A machine for language? Certainly, say the neurophysiologists, busy studying the language specializations of the human brain and trying to identify their evolutionary antecedents. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky talk about machinelike "modules" in the brain for syntax, arguing that language is more an instinct (a complex behavior triggered by simple environmental stimuli) than an acquired skill like riding a bicycle.
But structured language presents the same evolutionary problems as feathered forelimbs for flight: you need a lot of specializations to fly even a little bit. How do you get them, if evolution has no foresight and the intermediate stages do not have intermediate payoffs? Some say that the Darwinian scheme for gradual species self-improvement cannot explain our most valued human capability, the one that sets us so far above the apes, language itself.
William Calvin and Derek Bickerton suggest that other evolutionary developments, not directly related to language, allowed language to evolve in a way that eventually promoted a Chomskian syntax. They compare these intermediate behaviors to the curb-cuts originally intended for wheelchair users. Their usefulness was soon discovered by users of strollers, shopping carts, rollerblades, and so on. The authors argue that reciprocal altruism and ballistic movement planning were "curb-cuts" that indirectly promoted the formation of structured language. Written in the form of a dialogue set in Bellagio, Italy, Lingua ex Machina presents an engaging challenge to those who view the human capacity for language as a winner-take-all war between Chomsky and Darwin.
Syntax is arguably the most human-specific aspect of language. Despite the proto-linguistic capacities of some animals, syntax appears to be the last major evolutionary transition in humans that has some genetic basis. Yet what are the elements to a scenario that can explain such a transition? In this book, experts from linguistics, neurology and neurobiology, cognitive psychology, ecology and evolutionary biology, and computer modeling address this question. Unlike most previous work on the evolution of language, Biological Foundations and Origin of Syntax follows through on a growing consensus among researchers that language can be profitably separated into a number of related and interacting but largely autonomous functions, each of which may have a distinguishable evolutionary history and neurological base. The contributors argue that syntax is such a function.The book describes the current state of research on syntax in different fields, with special emphasis on areas in which the findings of particular disciplines might shed light on problems faced by other disciplines. It defines areas where consensus has been established with regard to the nature, infrastructure, and evolution of the syntax of natural languages; summarizes and evaluates contrasting approaches in areas that remain controversial; and suggests lines for future research to resolve at least some of these disputed issues.
Andrea Baronchelli, Derek Bickerton, Dorothy V. M. Bishop, Denis Bouchard, Robert Boyd, Jens Brauer, Ted Briscoe, David Caplan, Nick Chater, Morten H. Christiansen, Terrence W.Deacon, Francesco d’Errico, Anna Fedor, Julia Fischer, Angela D. Friederici, Tom Givón, Thomas Griffiths, Balázs Gulyás, Peter Hagoort, Austin Hilliard, James R. Hurford, Péter Ittzés, Gerhard Jäger, Herbert Jäger, Edith Kaan, Simon Kirby, Natalia L. Komarova, Tatjana Nazir, Frederick Newmeyer, Kazuo Okanoya, Csaba Plèh, Peter J. Richerson, Luigi Rizzi, Wolf Singer, Mark Steedman, Luc Steels, Szabolcs Számadó, Eörs Szathmáry, Maggie Tallerman, Jochen Triesch, Stephanie Ann White