Terrence Deacon on language evolution

Was it William Burroughs who first described language as a virus from outer space? I’ve always liked the analogy, though it may be more useful to think of language as a symbiont from inner space.

In his book The Symbolic Species (1997), Terrence Deacon describes the language-as-a-virus metaphor as extreme but helpful. He identifies the most basic principle guiding the design of languages to be “not communicative utility but reproduction — theirs and ours”.

Deacon feels the best way to study language structure is to do so from an evolutionary point of view. Languages have co-evolved with their hosts — us — under the forces of selection. This can help us make sense of children’s precocious rate of linguistic development:

The structure of a language is under intense selection because in its reproduction from generation to generation, it must pass through a narrow bottleneck: children’s minds. Language operations that can be learned quickly and easily by children will tend to get passed on to the next generation more effectively and more intact than those that are difficult to learn. . . . Language structures that are poorly adapted to this niche simply will not persist for long.

As language emerged in tandem with the human nervous system — each adapting to the other — it drew on existing cognitive abilities. The facility for language is not the responsibility of some dedicated device in the brain but rather is spread across many parts of it.

In his excellent article “Rethinking the natural selection of human language”, Deacon writes that

the neural structures and circuits involved in the production and comprehension of language are homologous to structures found ubiquitously in most monkey and ape brains: old structures performing unprecedented new tricks.

Below is a video of Deacon giving a talk in 2010 called “Language & complexity: Evolution inside out”. It’s quite a technical presentation (I was grateful for my distant background in genetics and developmental biology), but Deacon is a clear and engaging speaker and his subject matter is deeply interesting.

A post at Replicated Typo, reporting on the talk, says Deacon’s ideas are “our best avenue for exploring how language evolved”. Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel’s Dawn is similarly impressed; he writes that the strength of Deacon’s proposal is that it “[describes] a mechanism for the brain changes that support language”:

The old view that language functions are confined to a few regions like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, or even the left hemisphere can no longer stand. Language processing involves complex coordination between multiple systems. But the modern human brain is a relatively recent acquisition. How did all that complexity evolve and become coordinated?

Deacon has some persuasive thoughts on this. Birdsong, some of you will be happy to hear, features quite a lot. The talk lasts about an hour, with a short Q&A at the end.

6 Responses to Terrence Deacon on language evolution

  1. He’s very fond of the word “synergy”, and I think he uses it strangely.

    My understanding is that just as energy is the capacity to do stuff, synergy is the additional capacity to do stuff that’s unleashed through cooperation. In the business context where it’s usually encountered, the word’s purpose is to draw attention to the idea that when people are encouraged to contribute suggestions and be inspired by each other’s ideas, you get positive feedback loops that lead to achievements far in excess of what you’d get in a less cooperative atmosphere.

    But Terrence Deacon talks about synergy between parts of an individual organism. I can see what he means up to a point: an organism with both legs and arms can obviously do more than an organism with just one or the other. But calling that a synergy between arms and legs seems like a stretch.

    I’m also bothered by his use of the word “epigenetic”, which I think he defines far too broadly, but I won’t go into that here.

    Meanwhile, I’ve finished my first (rapid) read of Edmund Blair Bolles’s book, and intend to begin a more thorough read over Christmas, taking notes and working them into a blog post. When that’s done, I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

  2. Stan says:

    Adrian: His use of these words didn’t stand out for me, so you’ve given me a good reason to return for another listen. Depending on the organismic parts he was referring to, his use of synergy may well be a bit stretched. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard the word used in the more degraded sense of “cooperative activity” or “working well together”.

    I don’t know how much detail Deacon goes into in other contexts (e.g., academic papers) with respect to epigenetic inheritance. There are some interesting speculations on epigenetics and the early evolution of language in Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s Evolution in Four Dimensions, which I’ll try to do a post on in 2012; maybe that would be a good time to revisit Deacon’s application of the term in the talk above.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on Blair Bolles’s book.

  3. Garrett Wollman says:

    Sorry for the late comment. I haven’t read your source material, but I would like to caution that, while natural selection may be a good metaphor for how languages change, we must always keep in mind that languages are transmitted by *Lamarckian* rather than Mendelian processes, so reference to Darwin (Charles Robert) is not entirely apt. (Of course, we are now learning that evolution of some kinds of organisms is actually Lamarckian at high relative frequency, so the basic point stands.) We didn’t inherit English with our eye, skin, and hair color; we learned it from our parents, teachers, and peers. This mode of transmission enables much faster evolutionary change (relative to a human lifetime) than biological evolution does (which hasn’t done much to H. sap. in the past ten millennia).

  4. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment and helpful points, Garrett. I would add that the cognitive abilities that gave us the facility for symbolic communication fell to a degree under traditional evolutionary mechanisms. We learn languages socially, but we’re evolutionarily primed for it. Simon Kirby put it this way: that language is “dynamic and adaptive at all three different timescales, the biological, the cultural, and the individual.”

    In his talk, Deacon briefly addresses Lamarckianism and how his ideas relate to it.

  5. I read Deacon’s use of synergy as a subtle yet significant result of the modular redundancy (genetic in his example) needed in any evolving system (variability). This, I think, is different (somewhat) from how it is generally used in business – or you could also see synergy in business as a hugely scaled up version of the same concept.

    Thanks for posting the video – do you know where I can download a version, to watch off line?

  6. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Marcus. There are probably websites – safe, but of questionable legality – that enable users to download YouTube videos.

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