Just back from vacation and here is a starter post on, of all things, Evolang (once again). Frans de Waal has written a short and useful piece relevant to the continuity thesis (see here). It is useful for it makes two obvious points, and it is important because de Waal is the one making them. The two points are the following:
1. Humans are the only linguistic species.
2. Language is not the medium of thought for there are non-verbal organisms that think.
Let me say a few words about each.
de Waal is quite categorical about the each point. He is worth quoting here so that next time you hear someone droning on about how we are just like other animals just a little more so you can whip out this quote and flog the interlocutor with it mercilessly.
You won’t often hear me say something like this, but I consider humans the only linguistic species. We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species. (3)
That’s right: nothing does language like humans do language, not even sorta kinda. This is just a fact and those that know something about apes (and de Waal knows everything about apes) are the first to understand this. And if one is interested in Evolang then this fact must form a boundary condition on whatever speculations are on offer. Or, to put this more crudely: assuming the continuity thesis disqualifies one from participating intelligently in the Evolang discussion. Period. End of story. And, sadly, given the current state of play, this is a point worth emphasizing again and again and again and… So thanks to de Waal for making it so plainly.
This said, De Waal goes on to make a second important point: that even if it is the case that no other animals have our linguistic capacities even sorta kinda, it does not mean that some of the capacities underlying language might not be shared with other animals. In other words, the distinction between a faculty for language in the narrow versus a faculty for language in the broad sense is a very useful one (I cannot recall right now who first proposed such a distinction, but whoever it was thx!). This, of course, cheers a modern minimalist’s heart cockles, and should be another important boundary condition on any Evolang account.
That said, de Waal’s two specific linguistic examples are of limited use, at least wrt Evolang. The first is bees and monkeys who de Waal claims use “sequences that resemble a rudimentary syntax” (3). The second “most intriguing parallel” is the “referential signaling” of vervet monkey alarm calls. I doubt that these analogous capacities will shed much light on our peculiar linguistic capacities precisely because the properties of natural language words and natural language syntax are where humans are so distinctive. Human syntax is completely unlike bee or monkey syntax and it seems pretty clear that referential signaling, though it is one use to which we put language, is not a particularly deep property of our basic words/atoms (and yes I know that words are not atoms but, well, you know…). In fact, as Chomsky has persuasively argued IMO, Referentialism (the doctrine (see here)) does a piss poor job of describing how words actually function semantically within natural language. If this is right, then the fact that we and monkeys can both engage in referential signaling will not be of much use in understanding how words came to have the basic odd properties they seem to have.
This, of course, does not detract from de Waal’s correct two observations above. We certainly do share capacities with other animals that contribute to how FL functions and we certainly are unique in our linguistic capacities. The two cases of similarity that de Waal cites, given that they are nothing like what we do, endorses the second point in spades (which, given the ethos of the times, is always worth doing).
Onto point deux. Cognition is possible without a natural language. FoLers are already familiar with Gallistel’s countless discussions of dead reckoning, foraging, and caching behavior in various animals. This is really amazing stuff and demands cognitive powers that dwarf ours (or at least mine: e.g. I can hardly remember where I put my keys, let alone where I might have hidden 500 different delicacies time stamped, location stamped, nutrition stamped and surveillance stamped). And they seem to do this without a natural language. Indeed, the de Waal piece has the nice feature of demonstrating that smart people with strong views can agree even if they have entirely different interests. De Waal cites none other than Jerry Fodor to second his correct observation that cognition is possible without natural language. Here’s Jerry from the Language of Thought:
‘The obvious (and I should have thought sufficient) refutation of the claim that natural languages are the medium of thought is that there are non-verbal organisms that think.’ (3)
Jerry never avoided kicking a stone when doing so was all a philosophical argument needed. At any rate, here Fodor and de Waal agree.
But I suspect that there would be more fundamental disagreements down the road. Fodor, contra de Waal, was not that enthusiastic of the idea that we can think in pictures, or at least not think in pictures fundamentally. The reason is that pictures have little propositional structure and thinking, especially any degree of fancy thinking, requires propositional structures to get going. The old Kosslyn-Pylyshyn debate over imagery went over all of this, but the main line can be summed up by one of Lila Gleitman’s bon mots: a picture is worth a thousand words, and that is the problem. Pictures may be useful aids to thinking, but only if supplied with captions to guide the thinking. In and of themselves, pictures depict too much and hence are not good vehicles for logical linkage. And if this is so (and it is) then where there is cognition there may not be natural language, but there must be a language of thought (LOT) (i.e. something with propositional structure that licenses the inferences that is characteristic of cognitive expansiveness in a given domain).
Again this is something that warms a minimalist heart (cockles and all). Recall the problem: find the minimal syntax to link the CI system and the AP system. CI is where language of thought lives. So, like de Waal, minimalists assume that there is quite a lot of cognition independent of natural language, which is why a syntax that links to it is doing something interesting.
Truth be told, we know relatively little about LOT and it properties, a lot less that we know about the properties of natural language syntax IMO. But regardless, de Waal and Fodor are right to insist that we not mix up the two. So don’t.
Ok, that’s enough for an inaugural post vaca post. I hope your last two weeks were as enjoyable as mine and that you are ready for the exciting pedagogical times ahead.