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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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VI. Earth Life Emergence: Development of Body, Brain, Selves and Societies

4. Organisms Evolve Rhythmic Protolanguage Communication

As our Earthwise retrospect expands its temporal and spatial compass, we add a 2018 section to report abilities to recover, reconstruct and quantify how all manner of creatures conspecific chatters, emostly for sustenance, reproduction and survival in manifold groupings. While Microbial Colonies, cites quorum sensings via chemical signals, here we are concerned with audible vocalizations across aquatic, reptilian, amphibian, mammalian, primate classes onto hominids and proto-homo sapiens. While A Cultural Code reports on diverse languages and linguistic discourse, we cite here studies about how our voluble literacy arose from evolutionary life’s distinctive feature of cross-talk by many means. In regard, birdsong serves as an iconic exemplar, a distant parallel with both human wordy alphabets and rhythmic prosody for meaningful conveyance.

As indication of these studies, a new Oxford Journal of Language Evolution began in 2016. Special issues on the origins, evolution, and neuroscience of communication language also appeared in journals such as the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (24/1, 2017), Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences (21/1, 2018), and Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Review (81/B, 2017).

Arbib, Michael and Derek Bickerton, eds. The Emergence of Protolanguage: Holophrasis vs. Compositionality. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. Holophrasis is a long phrase into one word; Compositionality means a whole expression. This collection explores these options and emphasis of a holistic image with a discrete communicative carrier. A synoptic paper is “Protolanguage in Ontogeny and Phylogeny” by Patricia Greenfield, Heidi Lyn and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh which concludes that an interplay of both modes was most probably the case. A theme throughout is then a general recapitulation between hominid evolution and how children learn. (Compare with Elizabeth Spelke, et al, Allan Paivio, and other complementary approaches that find these archetypes to distinguish the rise and process of cognition and speech).

Humans have language. It is hypothesised that the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans did not. Evolutionary linguists therefore have to explain how the gap between a non-linguistic ancestor and our linguistic species was bridged. Most scholars agree that there must once have been a predecessor of human language, or protolanguage, but they disagree over its nature, and over how it developed into modern human language. One account (Compositionality) characterises protolanguage as containing a limited set of word-like units with simple, atomic meanings (Bickerton, Tallerman), associated with basic pre-exisiting cognitive concepts, effectively the ancestors of modern nouns and verbs. The other account (Holophrasis) (Wray, Arbib), believes that protolanguage units represented complex propositions, more like whole modern sentences. Both accounts assume that individual units in the protolanguage lexicon are mutually distinguishable, but their disagreement over the level of semantic complexity represented by the protolinguistic forms leads to different visions of how protolanguage could have developed into modern language. (Publisher’s summary)

Atkinson, Quentin and Russell Gray. Curious Parallels and Curious Connections – Phylogenetic Thinking in Biology and Historical Linguistics. Systematic Biology. 54/4, 2005. The growing perception of an ingrained correspondence and synthesis between genes and language, whereby the same features repeat in both cases. Discrete molecules compare with lexicon and syntax, homologies with cognates, mutation with innovation, cladogenesis with lineage splits, plant hybrids with creoles, and so on. Evolution can thus be tracked by the recurrent rise of an informative quality, while by such an implication human knowledge takes on a genetic-like cast.

Many of the fundamental features of biological and linguistic evolution are demonstrably analogous. Just as DNA sequences contain discrete heritable units, so too do languages in their grammatical and phonological structures and their vocabularies. (513)

Balari, Sergio and Guillermo Lorenzo. Computational Phenotypes: Towards an Evolutionary Developmental Biolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. In a volume that reflects endeavors to view the entire arc of life’s evolution as a singular manifestation, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and Universidad de Oviedo, systems linguists offer theoretical reasons why language is not unique to us alone. Communicative abilities and media, broadly conceived, can be traced by relative degree and kind to the earliest invertebrates. The “Faculty of Language” notation for our phase is expanded to a “Central Computational Complex” set within the evolution as embryogeny (evo-devo) revival. Dynamic Systems Theory (Thelen and Smith, Kelso), Developmental Systems Theory (Oyama), Emergence (Reid) and Morphological Evolution (Pere Alberch) are then cited in regard. A persistent homologies (similarity among different metazoan creatures from a common ancestry) are recorded, along with Richard Owen’s mid 1800s archetypal forms, to express a recurrent convergence as life’s gestation matures. Companion entries in this section are Bolhuis, Johan, et al Birdsong, Speech, and Language, and Stroik, Thomas and Michael Putnam The Structural Design of Language. For an update review by the authors see The End of Development in Biological Theory (Online May 2014).

This book confronts the hotly debated claim that language is a species specific trait of humans. It also considers the notion that disentangling the evolutionary history of language is one of science's hardest problems. Building on the recent conceptual breakthroughs of the EvoDevo paradigm, Balari and Lorenzo argue that language is not so exceptional after all. It is, rather, just the human version of a fairly common and conservative organic system which they call the Central Computational Complex. The authors also propose that interspecies variation of this organ is restricted to (i) accessible memory resources, and (ii) patterns of external connectivity, both being the result of perturbations on the system underlying its development. The book, written accessibly for both biologists and linguists, offers a fresh perspective on language as a naturally evolved phenomenon.

Baronchelli, Andrea, et al. The Biological Origin of Linguistic Diversity. PLoS One. 7/10, 2012. As the extended quotes attest, Baronchelli, Boston University with Nick Chater, University of Warwick, Romualdo Pastor-Satorras, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona, and Morten Christiansen, Cornell University, find broad affinities between genomes and say “languagome,” life’s somatic and cultural phases. Reference 37 in the quote is “Tools from Evolutionary Biology Shed New Light on the Diversification of Languages” by Stephen Levinson (MPI Psycholingusitics) and Russell Gray (University of Auckland) Trends in Cognitive Sciences (16/3, 2012). This paper together with many other entries then seem to imply and verify nature’s textual essence of a genesis uniVerse, that appears to be engaged in writing and reading itself.

In contrast with animal communication systems, diversity is characteristic of almost every aspect of human language. Languages variously employ tones, clicks, or manual signs to signal differences in meaning; some languages lack the noun-verb distinction (e.g., Straits Salish), whereas others have a proliferation of fine-grained syntactic categories (e.g., Tzeltal); and some languages do without morphology (e.g., Mandarin), while others pack a whole sentence into a single word (e.g., Cayuga). A challenge for evolutionary biology is to reconcile the diversity of languages with the high degree of biological uniformity of their speakers. Here, we model processes of language change and geographical dispersion and find a consistent pressure for flexible learning, irrespective of the language being spoken. This pressure arises because flexible learners can best cope with the observed high rates of linguistic change associated with divergent cultural evolution following human migration. Thus, rather than genetic adaptations for specific aspects of language, such as recursion, the coevolution of genes and fast-changing linguistic structure provides the biological basis for linguistic diversity. Only biological adaptations for flexible learning combined with cultural evolution can explain how each child has the potential to learn any human language. (Abstract)

More generally, our findings complement recent results from the application of computational phylogenetic methods to large databases of typological language information (see [37] for a review), indicating that patterns of word order correlations across language families are best understood in terms of lineage-specific histories in cultural evolution rather than as reflecting a special-purpose language system. Such phylogenetic analyses, however, do not provide direct insight into how cultural or biological processes give rise to the diversity of human language as investigated in our simulations. Thus, we advocate a two-pronged methodological approach to understanding language evolution that combines insights from phylogenetic methods into historical processes relating to the diversification of languages with those from computational and mathematical modelling of the interplay between genes and language. (5)

Berwick, Robert, et al. Evolution, Brain, and the Nature of Language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 17/2, 2013. An important paper because authors Berwick, MIT computational neuroscience, Angela Friederici, MPI neuropsychology, Noam Chomsky, MIT linguistic philosophy (on message at age 84), and Johan Bolhuis, Utrecht University cognitive neurobiology, are leading theorists in the quest for a right read on language, broadly conceived, both in a special human phase and its deep evolutionary lineage. A person’s lingusitic “ontogenesis” is seen as due to a shared genetic endowment, an external spoken environment, and “general principles such as the minimization of computational complexity” and “word-like elements” in a lexicon. See also “Twitter Evolution: Converging Mechanisms in Birdsong and Human Speech” by Johan Bolhuis, et al, cited herein.

Language serves as a cornerstone for human cognition, yet much about its evolution remains puzzling. Recent research on this question parallels Darwin's attempt to explain both the unity of all species and their diversity. What has emerged from this research is that the unified nature of human language arises from a shared, species-specific computational ability. This ability has identifiable correlates in the brain and has remained fixed since the origin of language approximately 100 thousand years ago. Although songbirds share with humans a vocal imitation learning ability, with a similar underlying neural organization, language is uniquely human. (Abstract)

Taken together, the evidence on birds and primates suggests that three factors are important in the evolution of speech and language. First, there is neural and genetic homology: similar genes and brain regions are involved in auditory learning and vocal production, not only in songbirds and humans, but also in apes and monkeys. Second, there is evolutionary convergence with regard to the mechanisms of auditory–vocal learning, which proceeds in essentially the same way in songbirds and human infants, but not in apes or monkeys. Third, the combinatorial complexity of human language is unique in the animal kingdom. It may be that the neural mechanisms that evolved from a common ancestor, combined with the auditory–vocal learning ability that evolved in both humans and songbirds, contributed to the emergence of language uniquely in the human lineage. (8)

Bichakjian, Bernard. Language Evolution: How Language was Built and Made to Evolve. Languages Sciences. Online March, 2017. The Radboud University linguist enters a timely expansion of this field of study, akin to other areas, which extends across life’s developmental course to its earliest rudiments. As brain asymmetry and clever behavior is evident from the outset, audible communications can also be traced to deep origins. A further case is made for markings and writings, broadly conceived, much earlier than thought. Once again an initial right hemisphere image phase is seen to precede alphabetic notation in the left brain.

Today's mainstream research in language evolution leaves from the assumption that language is an exclusively human feature, a steady-state entity like our biological organs, and endeavors to discover the phylogenetic event that endowed us with this mental “organ” or the clinching moment language became possible. The fossil evidence from the development of central and peripheral speech organs provides, however, no support for the alleged existence of a fateful event that would have dubbed a speechless ancestor into a speech-vested mutant; instead, it outlines a gradual development of speech organs from the hints detected on the endocranial casts of the most archaic member of the genus Homo to the full-blown apparatus of modern humans. Far from being a steady-state accessory, language has evolved to become an ever more efficient instrument of thought and communication. This paper will argue that it started with implements improvised on the basis of a sensory mapping of the outside world and gradually developed into a set of mentally created alternatives properly crafted for linguistic operations. (Abstract excerpts)

The foregoing was not an attempt to reconstruct the ultimate prototypical vernacular and describe how its features derived to become those of today’s languages. Such a prototypical language never existed, nor was there a discrete biological event, such as the descent of the larynx, or a mental development, such as the computational mechanism of recursion, that made us fit for language. Much like the evolution of biological species, which stretches from a unicellular prototype to humans, the evolution of language is a continuum that extends from the first conventionalized grunt to the most proficient linguistic systems. (10)

Bolhuis, Johan, et al. Birdsong, Speech, and Language: Exploring the Evolution of Mind and Brain. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013. With co-editor Martin Everaert, and Forewords by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky a significant study of the many forms, stages, and articulations of creaturely and human conversations. Typical sections are Phonology and Syntax and Neurobiology of Song and Speech and for chapters The Design Principles of Natural Language, Convergence and Deep Homology in the Evolution of Spoken Language, Behavioral Similarities between Birdsong and Spoken Language, and Building Bridges between Genes, Brains, and Language. Notable authors are Irene Pepperberg, Tecumseh Fitch, Simon Fisher, Moira Yip, and Gary Marcus.

Scholars have long been captivated by the parallels between birdsong and human speech and language. In this book, leading scholars draw on the latest research to explore what birdsong can tell us about the biology of human speech and language and the consequences for evolutionary biology. They examine the cognitive and neural similarities between birdsong learning and speech and language acquisition, considering vocal imitation, auditory learning, an early vocalization phase ("babbling"), the structural properties of birdsong and human language, and the striking similarities between the neural organization of learning and vocal production in birdsong and human speech. After outlining the basic issues involved in the study of both language and evolution, the contributors compare birdsong and language in terms of acquisition, recursion, and core structural properties, and then examine the neurobiology of song and speech, genomic factors, and the emergence and evolution of language. (Publisher)

Cuffari, Elena, et al. From Participatory Sense-Making to Language. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Online November, 2014. We note this paper by Worcester State University and University of the Basque Country philosophers based on the enactive view of Humbereto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and others for its perception of human agency as most of all a “languaging” project. In such a view, one might add, phenomenal peoples could be seen as the universe’s way of describing, translating and expressing itself into conscious recognition, and co-creation.

Everaert, Martin and Johan Bolhuis. The Biology of Language. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 81/B, 2017. Utrecht University linguists introduce a special issue with 17 papers as this linguistic evolutionary retrospective becomes increasingly amenable to study. Some paper titles are The Growth of Language, A Biolinguistic Perspective, Prosody in Birdsong, Rhythm in Language Acquisition, and Brains for Birds and Babies. Among the authors are Noam Chomsky, Charles Yang, Stephen Crain, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Robert Berwick, Angelica Friederici, and Marina Nespor.

Human infants develop language remarkably rapidly and without overt instruction. We argue that the distinctive ontogenesis of child language arises from the interplay of three factors: domain-specific principles of language (Universal Grammar), external experience, and properties of non-linguistic domains of cognition including general learning mechanisms and principles of efficient computation. (Yang, et al, Growth of Language)

Ferretti, Francesco, et al. Origin and Evolution of Language: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Topoi. 37/291, 2018. Roma Tre University, Italy and Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany linguist philosophers introduce a special issue on this title subject. Along with a review of the papers such as What are the Units of Language Evolution by Nathalie Gontier and An Updated Evolutionary Research Programme by Francisco Suman, it scopes out a preferred embodied, action-oriented premise.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. Preface to the Special Issue on the Biology and Evolution of Language. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 24/1, 2017. As our worldwide retrospect learns how linguistic capacities arose over life’s long, episodic creaturely and cerebral advance, the University of Vienna cognitive biologist introduces 19 papers that span many conceptual and empirical approaches. We note, for example, Lessons from the Genome by Simon Fisher, Evolution of the Neural language Network by Angela Friederici, How can we Detect When Language Emerged by Ian Tattersall, and Darwinian Perspectives on the Evolution of Human Languages by Mark Pagel.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. The Biology and Evolution of Language: “Deep Homology” and the Evolution of Innovation. Gazzaniga, Michael, ed. The Cognitive Neurosciences. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. The University of Vienna theoretical linguist draws upon these new insights (search Shubin) into developing life’s tendency to repeat basic forms and motifs at every scale and for each creature to claim that our human grammatical speech and discursive content must be similarly endowed and understandable by this deep context.

The last decade has seen rapid and impressive progress in understanding the biology and evolution of complex “innovative” traits (e.g., insect wings or vertebrate eyes, and the fruits of this understanding are beginning to have an impact on our understanding of that most innovative of human trait: language. Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) has added a new twist to this distinction, with the discovery that traits shared due to convergent evolution (such as vocal learning in humans and birds) may nonetheless be based on homologous genes and developmental pathways. Such “deep homologies” may involve convergence at the phenotypic level and homology at the genotypic level, and illustrate the need to rethink traditional ideas about homology. Here I suggest that language is also likely to have its share of deep homologies, and that the possibility provides a powerful rationale for investigations of convergently evolved traits in widely separated species. (Abstract)

The discovery of deep homology provides an exciting new range of empirical possibilities for scientists interested in the evolution of complex innovations, including human language. The very concept of deep homology would have been considered fanciful 20 years ago, and its reality has profound consequences for both the concept of homology and our understanding of the evolution of complex innovations. (874) In this new era, the identification of deep homologies may play a central role. This is excellent news for comparative biologists, because it suggests that a far broader range of vertebrates, and even nonchordates, may offer valuable windows into the genetic basis of that most human of traits: language. (881)

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