A Tale Without Episodes

Radio transmitters provide a misleading metaphor for speech.
 They encourage the notion of a signal that must be encoded 
and then decoded rather than an active tool whose meaning 
comes from where it directs one's attention.
The pieces have fallen together in a position I did not anticipate 
when I began this blog. None the less, last week’s post has left
 me feeling that I now understand the basic outline of the story 
of speech origins. “Basic outline” means I don’t have dates, but 
I do know the outline of what evolved and even how it happened. 
What Evolved
When I began this blog, I thought of language as a means of
 expressing ideas and emotions, but I now see that definition 
as too abstract to help think clearly about how speech works 
or how it evolved. Talk about ideas and emotions encourages
 mystical thinking in which words somehow contain a “meaning”
 that carry an idea from speaker to listener. The technical analogy
 is a radio that transmits a signal to specific receivers. The evolution
 of a linguistic species requires the appearance of individuals able to
 pack meaning into words, transmit them as sentences, and then 
retrieve the meaning from the received signal. A great deal of
 philosophical and critical confusion has come from taking
 these abstractions literally.
Put more mundanely, but concretely, speech is a tool for 
directing attention. Instead of transmitting meanings it directs 
the joint attention of speaker and listener. In this view, understanding
 speech requires a perceiving, aware listener capable of joining 
in on the attention of another. The story of the evolution of 
language is not a tale of increasingly complex capacity to 
transmit and deconstruct meanings; it tells instead of an 
increasingly rich ability to share perceptions and to know 
what is on each other’s minds.
Last week’s post focused on episodic thinking (see Episodes 
on the Highway of Life) and suggested complex syntax might 
have evolved to describe episodes. The description of an 
episode can require more than one sentence. So you see 
the use of full paragraphs in speech. It is a very late development
 in the story of speech origins.

How it Evolved
Episodic thinking can lead to mistakes, For one thing, 
it makes us expect a story to occur in episodes instead of
 along a continuum. The story of speech evolution is a handy 
example. Episodic thinking encourages people to expect a 
series of episodes, or milestones, that went something like:
 first came words, then phrases, then simple sentences, and then
 rich sentences. Trust Noam Chomsky to show the logical limitations 
of that approach without finding the solution. Words alone, phrases
 alone, get you no closer to syntactically rich sentences, so why 
suppose there were such stages? But instead of getting rid of episodes
 this argument just reduces the number of milestones to one: thinking
 in syntactically rich (recursive) sentences.
Episodic thinking encourages before-and-after thinking. Before 
the episode things were one way and after they were another way. 
Thus we expect genes to introduce novelties so that we can say 
before the episode of the mutant gene our lineage talked this way; 
after the episode it talked this other way. We also expect a series 
of milestone to produce a series of distinct differences. Thus, it is 
not enough for speech itself to be unique to humans. It must have
 resulted from a series of distinct milestones, each of which introduced
 a novelty, such as recursive syntax, into the picture.
I am very much an episodic thinker myself, but the evidence does 
not support a story of evolution via milestones. For example, the one
 gene found so far that seems assuredly part of our tale, FOXP2, is not
 at all like one would expect as milestone.FOXP2 is indirect, it controls
 other genes, and its effects are not limited to speech. Speech does 
break down in cases without a normal FOXP2 gene, although cognitively
 there seems to be little damage. In FOXP2 mutants, the ability to
 coordinate muscular movements for proper speech seems deficient 
and there are problems in comprehension as well. Finding the gene
 has tangled the story instead of bringing the clarity you should expect
 from finding a milestone.
Also contrary to expectations is the issue of differences. It is clear that 
we talk and apes do not, but that very great difference seems to rest on 
a series of small similarities. Apes in some small degree have many 
of the traits that humans find useful for speech, and yet they don’t speak at 
It is difficult to account for this tangle of similarity and difference by 
referring to
 episodes that introduce unprecedented novelties. The chief solution has been
 to attempt to keep the episodes to a minimum.
Instead, I believe the story is very different. It is one of co-evolutions, the 
increasing dependence of traits on one another so that something novel 
emerges from the tangle of all those familiar traits. The outline of speech
 origins is probably not a story of milestones, but an increase of mutual 
dependencies on traits that have long evolutionary histories behind them.

The Outline
When we say that apes do not talk at all, we mean they do not have
 the capacity for using words to establish, maintain, or direct joint attention.
 Yet they do have the ability to pay attention, to perceive, to remember 
perceptions, and to attract attention to themselves. Michael Tomasello 
points out that chimpanzees sometimes make a sound to draw somebody’s
 attention. (See his book, The Origins of Human Communication.)
The co-evolution of I and we. So was ahem the first word? I’m joking, 
but a random sound is enough to direct attention to an individual. 
A slap on the ground or vocalized mmm can be sufficient to insert
 oneself into another’s attention. Infants are able to call attention
 to themselves by crying. Ape infants sometimes cry as well, I understand.
 Apes have a well evolved sense of themselves.
Apes have a much weaker sense of we, although it is not fully absent.
 Speakers can draw attention to themselves as members of a group.
 Starting with infants and who babble and get others to join them to
 toddlers who repeat what others say, to older speakers who sing, 
or chant, or shout as part of a group, humans  use speech to draw
 attention to themselves as members of a group. Without this process 
we could not have developed the trust necessary before people dare 
share their thoughts, but once begun the process continued so that 
increasing numbers of ways of expressing group identity developed.
The co-evolution of words and interests: The babbling sounds that
 promote a sense of we inevitably become names like mama.
 Apes are not much interested in neutral topics, but they do 
sometimes show a little curiosity about things. It’s a toe-hold
 for evolution to build on. Words point to the world and spark a 
curiosity that can be fed by further looking. Plainly this process 
continues to go on all around us today.
The co-evolution of perception and imagination: Presumably the
 first words had to do with present perceptions like mama, but very 
quickly people were probably talking about absent things. Even
 toddlers can say up as a request to be picked up. To speak, the 
child has to imagine being picked up, and the responder has to 
imagine that too. Attention can be directed inwardly, to imagination, 
as well as outwardly.
The story works this way. Traits build on one another and 
strengthen capacities by supporting one another. Instead of looking
 for milestones that break the after from the before, look for arches that
 support themselves and grow stronger through their mutual dependence.

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