February 17, 2009

Hurford virtually ignores anything to do with human evolution

derekbickertonmore on Thu 16 Oct 2008 05:16 PM PDT Permanent Link Cosmos
James Hurford, “The Origins of Meaning”.
Oxford University Press, 2007 Reviewed by Derek Bickerton

James Hurford has been working on the evolution of language for the last two decades. His first paper on this topic appeared in the 1980s (Hurford 1989), antedating the work of Pinker, myself, and just about anyone else currently active in the field. He has written numerous stimulating and insightful, if often controversial, papers and has co-edited two collections of conference proceedings (Hurford et al. 1998, Knight et al. 2000). However, until now he has not attempted any full-length treatment of the subject, so the current volume has aroused considerable interest and high expectations. This volume is the first of two on language evolution; the second, on formal and structural aspects of language, will be published at a later date. [...]

As the foregoing suggests, Hurford brings to his task an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the literature in a half-dozen fields. This knowledge is displayed in a superbly-organized argument into which hundreds of disparate pieces of information are neatly slotted, giving rise to a smoothly-flowing and cohesive whole. Only rarely does his erudition lead him into superfluous detours: his occasional nitpicking to satisfy philosophers, or the discussion of “simultanagnosia” on pages 107-109. For the most part, the reader is swept along effortlessly, despite the inevitable density and complexity of much of the material. For a work aimed both at experts and educated laypersons, his tone is pitch-perfect; he never condescends to nor patronizes the reader, nor does he oversimplify complex material, yet he makes difficult ideas easy to digest and even, quite often, entertaining. He balances opposing arguments fairly, yet seldom equivocates or fails to indicate where his own sympathies lie. For once, book-jacket encomia—“this major intellectual endeavor,” “the major publication dealing with language evolution to date”—do not seem over-strained.

I sincerely wish it were possible to close my review on this note. I genuinely admire what Hurford has done here, and doubt whether anyone else in the field could have synthesized so much information in so palatable and user-friendly a manner. Yet I would be remiss in my duty if I stopped there. Precisely because the book is so good, it succeeds in concentrating and focusing as never before an approach to language evolution that is very widely shared--a view some aspects of which I myself have shared--but one that over the last few years I have come to regard as an obstacle rather than an aid in the search for the evolutionary origins of language. What follows should therefore be regarded not so much as criticism of Hurford and his book as criticism of the tradition that it represents. Indeed, I am in Hurford’s debt, since the clarity and thoroughness of his work has helped to clarify my own thinking on the vitally important issues the book raises.

Hurford mentions two or three times—unlike many writers in the field, he doesn’t hide things—that the fact that humans alone, but no other species, not even those closest to us, have acquired language poses a serious problem for explanations of how language evolved. He frankly admits he has no solution to this problem, but since nobody has ever even suggested one (and most people don’t seem to recognize the problem) he then drops the subject. At the same time, although he makes occasional disclaimers (“We will also see the still large gap that exists between us and other species,” p. 2), his statement (cited above) that the primates who pioneered language were “cognitively pretty much as you are”, plus his view that “animal concepts provide a foundation for the meaning of words” (19), suggest that he regards the cognitive capacities of other great apes as little inferior to those of humans. The only thing he doesn’t realize is the strange place that the conjunction of these two lines of thinking leads to. [...]

But what might look random from a progressive perspective is anything but random when seen from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology. Here there is no “approaching” of anything; species get the particular cognitive and communicative skills they need in order to exploit the particular niches that they have chosen or constructed, and once they have those skills, Nature, wholly uninterested in perfecting the type, simply stops selecting. Hurford gives a favorable mention to niche construction theory, and I kept hoping he was going to draw the conclusion I drew from it: that the key to the origin of language must be sought somewhere among the niches constructed by human ancestors between the date of the last common ancestor of humans and other apes and the present—niches very different from any occupied by other apes. But he did not.

He did not, for a very interesting reason. I spoke earlier of how well Hurford covers evidence from a variety of fields. But there is one startling omission—at least, one that would be startling, were it not found among so many other writers on language evolution. He virtually ignores anything to do with human evolution. [...]

Hurford is always a stimulating and thought-provoking writer, and never more so than here; proof of that stimulation can be found in this very review, where his book has forced me to sharpen and express my own ideas in ways I had not imagined before. I doubt if anyone will produce a more competent and thoroughgoing defense of what Irene Pepperburg (2005) called the “primate-centric” position. Those who would challenge that position, from whatever perspective, must be able as a minimum to answer all of Hurford’s arguments, or abandon their enterprise altogether.

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