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Toward an Evolutionary Biology of LanguageReview - Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language
by Philip Lieberman
Belknap Press, 2006
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Aug 29th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 35)

The study of the nature and development of the largely unique linguistic abilities of the human species has been a long standing enterprise for many generations of scientists and non-scientists alike.  Notwithstanding the enduring attention that this topic has generated, its study has yet to yield a comprehensive framework capable of explaining not only how these abilities have come about, but also how they are exercised by the brain of contemporary human beings.  In Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language, Philip Lieberman argues that a fresh understanding of humans' ability to produce and comprehend speech can be derived from the study of the complex physical machinery that allows for the production and comprehension of speech sounds in real-time social interactions. 

At a fundamental level, Lieberman's approach is to focus on the interplay between the physical aspects of the machinery and its multi-layered functioning. His attention is devoted to performing meticulous and scientifically grounded comparisons between the communication devices and abilities of humans and those of non-human animals.  As most scientifically grounded and successful research enterprises that place seemingly self-contained experimental findings into a bigger picture, Lieberman's approach is guided by a solid theoretical framework.  This is not to say that the author is blinded by his choice of the evolutionary biology framework based on the work of Charles Darwin to the point of discarding facts that do not fit with it.  On the contrary, this framework is used rather skillfully to entertain some captivating and creative ideas about the evolution of the human capacity to communicate by means of speech sounds. It follows that the author is not kept hostage to the multitude of research findings that originate from dissimilar areas of scientific inquiry such as genetics and linguistics. On the contrary, Lieberman organizes and describes such findings artfully giving readers enough information to evaluate the extent to which his explanations are empirically grounded.

Every time Lieberman goes beyond the evidence to venture an interpretation of the facts uncovered by one of his carefully sequenced descriptions of scientific investigations, he makes it easy for readers to demarcate ''facts'' and ''conjectures''.  This is a challenging task because of the nature of the ''facts'' that he discusses in the book, from contemporary evidence (such as the fine-grained differences in the communication devices of existing human and non-human animals), to archeological evidence (such as the differences in the devices of existing animals and of their ancestors, both human and non-human). Undoubtedly, as he moves away from contemporary evidence, the chances of entertaining conjectural lines of thought increase exponentially. Nevertheless, the author's transparent style and modesty of exposition ensure that the chances of readers mistaking ''facts'' for ''conjectures'' remain slim.

Obviously, there are other attractive aspects to Lieberman's book that are noteworthy. Most of all, this is a book that tells a story about how a methodological approach that incorporates different knowledge domains into a scientific area of inquiry can yield a cohesive bundle of findings and a challenging new way of looking at them.  Superficially, the book appears to concentrate on, and be limited to, language and its origin.  However, in it, language is portrayed as an ability that has flourished on the larger platform of human cognition. Thus, cognitive functioning and its neurological substrates aid Lieberman in his attempts at understanding the linguistic abilities of the human species.

By means of this methodological approach, Lieberman devotes his attention to the nature of the biological bases of human language and relies on evidence and conjectures about its evolution to put forward an organized attempt to confute the modular view of linguistic abilities widespread among many prominent cognitive scientists.  He agrees that human beings are biologically determined to learn and use language. However, he thinks that scholars of cognitive sciences (mostly linguists) are guilty of having ignored the findings of biology and its main theoretical framework, and of having limited their intellectual enterprises to some ''unique'' features of human speech (those pertaining to syntax and the lexicon) while widely ignoring others (those pertaining to the voluntary nature of human speech and to its spectacularly fast speed of transmission relative to other forms of communication). 

Even if not all the pieces fit the image that the author proposes (mostly because of incomplete or unclear findings), the evidence is compelling that the variety of human linguistic abilities, including syntactic, semantic, lexical, and phonological/phonetic processing, depends on the coordinated functioning of many areas of the human brain. Lieberman's reasoning relies on the idea that the brain and other physical devices such as a species-specific tongue and supra-laryngeal vocal tract are, at their core, evolutionary adaptations.  Under this general idea falls Lieberman's more specific claim that in the course of human evolution physical structures that were originally devoted to motor control have been modified to function as speech processing centers.  Although his claim that there is no genetically transmitted innate knowledge of syntax seems to logically and elegantly be derived from the biological and behavioral evidence that he forcefully presents, the same evidence does not seem to, by itself, confute the possibility of a language module.  It rather outlines the possibility of a language ''device'' that relies on the working of several, empirically separable areas of the brain whose general functional properties may be those of other devices (e.g., neurological areas devoted to motor activities).  The fact that some brain mechanisms devoted to syntactic processing have antecedents outside the domain of language simply reinforces the idea of neurological mechanisms that have optimized their functioning by evolving into apparatuses that perform specialized functions.  Of course, this line of reasoning may require a conceptual reframing of the notion of ''linguistic module'', perhaps resulting from a shift in focus from syntax to other equally fascinating properties of human speech (e.g., its speed of processing and its voluntary nature).  

On the whole, Lieberman's book is a captivating read for a wide-ranging audience, from seasoned scholars of cognitive science, who will find the author's claims grounds for serious examination, to undergraduate and graduate students interested in cognitive science who will find his writing instructive and (perhaps) worthy of a career in the area.  It is a book that combines detailed evidence with big-picture ideas and that reminds us all that the study of language is far from being completed.  The hope is that Lieberman and other equally serious scientists will continue to challenge existing theoretical frameworks so as to approach the possibility of a time when our understanding of human linguistic abilities, involving both perception and production, is less uncertain.  

 

© 2006 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.


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