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Language or Culture?The Chicken or the Egg?

ibarkas's picture
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Language or Culture? The Chicken or the Egg?

The scientist and author S.A Barnett has stated regarding the evolution of language that “if talking rubbish increases our chances of contributing to the next generation, then as Darwin might have said-talking rubbish will be favored.” (Murray, 686)  When falling upon this quote in a linguistic anthropology paper, I agreed with Barnett that language does change constantly through a process analogous to that of natural selection.  Thus, if language is the mutable species that is constantly being altered to be more “fit” through natural selection, then the question becomes the one that Darwin attempted to answer -the origin of species, or in this particular case, the origin of language as a “species”. How and when did language first arise?  Dennett attempts to answer this question by extending his metaphor of skyhooks and cranes to support his argument that language must have arisen via biological evolution.  Although I do not entirely disagree with Dennett, I do think that he does not recognize any counterarguments that may be just as valid and in doing so, weakens his own theory by failing to fill in numerous gaps within his own argument.

Dennett begins to address the issue of the evolution of language by describing the evolution of culture.  According to Dennett, culture does undergo evolution via memes which are analogous to genes.  Dennett states that culture does evolve via memes; however, culture itself had to be preceded by something else that can serve as the crane or else culture will resort to being Dennet's dreaded skyhook.  As he states when describing the evolution of culture:

It too must grow out of something quasi-, something merely as if rather than intrinsic, and at every step along the way the results have to be, as David Haig puts it, evolutionarily enforceable.  For culture we need language, for instance, but language has to evolve on its own hook first; we can't just notice how good it would be once it was all in place...this all has be built up from scratch, just the way the original replicators were (Dennett, 341).  

Therefore, according to Dennett, language is the crane upon which culture rests; however, language needs to be suspended from its own crane as well.  In Dennet's theory, it is not possible to analyze the evolution of culture without first understanding the evolution of language.  However, I believe that by looking at culture and language through the analogous lens of the skyhook and the crane, Dennet is getting himself into a bit of a rut.  It is difficult to say that culture defines language or that language defines culture because it is inevitable that both culture and language are intertwined and depend on one another to give each other meaning and purpose.  By using the skyhook-crane analogy, Dennett is stating that in the beginning, language was suspended by its own crane as it served as a crane for culture. 

However, with time, it seems that culture and language have become dependent on one another for their individual evolutionary trajectories-language and culture have become the crane for one another.  If we continue to acknowledge the evolution of culture and language as does Dennett then we have no choice but to acknowledge both culture and language on separate evolutionary trajectories because we have to take into account how both culture and language drive their respective evolutionary lines.  Consequently, we would have language and culture serving as skyhooks for each respective trajectory.  For example, language would serve as the skyhook for culture's evolutionary trajectory and vice versa.  Therefore, Dennett's analogy of the skyhook and crane weakens rather than supports his theory that language must have preceded culture because he does not address how this analogy would account for the continuous evolution of culture and language that we are constantly witnessing.

The second problem that arises when considering Dennett's assertion that the capacity for language was selected for via natural selection that then served as the crane for the development of culture is that Dennett never defines language for his readers.  He takes it on faith that all his readers have this innate notion of what language is because we use it every day.  When Dennett refers to the language that he would like to investigate, he states, “…This admiration for language--real language, the sort only we human beings use--is well-founded."  However, Dennett fails to explain to his readers what he means by “real language".  The Oxford English Dictionary defines language in numerous ways including, “a means of communicating other than by the use of words, as gesture, facial expression, etc; non-verbal communication”.  If language can also include gestures, facial expressions and non-verbal communication, then where do we begin to draw the line and can we then surely conclude that language evolved before culture if it is not clear what language encompasses? 

Furthermore, I also question Dennett's insistence on the notion that language must have preceded culture.  He quickly mentions this idea as if it is something that is easily understood and taken for granted and rests his entire argument of the evolution of language on the notion that language preceded culture and therefore, must have had its own crane (natural selection, according to Dennett).   Dennett's reluctance to delve deeper into this "chicken or the egg" type argument leads me to question how well supported the rest of his arguments are as well.  I think there is a plethora of evidence provided by linguistic anthropologists that can be used to support the converse argument that culture preceded language. 

Culture is defined by anthropologists as "learned, socially acquired patterns of thought and behavior that are characteristic of a population or society." (Davis)  According to this definition, a society or population does not need to utilize language in order be considered a culture.   For example, many anthropologists would argue that the first signs of human culture can be attributed to Homo habilis at approximately 2.5 million years ago when the first tools were believed to have been used by humans. (Davis)  If we do agree that the use of tools can be considered the first sign of culture, then how can the argument that language allowed for the evolution of culture be supported? How can Dennett account for early signs of culture that are clear indications of a human capacity of culture before the development of language? 

Furthermore, anthropological studies of modern languages have provided us with evidence that culture continues to drive the modern evolutionary development of language.  For example, when considering a language that I am familiar with, Greek, I find that when I am asked to translate certain words, I am unable to because there is no exact translation into English.  I believe this is because in order to understand certain languages fluently, an immersion into the culture for a certain period of time is necessary.  For example, according to the Oxford English dictionary, the word  filotimo in Greek translates into English as "sense of honor".  However, filotimo surely means more than that because I believe it forms the foundation of the entire Greek culture.  To me, it means honor, pride, respect, compassion and most importantly, generosity.  In this case, the culture creates meaning for the word-the idea of filotimo existed and was practiced within the culture before the word existed.  This illustrates how culture continues to serve as the crane for language and is a clear example of how culture can precede language.  That is not to say, however, that an example as this one can support the notion that culture must have initially evolved before language.

Therefore, I think it is also important to note, as mentioned previously that culture is also affected by language.  In my linguistic anthropology course, we had discussed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that the way in which a language is structured (syntax, grammar, etc) affects an individual's culture and the way in which he or she views society.  The example usually used to demonstrate this hypothesis is the notion of time within the Hopi Indian culture.  The Hopi language has a very limited temporal aspect to it and expresses time by using words such as "later" or "after" as opposed to "tomorrow" or "yesterday". (Weidman)  Similarly, the Hopi culture has no understanding or use for any type of timescale-their culture is a direct reflection of their language.

I believe that the way in which Dennett presents the evolution of language not only implies that language must have evolved before culture, but also that if language did evolve before culture, then it is only possible for language to continue to effect the evolutionary trajectory of culture because culture is suspended from the crane of language.  Evidence has been provided by anthropologists, as described above, that weakens both of these ideas. Therefore, is Dennett's evidence sound enough for him to make the conclusion that language must serve as the crane that drove the evolution of culture? 

I do not mean to make the assertion that Dennett's argument that language evolved prior to culture is incorrect, but rather, that the way in which it is presented and his refusal to account for the validity or to tackle any counterarguments makes his own argument weak.  I think the question of whether or not language preceded culture is one that cannot be definitively answered just yet and Dennett's insistence on minimizing this more complicated question to the skyhook-crane analogy is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  Perhaps some aspects of evolution, and particularly aspects of cultural evolution, cannot be explained using the skyhook-crane analogy.  I do not think that refusing to use this analogy when is necessary, discredits natural selection or evolution.  After all, I believe that not everything calls for an explanation-evolution is a story and requires some faith as well. 

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1)      Davis, Rick. Lecture. Bryn Mawr College, December 9th, 2008


2)      Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.



3)      Murray, David W. "Loose Talk and the Evolution of Language: Comment on Gatewood's Thesis." American Anthropologist 86.3 (1984): 686-688.


4)      Weidman, Amanda. Theories of Meaning: Language, Thought, and Cultural Values. Bryn Mawr College, November 5th, 2008. 




Paul Grobstein's picture

language as a crane for culture or vice versa or ....

I'm on your side.  That culture depends on language (in the modern sense of that term) strikes me as unlikely for a variety of reasons, among them that "culture" is not restricted to humans.  Certainly , as you point out, culture and language currently co-evolve, so calling one a crane for the other is a serious oversimplification.  Does that necessarily mean there is a skyhook in there somewhere?  Or only that one needs to think, perhaps more than Dennett did, about interacting cranes?