Battles over the beginnings of language

The New York Times has a review of a new book on the evolution of language that is also a concise guide to the origin and controversies within the field.

The book is The First Word (ISBN 0670034908) by Christine Kenneally and, as the the NYT review makes clear, it tackles one of the most contentious topics in psychology.

In this field, physical evidence is scarce ‚Äî language, except in its written form, leaves no trace ‚Äî and scholarly clout depends on a capacity for ingenious inference and supposition. Christine Kenneally, a linguistics Ph.D. turned journalist, shrewdly begins “The First Word,” her account of this new science, with candid portraits of several of its most influential figures. Appropriately, the first chapter is devoted to Noam Chomsky, whose ideas have dominated linguistics since the late 1950s, and who, as Kenneally reports, has been hailed as a genius on a par with Einstein and disparaged as the leader of a “cult” with “evil side effects.”

Evolutionary psychology tends to generate mixed views among scientists as it has the (somewhat unjustified) reputation of being untestable.

It typically involves discovering a psychological attribute or innate tendency and generating theories as to why we might have it, based on an evolutionary theory of why the presence of this feature might have improved survival or increased chances of sexual reproduction.

Of course, we can’t go back in time to test the theory on early humans, but the theory might suggest the presence or link with other current attributes – something that can be tested experimentally.

However, it’s probably true to say that hypothesis tend to be a little more unconstrained by the evidence than in other fields in psychology.

We now have a slightly odd state of affairs where most psychologists think that evolutionary psychology is a bit suspect, but are quite happy to throw in a few ad-hoc sentences about the possible evolutionary function of whatever they’ve discovered in their latest research paper.

Which, of course, makes the whole thing seem a bit suspect.

The NYT review charts how the debate on the evolution of language has moved from something which was originally considered either pointless or wacky, to a field which is now relatively mainstream.

Link to NYT review of ‘The First Word’.

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