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The Evolution of LanguageReview - The Evolution of Language
by W. Tecumseh Fitch
Cambridge University Press, 2010
Review by Christina Behme
Feb 22nd 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 8)

Tecumseh Fitch claims that The Evolution of Language "fills a currently empty niche. Despite an ever-increasing number of accessible books on language evolution, none attempts the comprehensive overview of the sort given here. Instead, most provide long and detailed arguments favouring one particular hypothesis or point of view" (p.4). The table of contents shows that Fitch has set himself a very ambitious goal; the 15 chapters (grouped thematically in 4 sections) cover virtually all aspects important to modern debates about language evolution. The reader will be informed about current definitions of language and how these relate to evolutionary questions, the importance of comparative study of animal communication, the relevance of findings in hominid paleontology and archeology, important neurological similarities and differences of vocal control in humans and non-human animals, and the history of language-evolution theorizing culminating in the sophisticated contemporary theories. Fitch discusses in some detail several theories based on lexical protolanguage (Bickerton, 1990), gestural protolanguage (Hewes, 1973; Arbib, 2005b), and musical protolanguage (Darwin, 1871; Mithen, 2005), considers important factors of evolutionary relevance (co-operative communication, social bonding and group cohesion, sexual selection, etc.) and introduces computational simulations of language evolution (Kirby1999).

It is presumably true that no other single author volume attempts such a broad coverage of language evolution and, not surprisingly, one endorsement for the book applauds its "encyclopedic reach" (Corballis). Given the increasingly multidisciplinary character of language evolution research, it is also true that it would be very desirable to have one volume that brings together the most important insights from these different perspectives and allows researchers to become familiar with debates outside their own area of expertise. And, undoubtedly, for students who want to enter this exciting field of research, an accessible, yet well-researched, introduction to current problems would be an invaluable tool. Thus, there is certainly a market for The Evolution of language. The question is whether or not Fitch's volume will satisfy the needs of this market. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the short answer to this question is 'no' for the segment of the market that would have benefited most from Fitch's book: readers who are new to the field of language evolution. Below I will explain in some detail why I came to this conclusion.

One of the most persistent problems is the inconsistency with which some key terms are used. Early on Fitch suggests that we need a comparative, pluralistic approach to tackle the topic of language evolution. Because language is not a 'monolithic whole' but "a complex system made up of several independent subsystems" (p.17) we need to be specific about what we refer to when we discuss the evolution of language. On the following pages Fitch gives a somewhat technical overview of distinctions that have been introduced by Chomsky (E- and I-language) and Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (language faculty in the broad and narrow sense) and that inform his use of the term 'language'. He cautions that the "unspecified use of ...the word 'language' probably best avoided" (p.24). This is a commendable attitude. However, Fitch's own use of terminology repeatedly slides back and forth between referring to some specified subcomponent of language (sometimes labeled as I-language, sometimes only evidenced by context) and the sum of phenomena that are in need of evolutionary explanation. As a result I was rarely sure exactly what Fitch was talking about when he used the term 'language'. Someone who is already familiar with the issues might be able to guess how Fitch intended to use 'language' in a given passage but a 'novice' could easily get confused.

Another problem is that Fitch attempts to satisfy the needs of everyone in his target audience. This results sometimes in meeting the needs of virtually no one. For example, his lengthy section explaining evolutionary terminology and concepts (35 pages) will probably add nothing of interest for anyone who is already familiar with evolutionary thinking. On the other hand, the mostly broad-brush accounts do not provide enough detail for someone who has no prior knowledge. Similar complaints apply to the sections on hominid paleontology and archeology, brain evolution, vocal tract anatomy and neural control of vocalization. The latter shortcomings are more problematic because only a small group of the target audience will be experts in the respective fields while the majority has to rely on Fitch as 'teacher'. The price to be paid for this reliance is not only incomplete information but also a considerable amount of misinformation. I am not an expert in many of the fields Fitch covered. Therefore, I found it quite alarming that in most cases where I thought 'this can't be right' and contacted experts my suspicions were confirmed. I will provide several examples below but urge readers not to rely on this necessarily incomplete sample. My focus is on the early chapters because here Fitch lays the foundation for the discussion of the contemporary models of language evolution and introduces research results from the many different areas that need to be considered. This foundation needs to be solid to carry the weight of the final section "Evaluating phylogenetic models of language evolution".

In several cases the views Fitch introduces are described in terms that do not do any justice to the subtlety of those views. For example when discussing the evolution of syntax Fitch writes: "Tomasello argues that the syntactic features of human language develop by a purely cultural process of grammaticalization, under the constraints of communication. We can thus characterize Tomasello's stance on syntax as purely glossogenetic, with no remaining phylogenetic component" (pp. 116-7). This might sound like a concise summary, except that Tomasello himself disagrees with this cartoon of his position: "Grammaticalization takes place within all kinds of cognitive constraints, etc. ...  All I deny is innate grammatical categories per se" (Tomasello, p.c.). As a result of Fitch's inaccuracy readers who are not already familiar with Tomasello's view might not consider it because it sounds quite implausible. In my opinion this would not be a desirable outcome.

Another misleading description occurs when Fitch introduces pidgins and creoles: "pidgins ... absorbed significant vocabulary from multiple sources, but lacked syntactic complexity ... [and] serve as substrate for the formation of "true" languages, with all the complexities (phrase structure, function words, negation and qualification etc.) of other human languages. Such new languages are called creoles" (p. 379). It turns out that the definition of pidgins "is certainly not a definition that most people would agree with" (Lefebvre, p.c.) and Fitch's discussion does not reflect the fact that the pidgins/creoles distinction has been questioned in recent years. Given the importance that the alleged creolization of languages has for some accounts of language evolution, it would seem important that the reader is at least advised of well-known challenges to the position Fitch presents (e.g., Sankoff & Vincent, 1980; Mufwene, 2001; Arends, 2001).

When introducing computational modeling of language evolution Fitch writes: "In computer modeling all parameters of the system are under the programmer's control. But this power comes at a cost: all aspects of the hypothesis being tested must be specified explicitly, and this represents a great virtue of such models" (p. 381). Again, it turns out that accuracy was sacrificed in favor of a simplistic cartoon. The experts I consulted suggested "Fitch...misunderstands the power of complex computation and the notion of emergence" (Edelman, p.c.), and "the reality of modeling is more complex. The statement that 'all parameters of the system are under the programmer's control' could be (and certainly has been) taken as indicating that any outcome is programmed in there by the researcher. This is generally not the case -- especially with evo models that tend to have complex dynamics" (Christiansen, p.c.). Readers who are not already familiar with computational modeling of language evolution are possibly unaware of these facts and they could draw the wrong conclusions from Fitch's description.

Further, sometimes Fitch draws conclusions that are stronger than the evidence he supplies supports. For example he asserts "that apes can learn a large number of referential signs with training ... [and infers that] there is a latent cognitive ability in chimpanzees that apparently goes unexpressed in natural chimpanzee communication" (p. 164). From this he concludes that the ability to learn many arbitrary signals is "one important prerequisite of human language that was already present in our LCA [last common ancestor] with the chimpanzees" (p. 165). Similarly he explains that chimpanzees use tools for nut cracking and ant fishing and suggests: "Although making stone tools appeared much later in human evolution, the comparative data from chimpanzees in the wild clearly indicate that LCA could use stone tools" (p. 238, original emphasis). In both cases Fitch infers from the fact that a complex cognitive ability is present in humans and chimpanzees that this ability was also present in LCA. While it is reasonable to infer this, one can never take as a given that sharing a trait necessarily shows that this trait was already present in a common ancestor. Fitch himself acknowledges this in other examples he discusses (e.g. pp. 262, 323, 370) by using the appropriately nuanced language. My concern is that a reader who is not familiar with evolutionary thinking could misunderstand the first two examples.

These examples (which are representative of many others) indicate that accuracy is not the main virtue of The Evolution of Language. Unfortunately I have also found some counter evidence to the claim that Fitch would provide a careful, even handed, treatment of competing perspectives. At times the view Fitch favours gets the lion's share of attention while other views are relegated to the sidelines or even distorted. For example, when Fitch discusses syntax he gives an overview of the Chomskyan evolution of transformational grammar, adds the names of proponents of some competing transformational views and mentions only Sampson (1980) as source for "multiple models, which differ in fundamental ways from the contemporary 'mainstream'" (p. 105). This outdated and one-sided discussion would surprise many professional linguists. In Britain there was no single 'contemporary mainstream' position in linguistics during the last century (Sampson, p.c.) and even North America has seen a considerable diversification of linguistic positions during recent decades. Yet, for Fitch seemingly only the Chomskyan view on linguistics is worthy of consideration, as evidenced by his praise for Bickerton who "aims to build bridges between linguistics and evolutionary theory, taking both Chomsky and Darwin seriously" (p. 401). Apparently, for Fitch non-Chomskyan linguistics can be ignored because "many of the hotly debated differences among syntacticians are not particularly relevant to questions in the biology and evolution of language" (p.105). This misrepresents that fact that for instance the debates concerning postulated 'syntactical mechanisms' are directly relevant to evolutionary questions. If it turns out that the current center-piece of Chomskyan minimalism, Merge (the combination of two syntactic objects), follows the path towards non-existence of many earlier Chomskyan concepts, then we do not need to explain how it could have evolved.

The dismissal of non-Chomskyans is not confined to ignoring them. We also find subtle jabs at them. For example, after discussing theories of perjoration (sic: Fitch means pejoration, the development of negative meaning of a word over time) he writes that there is a growing literature on gene/culture co-evolution and cautions that it would be a mistake to interpret this literature as minimizing the role of the biological component for language evolution. "Despite assertions to the contrary (Christiansen and Chater, 2008), the arrival of rapid cultural evolution does not cause biological, genetic evolution to cease, but rather changes and complicates the nature of selection" (p. 92). This cautionary note is justified. However, my reading of  Christiansen & Chater (2008) indicated that the alleged 'assertions to the contrary' have never been made and according to one of the cited authors "Fitch is mischaracterizing what we said" (Christiansen, p.c.). It might be incorrect to assume that Fitch mischaracterized one competing account with the intention to steer readers away from that account. But this effect could occur regardless of what Fitch's intentions were.

And, sadly, we find more explicit negativity towards the views of others. Fitch calls the position that most primates lack voluntary control of their vocal productions dogma, and cites Corballis (2002) and Tallerman (2007) as culprits. Both authors sent me their publications, and the full context of the sentences Fitch had quoted revealed anything but dogmatism in their views. This result prompted me to check the alleged source of the dogmatism. Fitch wrote: "The apparent source of this idea, though rarely cited is Skinner's infamous Verbal Behavior, which states that 'innate responses comprise reflex systems that are difficult if not impossible to modify by operant reinforcement. Vocal behavior below the human level is especially refractory' (Skinner, 1957, p. 463) Over time this 'impossibility' has hardened into dogma" (p. 179). Two points need to be noted here. First, the sentence Fitch quoted above begins "Well defined emotional and other innate responses..." Thus, Skinner's focus was only on a subset of vocalizations. Second, on the next page Skinner explains "This is not to say that lower organisms are incapable of verbal behavior in the present sense. All the controlling relations analyzed [for humans] can be demonstrated in non-human behavior" (p. 464). Here Skinner seems to acknowledge the fact that animals are capable of the kind of vocal control Fitch discusses in support of his own account. I certainly would not want to imply this similarity makes Fitch's view a variant of Skinnerian Behaviorism. Equally, we should reject Fitch's implication that Corballis, Tallerman, and others holding similar views, are perpetuating Skinnerian dogma.

In my opinion, the most explicit evidence for Fitch's unfortunate disrespect for the work of members of the research community he is part of, is evidenced here: "Surprisingly few scholars today even discuss Darwin's theory [of language evolution], much less recognize its many values (with the prominent exception of Donald (1991)). This is, to me, one of the saddest examples of the unscholarly treatment of the topic of language evolution in the modern literature - for it hardly can be claimed that Darwin (1871) is an obscure or difficult-to-obtain book. Like many a classic, it seems to be frequently cited, but rarely read" (p. 399, emphasis added). First, given that this quote follows a discussion of Darwin's refutation of Mueller's challenge that evolution could not account for human language, it is simply not true that contemporary scholars have not acknowledged Darwin's contribution in this context (Pinker & Bloom, 1990; Deacon, 1997; Johannsen, 2005; Wray, 2005; Hurford, 2007; Christiansen & Chater, 2008). Others have discussed Darwin's (1871/1874) theory in varying degrees of detail (e.g., Stam, 1976; Pinker, 1994; Ruhlen, 1994; Studdert-Kennedy, 1998; Miller, 2000; Radick, 2002, 2007; Corballis, 2003, 2009; Johansson, 2005; Mithen, 2005; Arbib, 2005a; Dessalles, 2007; Hurford, 2007; MacNeillage; 2008; Christiansen & Chater, 2008; Chater et al., 2009). Second, it does not seem imperative to consult Darwin on contemporary theorizing. Fitch is correct to point out that some of Darwin's insights were remarkable. But, given the tremendous amount of new data that have been gathered since Darwin wrote about language evolution, studying his views in detail will not add important insights to many contemporary debates. And, in areas where such a discussion is relevant (e.g., history and philosophy of science), we find detailed contemporary treatment of Darwin's ideas  (e.g., Radick, 2000, 2002, 2007; Alter, 1999, 2008). Thus, it seems not to be the case that a neglect to engage with Darwin's theory by some scholars constitutes unscholarly treatment of language evolution, and is it not clear why Fitch would wish to make such a harsh assertion. It does not seem to further the spirit of inclusiveness he claims to promote.

In conclusion, I would not recommend The Evolution of Language to readers who do not already have extensive background knowledge in several of the areas covered.  Fitch has undoubtedly identified many if not all currently important aspects relevant to language evolution and introduced a wealth of current information. It is certainly a valuable contribution to have accumulated this material and it will make the volume probably a good choice for researchers who are intimately familiar with most of the issues. Fortunately, the 'niche' of language evolution literature that encourages cross-disciplinary cooperation is not quite as empty as Fitch claimed; there are several good volumes already on the market. Christiansen & Kirby (2003) and Tallerman (2005) are excellent edited volumes that present the views of many experts to an advanced audience. Johannson (2005) introduces many current debates to a less sophisticated audience and can be recommended especially for its massive bibliography. Tomasello (2008) provides an accessible, engagingly written, comprehensive account from the perspective of one author who clearly acknowledges his own theoretical perspective. Botha & Knight (2009) is an edited volume that focuses on the African origins of human language and introduces recent research from genetics, biology, behavioral ecology, linguistics, archaeology, cognitive science, and anthropology.




I am greatly indebted to Morten Christiansen and Michael Corballis for patiently answering my countless questions. In addition would like to thank Michael Arbib, Shimon Edelman, Simon Gadbois, Claire Lefebvre, Brian MacWhinney, Robert Martin, William Martin, Gregory Radick, Geoffrey Sampson, Maggie Tallerman, and Michael Tomasello for their helpful replies to my queries. I also owe gratitude to Rudolf Botha, James Hurford, and Michael Studdert-Kennedy for reminding me of the virtue of temperance and prompting me to make revisions to an earlier draft. Any remaining errors are, of course, mine, not theirs.




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© 2011 Christina Behme


Christina Behme. Philosophy Department, Dalhousie University


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