12 Apr 2007

Xenolinguistics and the Language Gene Scam

I have a love-hate relationship with headlines designed cleverly to deceive people into believing that an article is about something fantastic when it's really about something completely different that deserves deeper mental thought. It's an enjoyable perversion to wield one's power of the word to draw people into your writing web. You were no doubt thinking that this article is going to be about language use among extraterrestrials but, please, put your spacesuit away. Instead you'll be reading about language use seen in animals on our own planet and how we're more connected to them than we might think.

What? Animals use language? As human beings we've wasted thousands of years trying at all costs to deny that we're not really so special or vital in this universe afterall. For a long while, we just couldn't accept that the earth was not in the center of our solar system or that our solar system was not in the center of the universe. Sooner or later, we just have to wake up to the fact that we're not at the center of anything. The sooner we can drop the ego, the sooner we can move forward. Just as we had to realize that the earth revolves around the sun, people are slowly realizing that humans aren't the only species with the capacity for language. It's just that animals use different forms of communication than we do and something is not inferior just because it's different.

There are many instances of "xenolinguistics" to be found if we look for it such as math-capable bees, Koko the signing gorilla, groupThink in elephants, global whale sing-a-longs, etc. And if you really think I'm crazy, head down to the University of Hawaii and take a course in linguistics where you'll learn all the nitty-gritty about animal language as well. Xenolinguistics is alive and blooming right here on planet Earth and will probably take some intriguing new directions in the future once we let go of some quaint notions about what 'language' is.

If we know that all animals in one way or another have evolved their own sophisticated ways of communicating, it frustrates me to no end how some academics could still be pondering about the simple question of how language first arose in human beings as if it were truly an unsolved mystery. Geneticists recently discovered the FOXP2 gene that was inappropriately named the 'Grammar gene' or 'Language gene' by the popular press. These exciting discoveries were then quickly abused by those with the naive assumption that our own DNA must be the answer to the origins of language, that somewhere out their is a 'grammar gene' just waiting to be found that will somehow trace 'language' back to a specific date in the past. This article from National Geographic illustrates this sort of nonsense when Anthony Monaco artificially makes a distinction between 'a language gene', which he claims FOXP2 is, and 'the language gene', which by the name itself reifies a totally non-existent concept.

The Language Gene is an illogical farce from the get-go considering that chimps and other primates like Koko have been effectively taught sign language. This is common knowledge. People in the 'vocal world' often forget that sign language is language too. You can read a well-written critique of the Language Gene hype here. As that author clearly states, speech must be understood as only a medium for language, not language itself. Also, if other primates have the ability to speak through the use of their hands, there was absolutely nothing to stop our Australopithecus ancestors who were one of the first to stand upright from signing a complete sentence or two. If we think about that for just a second we start to realize that while yokels are wasting their lives waiting for that special 'language gene', you and I can feel smug knowing that language is the result of a slow, uneventful social-driven process of evolution that had started much more long ago than a mere 200,000 years. Another blogger also quotes passages from a book by Matt Ridley entitled Nature Via Nurture suggesting this very idea of language before homo sapiens. So, it seems to me that the origin of language is already solved and there's no need to banter on with this pseudoscience anymore.

As one online commenter puts it succinctly: "How could you possibly isolate a gene that every living thing on this planet possesses?" Food for thought.

1 comment:

  1. So if we "drop the ego" who are we going to talk with? How are we going to relate to our fellow humans? The Aboriginal Australians is the only culture that is never lost for words simply because they don't need them. So in our culture where excess is not enough we need to come to terms with the ego and stop beating up of this imaginary self. As we evolve wouldn't it be more fun to have someone to talk with than be in conflict with? The ego is not going to leave you hi and dry It actually cares about you. Some call it self love . Kiss and forgive and everything will change and you will find there is no need to work on yourself.