evidence, modern human babies and children are often loud and strident in asserting their claims on the attention of adults, and can't easily be made to shut up regardless of environmental factors (e.g., in restaurants). Doesn't this tend to undercut the argument against Darwin's theory that the risk of becoming hyena snacks made it too dangerous for our ancestors to break into song on the savannahs? Isn't it likely that either the noisy behavior of hominin children or the entire hominin line itself would have been selected out of existence if that argument were valid? (Sorry about posting this comment a second time.)

  2. Mary Kuhner said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    Ape lifestyles are exceptionally complex. I'm skeptical of any argument that starts with "Obviously, they would have no use for…" or "Obviously, they could not afford to…" Science fiction is riddled with these: I'm thinking particularly of Larry Niven's "How much intelligence does it take to sneak up on a leaf?" argument for why omnivores and carnivores are more intelligent than herbivores, an argument that does not deal with elephants well at all.

    I have recently been reading _Chimpanzees of the Tai Forest_, and I'm struck by how essential vocalization is to their cooperative fighting and hunting strategies. The Tai chimpanzees live in dense jungle, but those strategies wouldn't necessarily be abandoned due to a change in habitat. Perhaps rather than hominins hiding fearfully from hyenas, we should be picturing something more like a modern chimpanzee band, where an attacked animal screams bloody murder and ten more come running to its rescue.

    The other detail from this book that struck me was the use of drumming and screaming by (usually) non-combatant females to inflate the apparent size of a fighting group. Massed vocalizations are intimidating–this is still true of humans today–and a group may profit from coordinating its vocalizations to make them more impressive. An ear-splitting sort of song, maybe, but potentially a song.

    Chimps are very noisy, and so are humans; the default hypothesis, it seems to me, is that we inherited our noisiness from the common ancestor, savannah or no savannah. I have real trouble believing that we became quiet and then regained noisiness–where's the evidence for this?

  3. ken said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    It is possible humans evolved in a semi-aquatic environment as Elaine Morgan has argued. One of the incidental points she makes there is relevant to this case, namely that the breath control one needs for speaking is selected for among divers. If you can hold your breath underwater, then you can control the release of air in the way you must do to talk. And being able to dive (for safety or for food) is a more immediate adaptive advantage than being able to talk for a long time. None of the savanna's big roarers can go on at length the way human speakers can. Fitch and Bickerton's discussion of the selective advantages of human song assumes a savanna (or 'mixed') environment, but the real evolutionary origins of human speech may perhaps be in our past as semi-aquatic divers. Worth thinking about.

  4. Jim said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    His is saying that early hominids kept quiet so that predators wouldn't notice them? Most predators can find a human by smell – we stink about as loudly as we yell.

  5. Janice Huth Byer said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

    Bill Walderman makes a point well worth posting, any time this topic heads a new thread.

    He's right. Children can be impossible to silence before a certain age. I know of only two sure-fire M.O.s: Breast-feeding – IF they're hungry – or singing.

    Hush, little baby, don't you cry.
    Hush, little baby, don't say a word.
    Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.
    And if that mockingbird don't sing,
    Mama's gonna buy you [everything].
    The evolutionary advantage of singing to quiet and lull babies and tots to sleep, hence the term lullabies, before they bring every hyena from miles around to feast on the whole family, makes sense.

  6. Forrest said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    Bill's comment ( the first on this post ) raises a fascinating point:

    Though I can't produce quantitative evidence, modern human babies and children are often loud and strident in asserting their claims on the attention of adults, and can't easily be made to shut up regardless of environmental factors (e.g., in restaurants).

    Richard Dawkins mentions this behavior in other species, particularly birds, in The Selfish Gene. He talks about the conflict-of-interest between children and parents ( see: Robert Trivers ), and suggests this behavior is the child's trump card. A youth who doesn't get what it wants – more food than the parent intends to dole out, for example – can hold itself ( the parents genetic investment ) or the entire nest hostage. If silence can only be bought with food, and the alternative is predation, this would be an effective strategy.

    I'm not sure whether this was a pet theory of Dawkins or whether the 35 years have had anything to say. If there's anything to this idea, it might provide another interpretation of temper tantrums.

  7. chris said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    But as philosopher Suzanne Langer observed "The chance that the key ideas of any professional scholar's work are pure nonsense is small; much greater the chance that a devastating refutation is based on a superficial reading or even a distorted one, subconsciously twisted by a desire to refute"

    Point to Prof. Fitch, I think. Like Mary Kuhner, I too am inclined to react with instant skepticism to any arguments filled with rhetorical questions and other utterances intended to suggest that any opposing viewpoint is self-evidently absurd. Bickerton's post is dotted with these: "What could possibly have been the functions of song for a pre-human species in largely treeless grasslands? ", "what would be the point of noisily-defended frontiers?" – the only way in which this sort of thing advances the sum total of human knowledge is by demonstrating the author's own intellectual limits. There is a certain arrogance in these kinds of utterances too, which also appears in Bickerton's helpful heads-up that "in Adam's Tongue I go more deeply into the transition problem than anyone ever has before."

    By contrast, the only point in Fitch's post that strikes a false note is his concession that "sneers and derogatory nicknames" might be "rhetorically effective". Personally I find the exact opposite to be the case.

  8. Silencio en la sabana: Respuesta de Fitch a Bickerton « Biolingüística said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    […] bien, Fitch ha vuelto al ataque y ha publicado una respuesta a Bickerton en Language Log.  Y -quizá este mal decirlo- tiene pasajes cuasi cómicos: Derek Bickerton's critique of […]

  9. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 12:48 am

    I think Janice Huth Byer's observations are to the point. I'd add (as a professional musician) that the bilateral symmetry of the human body fosters a two-beat rhythm in the lullaby, as in the one quoted; "Rockabye baby" is in 6/8 time, to be sure, but the six beats are divided into two groups of three when the song is sung while rocking a baby to sleep.

  10. dr pepper said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 1:06 am

    I still like the idea of moving from preverbal group cohesion calls to pep rallies.

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 3:48 am

    In defense of Larry Niven, that argument was advanced by a character in one of his stories, not by Niven himself, and was clearly meant to be recognized as biased.

  12. Jesús Sanchis said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 4:10 am

    From Fitch's post: "as philosopher Suzanne Langer observed "The chance that the key ideas of any professional scholar's work are pure nonsense is small; much greater the chance that a devastating refutation is based on a superficial reading or even a distorted one, subconsciously twisted by a desire to refute" (p. ix, Langer, 1962)."

    I don't think Bikerton is necessarily against Darwin's 'key ideas', because I presume Darwin's ideas about the origin of human language are a minor component of his theories. I have read sa few thing about linguistics, origins of language, etc. and it seems that Darwin does not play here a significant role, at least until some linguists have considered his ideas interesting. Fitch talks about Darwin or Müller, and he could also talk about Aristotle or any other ancient writer. He and other Chomskyan linguists need to write about something, because it's their job, even if they have nothing relevant to say. Maybe they could do something more useful by trying to see human language as something more than a reflection of formal language or a collection of rules and parameters. Obviously, it is safer and simpler to discuss old theories or to handle standard languages. I recently read Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch's famous article (2002: "The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?", in Science). On page 1569 you can read the following: "it is important to distinguish between questions concerning language as a communicative system and questions concerning the computations underlying this system, such as those underlying recursion". – Really? Is this really how language works and how it must be studied? I'm afraid the whole debate about the origin of languages in American academia is influenced by this kind of preliminary assumptions, which are at least quite dubious. Page 1570: "In the varieties of modern linguistics that concern us here, the term "language" is used quite differently to refer to an internal component of the mind/brain (…) We assume that this is the primary object of interest for the study of the evolution and function of the language faculty". Is this really the 'primary object of interest'? I don't think so. The main point of interest is not the individual 'computations' of a human. The most important thing is the collective activity in which language was born.

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    I think Prof. Fitch is misrepresenting Prof. Bickerton's objections. He was saying that the message wasn't the medium.

  14. [links] Link salad is still alive | jlake.com said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    […] "Silence on the Savannah!" On Bickerton's Yodeling Australopithecines and Missing … — That might be my favorite blog post title of the year so far. Interesting post, too. And wouldn't "Yodeling Australopithecines" be a great name for a rock band? […]

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    And I believe Bickerton was suggesting that the medium may well not be the massage either.

  16. Jim said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    “Darwinism is incapable of explaining the origin of consciousness and language. Language and consciousness (latent consciousness) must codevelop within an individual. Moreover, “natural selection” (Darwinism) has nothing to do with evolution. Understanding the true nature of life’s progress leads to a rational explanation of consciousness and of the origin of language; language did not “evolve.”. Check out:


  17. David Marjanović said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Perhaps rather than hominins hiding fearfully from hyenas, we should be picturing something more like a modern chimpanzee band, where an attacked animal screams bloody murder and ten more come running to its rescue.

    Exactly. How does one hide from a hyena?

    It is possible humans evolved in a semi-aquatic environment as Elaine Morgan has argued.

    Except that the fossil record, among other things, is completely incompatible with it.

    “Darwinism is incapable of explaining the origin of consciousness and language. Language and consciousness (latent consciousness) must codevelop within an individual.

    Blah, blah, blah. Unsupported assertions.

    Moreover, “natural selection” (Darwinism) has nothing to do with evolution.

    Yeah, right.

    You know, come over here if you want to learn something. Though maybe check out the Index to Creationist Claims first.

  18. Derek Bickerton said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 7:27 am

    Let me answer the points made by Tecumseh Fitch in his latest posting:

    A. I don’t explain the origin of vocal learning.
    Well, what would select for vocal learning better than having a few words to learn? Vocal learning is not the result of some “deep homology” but has arisen spontaneously in a wide variety of species, each of which required vocal learning for its own particular needs. Fitch’s assumption that I ought to be providing a source for vocal learning that preceded the origin of language seems based on the strange dogma found in Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002: that everything needed for language (except, perhaps, the ability to create recursive structure) must have been present in the hominid line before language could emerge. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no empirical basis for this belief. Evolution does not need to get all its ducks in a row before it can create novel faculties. To the contrary, new faculties typically emerge in some very crude and primitive form and then themselves act as selective pressures for traits that will subserve and expand those faculties. So a compositional protolanguage served as the selective pressure for the development of vocal learning.

    B. Kenny Smith’s 2008 article disproves the arguments against a holistic protolanguage.
    Yes, I co-edited the journal issue in question, and I actually did read this article. It’s one of the better holophrastic papers, makes some good and useful points against Tallerman, and protracts the debate, but is far from the tie-breaker that Fitch claims. More to the point, it doesn’t even attempt to tackle the strongest argument against a holophrastic protolanguage.
    A holophrastic protolanguage consists of things that are basically like animal calls, and it’s true that we can roughly translate many such calls into humanese sentences: “Come mate with me”, “Stay off my territory”. The basic idea in a holophrastic protolanguage is that these calls are then fractionated into words. But the basic assumption of holophrasis is that every holophrastic call is actually the exact equivalent of a particular sentence. It must be so. How else could you transition from holophrasis to compositionality? How else could you get agreement on what each of the fractionated parts of the holophrase—the putative words–actually meant?
    In fact, animal calls are not the equivalent of sentences. They are designed for entirely different purposes and function in entirely different ways. Take the famous “vervet eagle alarm”. It could translate as “Look out, here’s an eagle”. It could equally well translate as “Danger from above” or “Quick, hide in the bushes!” How would any primate know whether to fractionate this into “look” and “eagle”, or “danger” and “above”, or “hide” and “bushes”? And if they couldn’t know this, they couldn’t fractionate a holistic protolanguage into words, even if they had a holophrastic protolanguage to fractionate in the first place.

    C. Most human evolution did not occur in the savanna.
    Did I say it did? The quote from Adam’s Tongue that I gave did not, naturally, include the pages preceding it where I discussed at some length the mosaic woodland which, as I am of course well aware, human ancestors inhabited for three or four million years after they split from the other apes. And Fitch himself knew perfectly well that I knew this when he accused me of imagining a “unitary savannah”. He knew this because on October 30, 2008, I sent him the chapter in which this information is contained.
    But in any case, the careful reader of my original rebuttal will already have noted my real point: “To assume that, even if our ancestors had sung before, they would go on singing under these conditions is absurd.” In other words, my point was that, whatever australopithecines might have done, hominids would hardly have persisted in doing it once the great drying set in around 2mya and they really did have to subsist in a savanna environment.

    D. Geladas are ground-living savanna primates, and they make a lot of noise, so why shouldn’t human ancestors have done the same?
    To me, this is more shocking than being accused of things I don’t believe. Fitch is a biologist. That means he must know something about ecology, realize what a niche is and how it determines how a species behaves. If the niches of geladas and hominids are totally different, he must surely know that you can’t use geladas as a model for possible hominid behavior.
    Well, their niches are totally different. There are three things and only three that geladas and early Homo have in common. They are primates, they are terrestrial, and they live in savannas. In just about everything else they are different. Geladas eat grass and hardly anything but grass. Human ancestors could eat pretty well anything except grass. Geladas spend most of their foraging time hunkered down, hunching across the grass a meter or so at a time. The long-legged Homo erectus wouldn’t have had long legs if he hadn’t had to use them to cover great distances. The day range of geladas can be measured in meters. The day range of Homo had to be measured in kilometers, given the scarcity of non-grass comestibles in savannas. Geladas move around in troops of 300 to 400, indeed groups up to 600 or more have been recorded. Human ancestors could never have foraged in groups even approaching this size—they must have traveled in much smaller units.
    Precisely because they’re grass-eaters, geladas can live together in large numbers, which (a) reduces the chances of predation—there’s safety in numbers—and (b) makes irrelevant their use of vocalization—out in the grassland, a huge bunch of them together, any predator is going to see them regardless of whether they vocalize or not. For hominids it was different. Small groups at long distances from other small groups, they might get together at night but during the day they’d have to go far and wide to find food, and for much of that—opportunistic stalking of birds and small mammals, ambush hunting and so on—they’d have to keep dead quiet. What, exactly, would they have needed elaborate vocalizations for?

    And that brings us to the meat of the matter. Fitch’s four points serve to disguise the fact that he has no answers to the two really serious questions involved here.
    Question No. 1: For what function did hominids need complex vocalizations? (Note: it would have to be a function basic and essential enough to offset the risk from attracting predators—“loud nocturnal vocalizations to stay in contact” won’t cut it, because at night they would have been careful to keep in close physical contact!)
    Question No. 2: How did meaning get into the vocalizations? There have been any number of attempts to explain this, but I have yet to see one that is even halfway convincing—and Fitch doesn’t even try.

    One final word. Contra Fitch, the “singing ape” is not in any way a “key idea” of Darwin’s, any more than my original article showed a “twisted desire to refute” it. In a volume of several hundred pages Darwin devotes a few sentences to it, alongside a couple of other possible language origins—and Fitch himself mentions all three! So to talk about “Darwin's musical protolanguage model” both expands and distorts what Darwin actually said. And to genuflect before every casual remark a writer made is not admiration—it’s idolatry. Idolatry of Darwin does not increase, but rather detracts from, appreciation of the many great things that Darwin did say.

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