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The Thoughtful Animal

The Thoughtful Animal

Exploring the evolution and architecture of the mind

Book Review: Babel's Dawn

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Babel's Dawn, a book that grew out of a blog about the natural history of speech, is probably not like any other book you've read. That's because it's not really a book about the natural history of speech: it's a book about a (fictitious) museum that tells the story about the natural history of speech. The author, Edmund Blair Bolles, opens the book by explaining why he chose to structure a book about speech in terms of a museum:

When it comes to natural history, I prefer museums to books. It's not that I don't love books, but getting from the printed facts of natural history to their breathing truth can often be a bit of a slog, especially when compared with the way a museum sets the visitor down in front of fossils displayed in active positions or dioramas - staged with painted backdrops and three-dimensional figures - depicting lost worlds. Looking at those exhibits, the meaning of the facts pops out at you. So when I began work on my own volume about the natural history of speech origins, the idea of a museum display nestled easily into my head.

It's clear that speech - like behavior - doesn't fossilize, so at first glance a natural history-style museum about speech may seem like a silly idea. But it isn't, and that's because Bolles's argument revolves around the physicality of conversation. Speech, he argues, evolved because individuals - real, tangible, physical people - had to find a way of referring to and conversing about other individuals, animals, or objects - also, real, tangible, physical things (even if those real, tangible, physical things are not immediately visible).

To be clear, this isn't a book about language. After all, you don't really need language to have speech. Speech can be a simple as a grunt or a cry. To that end, you won't find very much discussion of things like syntax or grammar, because these are not central to the narrative of Bolles's story.

The narrative begins with an imaginary individual called Sara, who was the last common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees, about six million years ago. Such an individual actually existed, of course, but the details of this individual's life are necessarily imaginary. The narrative of the evolution of speech is driven by Bolles's descriptions of what a diorama featuring Sara (or Harun, Yikin, Anne, Ling, or the other imaginary individuals) might look like. What might be written on the placards and signs in front of those dioramas? What might the audio recording in the headsets that you're carrying around through the museum tell you about these individuals and their lives?

By the end of your tour through his museum, Bolles will have addressed each of the three nagging questions about the evolution of speech. First, how did people come to talk in the first place? Second, if language is so complicated, how can children learn it so effortlessly? And third, if speech (and language) is so useful, why don't non-human animals speak at all?

These are certainly very hard questions to address, and critics might dismiss the majority of Babel's Dawn as mere speculation or as a "just-so story."

The difference between a random speculation and this particular speculation is that this one is grounded in the most up-to-date (as of the book's printing in 2011) research in evolutionary biology, developmental and comparative psychology, linguistics, and cognitive neuroscience. He acknowledges some of the inherent problems in constructing a narrative of the origins of something like speech or language, quoting Jeremy Freese, a sociologist at Northwestern University:

"Evolutionary theorizing of this sort," Freese continued, "is regularly criticized as storytelling, and storytelling it often is - but the narrative history of our species is a story, and the stories we tell may be better or worse approximations of this real story, for which consistency with available information is our guide."

We have more facts available than a naive skeptic might suppose. Evidence for speech origins comes from the study of language acquisition in children, comparative data where animal and human behavior converges, investigations of Creole languages, experiments on artificial language learning, medical research into linguistically impaired individuals, and computer simulations the calculate the implications of our present understanding. We also have a mountain of data about human origins in general. All this information allows for a set of hypotheses about what happened, when it happened, and what it happened to. These hypotheses form the story told in this book. What would I say to any creationists who object that it is all "mere hypothesis"? Grant the point, but add as well that it is based on evidence and will be modified by better evidence, not by dogma.

If you're interested in the evolution of speech or language, or even if you're just interested in the evolution and development of human culture more broadly, I'd eagerly recommend this book. Bolles manages to take a set of incredibly complex and extremely nuanced issues and make them highly accessible and, at times, entertaining. Now, he just has to build that museum!

Links:

Babel's Dawn - the book

Babel's Dawn - the blog

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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