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Language and Evolution

In response to:

Genes, Memes, & Minds from the November 30, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

John Maynard Smith [NYR, November 30, 1995] quotes a phrase of mine that he finds “completely baffling” though “typical of” what I say about evolution. It is mere truism, as is clear when we restore the context, which he virtually repeats.

Smith is referring to 1986 lectures of mine which (as often before) begin with the assumption that language is part of “shared biological endowment” and can be studied in the manner of other biological systems. I pointed out that “evolutionary theory…has little to say, as of now,” about such matters as language, and progress may require better understanding of “what kinds of physical systems can develop under the conditions of life on earth,” exactly as in the study of evolution of the visual system, for example. One research direction is suggested by cases in which “organs develop to serve one purpose, and, when they have reached a certain form in the evolutionary process, became available for different purposes, at which point the processes of natural selection may refine them further for these purposes” (well-known proposals about evolution of insect wings are mentioned as a possible illustration; irrelevantly, alternatives have since been proposed, illustrating the same point). In general, when we consider the space of physical possibilities and specific contingencies, the apparent difficulty “even to imagine a course of evolution that might have given rise to [language or wings]” may be overcome.

Smith cites only the last phrase quoted, misreading it as placing language and wings outside the scope of evolutionary theory—“baffling” no doubt, and exactly the opposite of what the passage unambiguously states, which he then repeats, noting that the apparent difficulty of imagining a course of evolution might be overcome by recognizing that organs “usually arise…as modifications of preexisting organs with different functions,” as in the illustration I gave to make just that point. He then advises “Chomsky’s students, if not the great man himself,” that “linguistics cannot ignore biology”; or to put it more strongly, that the “language organ” can be studied in the manner of other biological systems. It’s nice to have the acquiescence of another distinguished evolutionary biologist, though one might think of a different way to express it.

The frantic efforts to “defend Darwin’s dangerous idea” from evil forces that regard it as neither “dangerous” nor even particularly controversial, at this level of discussion, hardly merit comment. Perhaps it is possible to disentangle issues worth discussion. Only under quite different ground rules, however.

Noam Chomsky
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

John Maynard Smith replies:

I am delighted that Professor Chomsky agrees that the origin of language, like that of other complex organs, must ultimately be explained in Darwinian terms, as the result of natural selection. If I have misinterpreted his earlier writings on this topic, I am sorry, although in self-defense I must add that the remark of his that I quoted does not readily bear the interpretation he now places on it. However, the important thing now is that the way is open for linguists and geneticists to work together on the origin of linguistic competency, both in evolution and in individual development.

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