Christiansen and Chater (C&C) are correct in their
claim that it is implausible that language as we know it is the product
of biological evolution for a complex, language-specific endowment.
As they point out, this is not in itself an unusual claim. For example,
Hauser et al. (2002) argue that the sole language-specific capacity
might be recursion and that even recursion might not be language-specific.
However, our reasoning to this claim is quite different from C&C's.
Language as we know it requires advanced capacities for meaning construction.
Any view of language as having been active in quasi-advanced forms before
about 50 thousand years ago, advancing further by refinements, runs
up against the unlikelihood that human beings who enjoyed these near-modern
capacities of meaning construction through language (blending, hypothetical
and counterfactual thought, negatives, framing, mappings of many sorts,
viewpoint and perspective, metaphor, speech acts, deixis, etc.) failed
to use them to achieve even the rudiments of the other human higher-order
cognitive achievements that we know require those very same mental resources:
art, music, mathematical and scientific discovery, religious practices,
representation, fashion, advanced social cognition, etc.
record (Klein 1999; Mithen 1996), genetic record (Cavalli-Sforza 2000),
and modern understanding of the uniformity of conceptual mappings in
multiple, superficially diverse areas of human behavior all converge
to indicate that biological evolution slowly produced not language but,
rather, capacities not specific to language, evolving along a cline
of increasing power. Once those capacities reached a certain sine qua
non stage on the gradient, language and other human singularities became
possible (Fauconnier & Turner 2002; Fauconnier & Turner, in
press; Turner 1996).
(and perhaps the) mental operation whose evolution was crucial
for language is conceptual blending (Coulson 2006; Coulson & Oakley
2000; 2005; Fauconnier & Turner 1998; 2002; Turner 1996). Conceptual
blending is a fundamental mental operation whose rudimentary forms are
evident in the mammalian line of descent. The most advanced form, double-scope
blending, consists of integrating two or more conceptual arrays as inputs
whose frame structures typically conflict in radical ways on vital conceptual
relations, such as cause-effect, modality, participant structure, role-value,
and so on, into a novel conceptual array whose frame structure draws
selectively from the frame structures of the inputs and dynamically
develops emergent structure not found in either of the inputs.
is now massive evidence that double-scope blending is indeed a necessary
feature of all the human singularities mentioned above, including language.
Conceptual blending itself has been evolving since at least deep in
the mammalian line. Once the stage of double-scope blending was achieved,
the full range of human higher-order singularities became possible.
They arose in concert, reinforcingly, in cultural time. The archeological
record suggests that the stage of double-scope blending was reached
not millions of years ago and not even at the stage of anatomical speciation
for human beings (about 150 thousand years ago), but rather, more recently,
perhaps 50 to 80 thousand years ago (Mithen 1996).
Grammatical constructions are products of conceptual mapping. Specifically,
they are double-scope blends (Fauconnier & Turner 1996, Liddell
2003; Mandelblit 1997). Accordingly, the existence of language requires
the capacity for double-scope blending. Because double-scope blending
is necessary for these patterns of meaning construction, because grammatical
constructions in general are not possible absent the capacity for double-scope
blending, and because double-scope blending is necessary for equipotentiality
– the amazing ability of language to be used effectively in any
situation, not just those that fit a finite list of frames (Fauconnier
& Turner 2002) – language (like other human higher-order conceptual
singularities) appears only once mapping capacities have evolved to
reach the stage of double-scope blending. Intermediate stages of the
mapping capacities are useful and adaptive, but not for language, which
demands equipotentiality. This explains the absence of intermediate
stages of language as an observable product.
is no evidence known to science of simple languages now or at any time
during our phylogenetic descent, because there are no simple or rudimentary
languages. Once the stage of double-scope blending is achieved, fully
complex language comes on like a flood, in cultural time rather than
in biological time. In the early twentieth century, scientists at last
gave up the argument that the cave paintings of France and Spain could
not date from the Upper Paleolithic. They had assumed that art must
have gone through stages of increasing complexity and accomplishment,
that it must have been simple at its birth. We argue that a century
later, scientists must give up the same argument and the same mistaken
assumptions about language.
There is evidence of simpler stages, not of language or
art, but of the mental operation underlying these behaviors –
conceptual integration. The more rudimentary forms of conceptual integration
remain available to all human beings, who moreover use those simpler
forms constantly. Arguably, the evolution of mapping capacities in human
beings was adaptive, and took place in standard fashion, but left no
"fossils" of the singularities (such fossils being "simpler"
languages, simpler" religions, and "simpler" drawings
and cave paintings).
There is a long tradition, inherited by generative grammar from structuralism,
of studying languages as formal systems, divorced from their deeper
purpose, which is to prompt for elaborate meaning construction (Lidell
2003; Dancygier & Sweetser 2005; Hougaard & Oakley in press).
In contrast to this tradition, recent research offers very strong evidence
for uniform conceptual mapping capacities that cut across domains. The
cultural construction of classical mathematics through successive double-scope
conceptual blends is demonstrated in detail in (Lakoff & Núñez
2000). Similar detailed research now exists for religion and magic (Slingerland
in press; Sørensen 2006), design (Imaz & Benyon 2007), technology
(Hutchins 2005; Williams 2005; Pereira 2007), poetry, fiction, and theater
(Dancygier 2006), music (Zbikowski 2001), social cognition (Turner 2001),
and of course grammar (Fauconnier & Turner 1996; Mandelblit 1997).
Strikingly, none of these highly typical human domains of action and
meaning are possible without double-scope conceptual blending, and their
emergence takes place at the beginning of our own cultural time, circa
50 kyears ago (Klein 1999).
We concur with C&C's second principal claim, that
language is shaped by the brain. But again, we reach this conclusion
by a different route of reasoning. Once the brain, through evolutionary
time, acquired the capacity for double-scope blending, language, along
with other human singularities, became possible. Language is only one
of the universal surface manifestations of the deeper unity of highly
human-specific meaning construction, requiring double-scope capacity,
and constrained by the constitutive and governing principles of integration
(Fauconnier & Turner 2002). Languages can then change through cultural
time subject to such constraints and the well-studied pressures and
mechanisms of diachronic linguistics. It remains highly doubtful that
such change makes languages better adapted, as C&C wish to think.
However even if it did, the capacity for more or less adapted, but fully
expressive, languages, attested only in recent cultural time, would
remain on their account an unexplained singularity. Accordingly, we
view C&C's speculations about linguistic change in cultural time
as orthogonal to the central problem of how evolving mental capacities
reached a critical point where human singularities, including language,
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