Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin

As you probably know if you are reading this blog, today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, FRS (1809 – 1882), probably the finest naturalist of his age and the originator of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. In my evolutionary anthropology and history of anthropology classes I always start by asking how many people have heard of Darwin – of course every student raises their hand – and follow that up by asking how many of them have actually read Darwin, at which point the crickets start chirping. For the anthropologist, The Origin of Species isn’t especially interesting, given that Darwin only alludes to the probability of human evolution in the final pages of that expansive volume. For me, the more interesting text is The Descent of Man (1871), which neatly adumbrates virtually every significant debate in evolutionary anthropology, including many in linguistic anthropology. This is not to say that Darwin was always right, or that nothing has happened in the past 125 years. But he was asking the right questions, many of the same questions with which we still struggle, and I can think of no better tribute than to discuss his work in the context of those questions. I present a selection of quotations from the Project Gutenberg e-text of the 1874 second edition of the Descent, followed by questions and citations to recent literature dealing with these issues.

One can hardly doubt, that a man-like animal who possessed a hand and arm sufficiently perfect to throw a stone with precision, or to form a flint into a rude tool, could, with sufficient practice, as far as mechanical skill alone is concerned, make almost anything which a civilised man can make. The structure of the hand in this respect may be compared with that of the vocal organs, which in the apes are used for uttering various signal-cries, or, as in one genus, musical cadences; but in man the closely similar vocal organs have become adapted through the inherited effects of use for the utterance of articulate language.

– What is the relationship between tool manufacture and the use of language? (Stout et al. 2008)
– To what extent is ape vocalization a precursor to, or analogous to, human speech? (Arbib et al. 2008)

The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel. But we can trace the formation of many words further back than that of species, for we can perceive how they actually arose from the imitation of various sounds. We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation. The manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. We have in both cases the reduplication of parts, the effects of long-continued use, and so forth.

Languages, like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups; and they can be classed either naturally according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never, as Sir C. Lyell remarks, reappears. The same language never has two birth-places. Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together.

– How closely can the analogy between linguistic and biological change be drawn? (Chater et al. 2009)
– To what extent is linguistic change phylogenetic? (Gray et al. 2009)
– Should language change and language death be seen as parallel to biological extinction? (Mufwene 2004)

From the fundamental differences between certain languages, some philologists have inferred that when man first became widely diffused, he was not a speaking animal; but it may be suspected that languages, far less perfect than any now spoken, aided by gestures, might have been used, and yet have left no traces on subsequent and more highly-developed tongues. Without the use of some language, however imperfect, it appears doubtful whether man’s intellect could have risen to the standard implied by his dominant position at an early period.

– What is the relationship between the evolution of language and the evolution of modern human cognitive capacities? (Coward and Gamble 2008)
– What is the nature and structure of ‘proto-language’? (Botha 2008)

With respect to perfection, the following illustration will best shew how easily we may err: a Crinoid sometimes consists of no less than 150,000 pieces of shell, all arranged with perfect symmetry in radiating lines; but a naturalist does not consider an animal of this kind as more perfect than a bilateral one with comparatively few parts, and with none of these parts alike, excepting on the opposite sides of the body. He justly considers the differentiation and specialisation of organs as the test of perfection. So with languages: the most symmetrical and complex ought not to be ranked above irregular, abbreviated, and bastardised languages, which have borrowed expressive words and useful forms of construction from various conquering, conquered, or immigrant races.

– Is it possible to classify languages according to principles of regularity or purity, and is it worthwhile to do so? (Hoffman 2008)
– What is the role of migration, warfare and cultural contact in understanding the evolution of languages? (Nichols 2008)

One can only imagine that Darwin would be pleased to see such active and interesting research being done so long after his own seminal efforts. Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin.

Works cited

Arbib, M. A., K. Liebal, S. Pika, M. C. Corballis, C. Knight, D. A. Leavens, D. Maestripieri, J. E. Tanner, M. A. Arbib, and K. Liebal. 2008. Primate Vocalization, Gesture, and the Evolution of Human Language. Current Anthropology 49, no. 6: 1053-1076.
Botha, R. 2008. Prehistoric shell beads as a window on language evolution. Language and Communication 28, no. 3: 197-212.
Chater, Nick, Florencia Reali, and Morten H. Christiansen. 2009. Restrictions on biological adaptation in language evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 4 (January 27): 1015-1020.
Coward, F., and C. Gamble. 2008. Big brains, small worlds: material culture and the evolution of the mind. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1499: 1969-1979.
Gray, R. D., A. J. Drummond, and S. J. Greenhill. 2009. Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement. Science 323, no. 5913 (January 23): 479-483.
Hoffman, K. E. 2008. Purity and Contamination: Language Ideologies in French Colonial Native Policy in Morocco. Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, no. 03: 724-752.
Mufwene, S. S. 2004. Language birth and death. Annual Review of Anthropology 33, no. 1: 201-222.
Nichols, Johanna. 2008. Language Spread Rates and Prehistoric American Migration Rates. Current Anthropology 49, no. 6 (December 1): 1109-1117.
Stout, D., N. Toth, K. Schick, and T. Chaminade. 2008. Neural correlates of Early Stone Age toolmaking: technology, language and cognition in human evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1499: 1939-1949.

and of course …

Darwin, C. 1871. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray.

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2 Comments

  1. Ongelooflijk interessant! Er is zoveel Darwin wereldwijd dezer dagen in alle mogelijke media. Maar uw blogpost, professor Chrisomalis, neemt tussen de overvloed voor mij een wel zeer bijzondere plaats in: unieke informatie met de nadruk op de evolutie van taal. Wunderbar! You are gorgeous.

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