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On Trying to Understand Discussion of the Evolution of Human Language, Conversation, Reasoning, and/or Argument

Dr. Gil Harman

Thursday, November 01, 2012, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Princeton University, Department of Philosophy

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Did human language, conversation, reasoning, and/or argument evolve?
The answers to these question depend in part on how “evolution” is to be
understood. Does evolution in the relevant sense involve a gradual process
or can it be abrupt? Does it have to involve selection of some sort and, if
so, is the relevant issue about selection an issue about biological selection,
or does it include social selection, or even individual selection?

Is the question about the evolution of human language a question about
the evolution of the “language faculty” or about the evolution of particular
languages, dialects, idiolects, or “i-languages”?

Chomsky has argued that human languages differ from nonhuman animal
systems of communication in several respects, especially including that
human languages but not animal systems can exhibit a kind of “discrete
infinity,” a recursive aspect so that sentences can occur in larger sentences,
noun phrases in larger sentences, etc. There would seem to be no way in
which a the system of discrete infinity could gradually evolve.

Chomsky speculates that a certain heritable brain modification occurred in
one or a few early humans giving them a capacity for discrete infinity in
their thinking which game them a advantage in coping with the
environment and each other compared to proto humans lacking that
capacity. Natural selection might then have favored these humans over
others. Although the process leading to the capacity for discrete infinity
would then not have been a gradual process, there would gradually be
more and more humans with that capacity and fewer and fewer
proto-humans without it. In that case the capacity did not gradually
evolve, but the number of humans with that capacity did gradually evolve.

In this scenario, proto-humans would presumably have had systems of
communication lacking discrete infinity, systems involving speech and
gesture. A further speculation might be that the acquisition of such
systems admitting of discrete infinity would have been enough to endow
humans with the faculty of human language. Suppose that was the case
and suppose further that the selective advantage that humans had over
proto-humans was due to the capacity for more complex individual
thinking and planning, rather than being due to increased communication
abilities. If so, the capacity for human linguistic communication would be
what Steven J. Gould called a “spandrel,” a useful byproduct of natural

I am going to discuss these and other issues about the possible evolution of
human language, conversation, reasoning, and argument, trying to get
clearer in what sort of evolution might be relevant and what kind of
evidence there might be for various views on these topics.

Dr. Gil Harman