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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Language and Evolution

Lauren Zimmerman

In his thought-provoking book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, philosopher/scientist Daniel Dennett attempts to examine the full implications of Darwinism to every aspect of human existence. Dennett likens Evolutionary Theory to a "Universal Acid" in that it eats through virtually every important idea humans have. First of all, evolution calls into doubt the unique and superior status of human beings that the traditional Christian Creationism story grants them. Darwinian Evolution implies that human beings, just like all other forms of life, are merely the product of Natural Selection: a mindless, algorithmic process. This is a psychologically frightening idea; it implies that our brains, and the seemingly miraculous things which they may produce, including human language, culture, and creativity, are merely the extended result of an initially meaningless process. This in turn casts uncertainty on the existence of meaning itself as an a priori truth. This paper attempts to examine the unique status of human language, and it's relationship to meaning, as well as the effect of Daniel Dennett's interpretation of Evolutionary Theory when applied to language.

Daniel Dennett goes to great pains to prove that every aspect of human existence, not just the biological, can be traced to a common origin. He draws a distinction between what he calls "cranes" and "skyhooks." "Crane" is a metaphorical term for a natural process grounded in reality. A "skyhook" by contrast, is a supernatural and imaginary device that has no foundation in reality (Dennett, 75). For Dennett, God is the great skyhook, and what is so dangerous about Darwin's idea is that it can explain all features of reality without a skyhook of any kind. According to Dennett, human language as well as its progeny (i.e. any aspect of human culture) for instance Homer's Odyssey or Brahms' Requiem, or Gustav Klimt's This Kiss, can all be traced to one source, via a long series of cascading cranes.

Dennett criticizes many intellectuals for attempting to keep evolution contained in the discipline of biology, resisting any application of Evolutionary theory to culture. Some scientists have been especially reluctant to attribute human being's capacity for language to the meaningless process of Natural Selection. In particular, Dennett accuses Noam Chomsky, founder of modern linguistics, of searching for a skyhook, in that Chomsky does not wish to attribute the awesome capabilities of the human mind to the evolutionary process. Chomsky theorizes that humans are innately equipped with the capacity for language. He does not, however, believe that the evolutionary process alone can explain this equipment, and still considers the human mind a mystery. Dennett has no patience for mysteries, and mocks this sort of analysis:
It was somehow beneath the dignity of the mind to be a gadget for a collection of gadgets. Better the mind should turn out to be an impenetrable mystery, and inner sanctum for chaos, than that is should turn out to be the sort of entity that might yield its secrets to an engineering analysis! (Dennett, 387).

Whether or not human language is an adaptation or a divine mystery is a colossal question to answer. Arguably, biology is not yet fully able to explain how the brain became equipped for language. For now, let us examine why Chomsky, and others are so reluctant to attribute language to evolution? Why is it so disturbing to us that language too is the product of Natural Selection?
First of all, language is so important to us because it is arguably our most human characteristic; it is "what separates us from the animals". Though other creatures may have the ability to communicate, they do not have the creative capacity unique to human language. Attributing language to the mindless algorithm that is Natural Selection, the same algorithm that produced all living things, exemplifies the fundamental problem posed by evolutionary theory: it destroys our beloved anthropocentric conception of reality. An evolutionary explanation of language implies that our most human characteristic is also the result of the same meaningless process.

Yet, human beings are unquestionably more advanced in regards to their capacity for language. Animals other than humans do not have the ability to invent stories that differ from actual experience. This illuminates the distinction between "story-tellers" and "model-builders" as put forward by Bryn Mawr College Professor of Biology Paul Grobstein. According to Professor Grobstein, model-builders are eukaryotic organisms that are only able to respond to their physical environment. Storytellers, on the other hand, have the added advantage of possessing a neo-cortex. This feature gives us the ability to foresee different scenarios, to dream (literally, and physically), and essentially to conceive of situations other than those that have happened to us. According to Dennett, language "opened up a new dimension of self-improvement—all one had to do was learn to savor one's own mistakes." The ability to tell stories, in turn has given us the ability to create and sustain culture. Thus, a biological account of language still leaves room for anthropocentricism.

Then where is the problem? Language conveys meaning, and we are still disturbed by the fact that meaning emerged from an originally meaningless process. This suggests that meaning, or "truth" is something artificially contrived, rather than something that exists onto itself. The implication is that the lack of an original source of meaning obliterates present meaning. Yet, this need not necessarily be the case. Must knowing that the complexities of human culture and creativity are the product of a physical and algorithmic process diminish their grandeur? In other words, do the ends justify the means? Instinct tells us yes. Knowing that cultural meaning has a meaningless origin does nothing to diminish our enjoyment of Odysseus' trickery, or our joy upon hearing Brahm's Requiem, or our sense of wonder gazing upon The Kiss.

Evolution is a Universal Acid in that it claims that even human language, and the culture that it perpetuates, are the product of a mindless, algorithmic process. Daniel Dennett vehemently accuses those who seek alternate explanations of language as seeking a skyhook. If we attribute language to evolution, we are not necessarily forced to sacrifice our unique human status as storytellers, and creators of culture; but we are forced to accept a world in which meaning is created, rather than given. This does not imply that the meaning that we do create is of any less significance.

Paul Grobstein
Dennett, Daniel Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York, New York: Touchstone Publishers.

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