[Paleopsych] NYT: Before The Word, Perhaps The Wink?
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Sun Oct 9 00:59:40 UTC 2005
Before The Word, Perhaps The Wink?
Some Language Experts Think Humans Spoke First With Gestures
New York Times, 2.5.18 (note date) By EMILY EAKIN
"What a hairy back!" was Lily Tomlin's candidate for the first human sentence.
But whatever the content of that original remark, if Michael C. Corballis is
correct, it was expressed in gestures, not words.
Mr. Corballis, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, is
the latest proponent of a controversial idea known among language experts as
the "gestural theory." In essence, gestural theorists contend that long before
early humans spoke they jabbered away with their hands.
Where language comes from remains one of human evolution's enduring puzzles.
But in a new book, "From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language" (Princeton
Univerity Press), Mr. Corballis pluckily takes a stand, arguing that speech was
an ingenious innovation but not quite the freakish marvel that linguists have
often made it out to be. Proposing that human ancestors made the switch from
gestures to speech quite recently -- he puts the date at around 50,000 years
ago, a mere yesterday in evolutionary terms -- Mr. Corballis believes that
language itself, and the sophisticated mental capacities necessary to produce
it, are far older.
"The common ancestor of five or six million years ago would have been utterly
incapable of a telephone conversation but would have been able to make
voluntary movements of the hands and face that could at least serve as a
platform upon which to build a language," he writes. "Grammatical language may
well have begun to emerge around two million years ago but would at first have
been primarily gestural, though no doubt punctuated with grunts and other vocal
cries that were at first largely involuntary and emotional."
It sounds plausible enough. All you have to do is look around to see how much
hand-waving still accompanies human communication today -- even people on cell
phones do it. But Mr. Corballis has yet to convince many linguists of the
"He's not a linguist, and I think he doesn't appreciate the sophistication of
grammatical organization," said Ray Jackendoff, a professor of linguistics at
Brandeis University. "I never saw any reason one way or the other to say that
language started gesturally rather than vocally. If it started in the gestural
modality, you still have to explain how in switching to that vocal modality
there's this terrific adaptation."
Here, of course, the fossil record is of little help. As Mr. Jackendoff put it:
"The problem of talking about the evolution of language in any detail is that
there is no evidence. It's pure speculation."
But that hasn't stopped scholars from pursuing all manner of theories -- or
engaging in charged debate. In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all
discussion of the evolution of language -- presumably in order to keep tempers
in check. A few years later, Charles Darwin ventured that human speech may have
evolved from animal cries, a notion that was famously derided by his opponents
as the "bow-wow" theory. The French philosopher Abbe Etienne de Condillac, whom
Mr. Corballis credits with being the first gestural theorist, took a more
strategic tack: when he presented his theory in 1746, he delivered it in the
form of a fable so as not to arouse the ire of the Catholic Church. (In those
days, the official wisdom was that language came from God.)
In recent decades, resistance to the origins question has come less from
clerics than from cutting-edge linguists and biologists. For example, Noam
Chomsky, the M.I.T. professor whose ideas have dominated the field for more
than 40 years, has often been accused of depicting language as a trait so
remarkable that natural selection is virtually helpless to explain it.
Mr. Chomsky's celebrated theory of Universal Grammar supposes that human
languages share an underlying set of rules that are innate rather than learned.
But some readers of his work have taken him to mean that the capacity for
language arose all at once rather than incrementally, the product of what one
critic derisively termed "the cognitive equivalent to the Big Bang."
Lately, however, Darwinian accounts of language have begun to proliferate,
buoyed by new research on primate communication and human sign language as well
as the more general scholarly vogue for evolutionary theory. In his 1994 best
seller, "The Language Instinct," the M.I.T. professor Steven Pinker eloquently
defended the idea that language evolved by natural selection, though he
conceded that "the first steps toward language are a mystery." (If forced to
speculate, he added, he would be inclined to bet on primate calls rather than
gestures as a likely precurser to speech.)
Mr. Pinker's book seems to have opened a floodgate of possibilities. In 1996,
the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that language had evolved from
primate grooming behavior. Among apes and monkeys, physical contact --
tickling, scratching and picking at each other's lice -- functions as social
glue, establishing hierarchies and alliances and communicating empathy or
remorse. But back-scratching a whole band of baboons takes time. As early
hominid populations expanded, Mr. Dunbar theorizes, speech simply became the
more efficient option -- think of it as a kind of group massage.
More recently, Peter MacNeilage and Barbara Davis, researchers at the
University of Texas at Austin, have developed an "ingestive theory," which
links the evolution of speech to the movements the mouth makes while chewing.
"The mouth closes and opens in chewing just as it closes for consonants and
opens for vowels," Mr. MacNeilage explained in a telephone interview.
Meanwhile, Michael Arbib, a computational neuroscientist at the University of
Southern California, is working on a variant of the gestural theory based on
the discovery of similarities in the way human brains recognize language and
monkey brains recognize gestures.
"The whole field is not settled," said William Calvin, a neurobiologist at the
University of Washington in Seattle, whose own theory is that language evolved
from the rapid mental reflexes required to, say, throw a spear at a running
mammoth. "Everybody's got a theory."
Mr. Corballis says evidence to support the gestural theory is growing.
Researchers now know, for example, that sign languages are as grammatically
sophisticated as spoken ones. Moreover, both speech and signing depend on the
left side of the brain -- the same side that happens to control most people's
dominant hand, the right one.
>From an evolutionary standpoint, Mr. Corballis argues, the gestural theory has
several advantages. For one thing, it would help explain why chimpanzees --
mankind's close cousins -- are adept at learning forms of sign language and
notorious failures when it comes to imitating human speech or even controlling
their own cries.
Moreover, he suggests, the upright posture adopted by early hominids --
humans' apelike ancestors -- as long as two million years ago would have
facilitated hand-based communication. "Bipedalism encouraged manual gesturing,"
Mr. Corballis said in a talk at a recent Harvard University conference on
language and evolution.
He hinted that gestural theory could clear up another mystery about this period
as well: why the stone tools of these early hominids show little evolution for
almost two million years, despite increases in brain size. What if these
bipedal creatures were so caught up in five-fingered chit-chat that it got in
the way of their tool making? In the 1970's, one anthropologist went so far as
to suggest that the reason humans evolved unpigmented palms -- unlike other
primates -- is so their hand signals would show up better around the campfire
That leaves the sticky questions of why and when these hypothetical skillful
signers bothered to switch to speech. For a while, Mr. Corballis speculates,
they probably used a mix of both. Then, about 50,000 years ago, there was a
momentous change: an explosion of technology, cave art, textiles and even
musical instruments. Mr. Corballis's interpretation? Freed from the task of
communicating, hominid hands were finally able to get down to the real toil of
But his most provocative idea is that human ancestors stopped gesturing and
started talking not because their brains underwent a sudden mutation -- a
cognitive Big Bang -- but rather because it seemed to some Homo sapiens at the
time like a good idea. He called the advent of autonomous speech a "cultural
invention," like writing, and one that "may have occurred long after it became
And once speech caught on, he argues, it gave Homo sapiens a decisive advantage
over less verbal rivals, including Homo erectus and the Neanderthals, whose
lines eventually died out. "We talked them out of existence," Mr. Corballis
said with a satisfied grin.
The gestural theory makes for a captivating story. Yet like so many other
theories, it may turn out to be little more than that. The question of where
language comes from may simply be unanswerable, said Richard Lewontin, a
professor of biology at Harvard. "If you don't have a closely related species
with a similar trait you have the problem of novelty," he said. "And what you
and I are doing right now, no bonobo or chimpanzee will ever do."
Mr. Chomsky agreed. "This task intrigues people because it's about us," he
said. "But that doesn't make it a scientific question. It may be important for
us to know where we came from, but if we can't answer that question
scientifically, we can't answer it. If you want to tell stories, well then,
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