A fearsome grouping of eight authors have recently combined (here) to try and drive a stake into the evolution of language industry. The octet are Marc D Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert C. Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky and Richard Lewontin. This is a fearsome grouping and if anyone can cut off the endless rather fruitless discussion, these eight should be able to do it. The paper makes all the right points. It argues that making evo arguments pertaining to the emergence of cognitive novelties will require evidence that one should expect to be unavailable. They make the point that we know little about how minds embody cognition that undergirds behavior, less about how brains support the relevant mental modules and even less about how genes grow brains that support minds of the right type. Consequently, any argument aimed at explaining how minds like ours, one with a faculty of language with its distinctive combinatoric characteristics arose (i.e. how genes combined to give rise to brains with minds that contain an FL arose), will confront very substantial obstacles. They further make the point that to date, not surprisingly, little progress has been made. They yet further observe that many papers purporting to address the evolutionary question presuppose that our relevant ancestor already had the combinatoric capacity whose emergence we are interested in explaining. So, all in all, it seems that questions concerning the evolution of language remain pretty much where the Paris Academy left them 150 years ago when they banned further discussion of the topic. Just as they were then, the questions are either begged or shrouded in a very thick mist.
Many (most?) of these points have been made before. I still consider Lewontin's paper in the invitation to cognitive science volumes as the best single thing one can read on the topic. There he showed just how hard it would be to even begin to make an argument of the relevant form to bear on the evolutionary issues. Our octet repeats his points and brings them further up to date.
There is one nice addition: a proposed proof of concept for the whole enterprise that is mentioned quickly at the end of the paper that I would like to flag here. The evo of language will require a story that goes from behavior to mental structure to genes. Hauser et.al. suggest that we demonstrate how this can be done for a simpler system before we tackle human language. Their suggestion is bee communication. We have a pretty good idea of what the bee communication system does and how it is structured everyone watches "Dancing with the Bees" I assume). Unlike human grey matter, one can go after bee brains and cut them up and grind them down and do what neuro types love to do without going to jail. In contrast to the human case, there are various close relatives to bees still flying around and the bee genome and brain wiring diagram is probably (I'm guessing here: from my arm chair I would guess that bee brains are smaller and genomes less involved, but who knows) easier to map than ours is. So, here's their proposal: show us how this bee communicative capacity evolved so that we can use it as a model of how to tackle the human language case. Not that human language and bee dancing are that close (they are not) but at least we will have a model taking us from behavior to genes. I LOVE this idea. I hope it catches fire.
Some questions are irresistible. How language emerged in the human species is one of these. Sadly, being intriguing is not the same as being tractable. There is a tide in the affairs of science and one has to know when it's time to address a question and when it's time to wait. The French 150 years ago urged a moratorium. I suggest, given what Hauser et. al. say (and what Lewontin said so well before) that we put this question on ice, for, say, another 150 years.