July 01, 2004

Just so!

This from Scientific American (full text by subscription) in an article headed Infant pacification may have led to the origin of language:

In a paper slated for the August Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Florida State University physical anthropologist Dean Falk proposes that just as motherese forms the scaffold for language acquisition during child development, so, too, did it underpin the evolution of language. Such baby talk itself originated, she posits, as a response to two other hallmarks of human evolution: upright walking and big brains.

In contrast to other primates, humans give birth to babies that are relatively undeveloped. Thus, whereas a chimpanzee infant can cling to its quadrupedal mother and ride along on her belly or back shortly after birth, helpless human babies must be carried everywhere by their two-legged caregivers. Assuming, as many anthropologists do, that early humans had chimplike social structures, moms did most of the child rearing. But having to hold on to an infant constantly would have significantly diminished their foraging efficiency, Falk says.

She argues that hominid mothers therefore began putting their babies down beside them while gathering and processing food. To placate an infant distressed by this separation, morn would offer vocal, rather than physical, reassurance and continue her search for sustenance. This remote comforting, derived from more primitive primate communication systems, marked the start of motherese, Falk contends. And morns genetically blessed with a keen ability to read and control their children, so the theory goes, would successfully raise more offspring than those who were not. As mothers increasingly relied on vocalization to control the emotions of their babies--and, later, the actions of their mobile juveniles--words precipitated out of the babble and became conventionalized across hominid communities, ultimately giving rise to language.

Just so! And indeed Falk's powerful idea can be applied not only in linguistics and anthropology, but also in zoology and paleobiology. For example, I had always suspected that Kipling was entirely wrong about the elephant's trunk: it is clearly a child rearing adaption which mama Nelly uses not only to put all the little Dumbos in a row, but also to wash them.

Mind you, Kipling has the better punchline (Kipling's full text here):

Then the Elephant's Child felt his legs slipping, and he said
through his nose, which was now nearly five feet long, 'This is
too butch for be!'

But back to linguistics. The SciAm article at least does cite the commentary of a suitably skeptical linguist (though one with his own little story to tell about the origins of language):

Linguists likewise demur. Falk's account sheds considerable light on the origins of speech, writes Derek Bickerton of the University of Hawaii at Honolulu in an accompanying commentary. Unfortunately, he continues, it reveals nothing about the origins of language. He charges that the hypothesis fails to address how the two fundamental features of language--namely, referential symbols and syntactic structure--arose, noting that speech is merely a language modality, as are Morse code and smoke signals. Falk's scenario does not explain how mother's melodic utterances acquired meaning in the first place, Bickerton insists.

Somehow Bickerton's insistence is not quite as persuasive or as damning as I'd like. The thing is: language doubtless has some child rearing benefit just as it has payoffs in all other social arenas, though a little less than in most cos kids are so incredibly stupid and don't have the faintest idea what all the cooing is about. Even if we allow that child rearing benefit is a factor in the evolution of language, why on earth would we isolate it as the prime mover above everything else?  I'm curious to know if the actual article when it appears in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (hmm, maybe online already) will contain even one shred of evidence. I mean, an actual observation of language in the process of significant development through child rearing in any species is obviously more than we can expect. But still, some shred, just to convince me that the eds. of BBS  are not crazy.

Well, at least Falk can be seen as a gender balancing antidote to Geoffrey Miller's Mating Mind theory of language evolution, a theory which I seem to remember gives males trying to impress mates a similar innovative role in language evolution that Falk wants to give mothers. Mind you, in Miller's model it's still the women that make the selection. I'm not sure whether Falk's model has a place for weaned males. An occasional grunt, perhaps.

Posted by David Beaver at July 1, 2004 04:33 AM

On average, infants learning sign language produce their first sign before infants learning spoken language produce their first spoken word. Were these hominid mothers waving at their infants while they talked to provide further comfort?

Lawzy! If making up "theories" like this is enough to get you published in Scientific American, I'm in the wrong line of work.

Posted by: Seth Gordon at July 1, 2004 09:12 AM

> And morns genetically blessed ...

I assume this was derived from a print article run through an OCR and then through a spell-checker.

Posted by: Dennis Paul Himes at July 1, 2004 10:47 AM