Review of The Evolution of Human Language
|Date: Tue, 13 Dec 2005 20:17:51 +0100
From: Susanna Bartsch
Subject: The Evolution of Human Language
AUTHOR: Wildgen, Wolfgang
TITLE: The Evolution of Human Language
SUBTITLE: Scenarios, Principles, and Cultural Dynamics
SERIES: Advances in Consciousness Research
Susanna Bartsch, unaffiliated
SPECIAL ABBREVIATIONS USED
ky = one thousand years
my = one million years
BP = before present
Wildgen's book (x + 237 pages) is the 57th volume of the
series ''Advances in Consciousness Research'' published by
Benjamins since 1995 and comprehending at the moment more than
60 titles. The volume under review is structured in 10 chapters
preceded by a quotation from René Thom, the table of contents, and
acknowledgements; Chapter 1 is at the same time the introduction.
The notes for each chapter, the reference section, an index of proper
names, a subject index, as well as an ''index of principles and
hypotheses'' complete the volume.
The monograph's subtitle, ''Scenarios, Principles, and Cultural
Dynamics'', give some clues to the perspectives from which Wildgen
aims to analyze the evolution of language. He suggests possible
evolutionary scenarios in which devices crucial for the development of
language could have evolved; he formulates some principles possibly
having operated in the process of hominization and language
evolution; and he includes non-linguistic cultural manifestations in his
analyses, such as tool-making and use, art, and science, drawing
parallels between such non-linguistic manifestations and linguistic
In what follows, I provide at first a purely descriptive summary of each
chapter before a critical examination of the monograph is made
concerning editorial aspects, structure and style, as well as scientific
validity of the author's goals, methodologies, and conclusions.
Chapter 1 -- Introduction (pp. 1-4)
In this introductory chapter, Wildgen presents the central questions he
aims to discuss in his monograph (p. 3):
(i) When did language first evolve?
(ii) How did it evolve -- gradually or through ''catastrophic transitions''
(iii) What internal and external forces did shape the evolution of
The investigation of these questions has to be based on the findings
of evolutionary biology, (molecular) genetics, and paleontology
research (p. 3). In accord to this view, Wildgen welcomes the shift in
language research brought up by psycholinguistics and
sociolinguistics from the ''static'' synchronic view of language
inaugurated by Saussure to a view which includes diachronic
(historical, ontogenetic, and phylogenetic) aspects (p. 1) and argues
for a concerted study of language and cognition in the context of the
evolution of linguistic and symbolic skills in human beings in relation
with their bodily, ecological, and social evolution (p. 2). His ''method of
inquisition is neither that of historical reconstruction, nor that of
theoretical deduction'' (p. 2).
As to question (i), probably human language first evolved in the period
between 2 my to 0,5 my BP; cognitive skills had evolved much earlier,
and ''many types of social communication were present before the 10
my bifurcation'' separating hominids from other primates (pp. 3f.).
Questions (ii) and (iii) are discussed in Chapter 2.
Chapter 2 -- Basic Scenarios and Forces in the Evolution of Human
Language (pp. 5-24)
In answer to questions (ii) and (iii) posed in the previous chapter,
Wildgen discusses here four possible scenarios for the evolution of
human language (p. 5-23), postulating at the end a ''a multilayer
model'' for the evolution of humankind in general (p. 23), in which a
chronology can be traced:
(i) Preadaptation scenario (2 my BP): Cognitive and physical evolution
might have created predispositions for language in terms of, e.g.,
vocalization and syntactic planning (pp. 5f.).
(ii) Bottleneck scenario (evolution of modern man): The isolation of
small populations carrying specific mutations in their gene pools and
being in danger of extinction (p. 17) led to genetic speciation (pp.
15f.). For reasons of survival, language skills might have rapidly
evolved to a form of protolanguage (pp. 16f.).
(iii) Run-away scenario (more recent evolutionary periods):
Communicative proficiency could have become an important criterion
in partner selection (p. 18). Moreover, within the clan or family, the
necessity of conveying one's ''attitudes, believes, and dispositions to
act'' to each other might have accelerated the evolution of language
(iv) Symbolic medium scenario (since Paleolithic art): symbolic
skills, ''present from the beginning'', became more decisive in the
evolution of the human species than environmental factors (p. 21).
Thus, the success of the Cro-Magnon man could have been due
rather to his higher symbolic capacities (in art and ritual) than to his
putative superior physical force (pp. 22f.).
Chapter 3 -- Expression and Appeal in Animal and Human
Communication with Special Consideration of Laughter (pp. 25-41)
In his examination of the evolution of symbolic abilities and symbolic
communication, the topic of this chapter, Wildgen relies on three
Darwinian notions: (i) the continuity between humans and other
animals (p. 26); (ii) ''the evolution of behavior (and not only of
morphology) as the proper field for an evolutionary explanation of
human language'' (p. 26); and (iii) the ''principle of serviceable
associated Habits'' (ritualization) (p. 26).
''[S]emiotic behavior'' and, consequently, human language, were the
consequence of the evolution from ''behavioral habits''
(Lorenz' ''motion'') to ''sign-behavior'' (Lorenz' ''intentional movement'')
by means of ritualization processes (pp. 26ff.). There is a difference
between animal and human communication that can be found in
the ''gradual shift from emulation, to imitation (and teaching)'' (p. 30).
(In this context of imitation and teaching/learning, Wildgen classifies
the Chomskyan notion of Universal Grammar as ''extremely
counterintuitive in a biological context'' (p. 29).). Nevertheless, the
Darwinian notion of continuity between humans and other animals is
true, since semiotic behavior and referential function of communication
are present -- at least in a latent form -- ''in the whole animal kingdom''
Laughter is one of several types of communicative and semiotic
behavior (p. 33). Comparing laughter with articulated speech, the
conclusion is that laughter is ''a more archaic behavioral pattern'' and
there are evidences pointing to the continuity between humans and
other primates (p. 36), such as formal, functional and neurologically
based parallels between laughter and animal vocalizations (pp. 33f.),
as well as the fact that laughter is ''more dependent on arousal and
emotion'' than articulated speech (p. 36).
Wildgen's conclusion is that a ''proper model of language evolution''
has to consider the two main functions of language: emotional
expression and cognitive function (pp. 37f.). In this context, Wildgen
sustains that ''argumentation'' -- and not proposition, as postulated by
Fodor -- as related to theory of mind and social cognition is ''the
critical level in the transition to language capacity'' (pp. 38ff.), and
symbolic forms -- language, technique (topic of ch. 4), and art (topic of
ch. 5) -- contribute to the evolution of a theory of mind (p. 40).
Chapter 4 -- The Evolution of Cognitive Control in Tool-Making and
Tool-Use and the Emergence of a Theory of Mind (pp. 43-60)
In his discussion on the relations between technique and theory of
mind (and human language), Wildgen starts from Piaget's theory of
how causality is represented in the child's mind, formulates his
three ''cognitive principles of causation'', and discusses the hen-egg
problem in the evolution of language and technique.
Wildgen relates Piaget's ontogenetic perspectives (''artificialism''
and ''animism'') to phylogenetical stages: (i) the ''animistic stage'' is
found in the evolution of hominids in their religious and symbolic
analysis of nature and culture; (ii) the ''artificial'' or ''technical'' stage
began about 2 my BP with the first tools (p. 44).
Wildgen's ''cognitive principles of causation'' read as follows:
(i) ''First cognitive principle of causation: specification of a vector
space'', defined as the distance between origin and goal of the
causation (p. 47). This cognitive capacity shows up in human
languages through ''spatial and directional prepositions and in the
syntax and semantics of the phrases they govern'', and these
phrases ''realize [...] the first basic principle in a human language'' (p.
(ii) ''Second cognitive principle of causation: instrumentality'', defined
as a teleological view of causation. Related to tool-making and use
and its inherent functionality, Wildgen argues here again for Darwin's
continuity between humans and other animals, since ''[t]ool-use has
been found in the whole animal kingdom'' (p.44). From this
principle ''we can derive an 'idealized cognitive model' of events (cf.
Lakoff 198:68-76), which applies the body schema of human hands
and their instrumental use and includes non-linear effects'' (p. 54).
(iii) ''Third cognitive principle of causation: Theory of mind and mental
causation'', related to the manipulation of others' knowledge by means
of ''visible behavior'' and language (p. 57f.). There are parallels
between the attainment of such manipulation ''under the rule of social
conventions'' (p. 60) and ''grammars [as] the product of such a long-
term control over rules of behavior'' (p. 60).
As for the hen-egg problem (Which was there first: language or
technique?), Wildgen assumes that human language rule systems ''w
[ere] either a precondition for an achievement like tool-industries or
coevolved with it'' (p. 56) and that more sophisticated tool-making
requires planning and ''control of a series of goal-oriented activities,
i.e., in a sense a _syntax_ of manual activities'' (p. 49, original
Chapter 5 -- The Evolution of Pre-Historic Art and the Transition to
Writing Systems (pp. 61-91)
In this chapter, Wildgen provides a semiotic interpretation of the
evolution of art from the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic (p. 61-80), before
discussing the evolution from art in form of ''iconic schemata''
to ''abstract signs'' to writing (p. 80-90).
In his semiotic perspective of pre-historical art, Wildgen focuses on the
period 30-6 ky BP and on the following artistic manifestations:
engraving of tools, first sculptures, and painting of caves. Some of the
tendencies in pre-historical art and their relevance for the evolution of
(i) Transition from ''reality-like pictures'' to ''iconic schemata''
and ''abstract signs'': ''iconic schemata'' and ''abstract signs'' are
permanent signs in opposition to language phonetic forms (p. 63);
they become mnemonic signs based on convention, making the
introduction of writing possible (p. 67); this transition is comparable to
the one from ''rich referential meaning'' to ''a functional schema'' found
in grammaticalization processes of natural languages (p. 66).
(ii) Transition of more referential paintings to ones representing
events: they may be interpreted in terms of representations of referent-
predication relations and compared to the developmental transition
from one-word to two-word utterances (p. 67).
(iii) ''Semiotic principle of functional and syntactic organization'' in Cro-
Magnon's paintings in which a ''quase-narrative structure [~E] and a
separation of center and periphery (comparable to head-satellite
structures in syntax)'' can be found (p. 73). (In this context, Wildgen
postulate other semiotic principles that are not expounded here.)
These artistic manifestations reveal the ''biologically latent possibilities
of sign-usage''; nevertheless, the quick pace of their evolution leads to
the assumption that this evolution might be better explained in terms
of a ''new mode of gene expression in the brain'' than in terms of
general genetic changes (p. 61).
For his semiotic analysis of the evolution of writing, Wildgen starts
from Leroi-Gourhan's typology of (abstract) signs and posits two
further semiotic principles, from which the principal one is
the ''principle of sign abstraction'' that explains the tendency towards
geometrical or mathematical abstraction (in paintings) (p. 83) in terms
of ''objectivation of mental schematizations'' or transition from
pictograms to ideograms (p. 85). The originally ''small [abstract] signs''
(simple ideograms) become gradually part of ''full-scale pictures'' (p.
81), building through convention a ''sign vocabulary'' and leading to
the evolution of writing and mathematics (pp. 81, 83, 85). But ''[t]he
deeper source for the evolution of writing was [~E] the transition from
spoken language as an unconscious routine of communication [~E] to
meta-linguistic awareness, linguistic consciousness'' (p. 87).
Chapter 6 -- Symbolic Creativity in Language, Art, and Science and
the Cultural Dynamics of Symbolic Forms (pp. 93-136)
Language, art, and science are, according to Wildgen, ''the three
major 'symbolic forms''' (p. 97). Creativity and innovation constitute the
basis for a type of ecological adaptation which becomes necessary for
reasons of survival _and_ is culturally transmitted and consolidated by
symbolic means, representing ''a 'Copernican' paradigm change from
biological to cultural evolution'' (pp. 94f.). In this chapter, Wildgen aims
to assess ''[t]he principles of human creativity'' for ''the three major
symbolic forms'' (p. 97); the analysis include art and science because
they unfold potentials which may have been at work in the evolution of
language in man (p. 127).
For the area of language, Wildgen examines nominal composition as a
case of innovation in language (pp. 97-111). Without entering in much
detail with Wildgen's views about nominal composition as linguistic
phenomenon, I only emphasize here some of his conclusions related
to language evolution:
(i) The complex dynamic principles of nominal compounds imply a
level of creativity, which is only possible in the context of a fully
developed lexicon and grammar. Therefore, nominal compounds
cannot have been present in the Homo erectus' protolanguage;
instead, ''spontaneous formation of new sound labels'' was dominant
(ii) Spontaneous lexical creations are comparable to biological
mutation; their stabilization is comparable to biological selection (p.
(iii) Grammaticalization is the process by means of which ''grammars
emerge on the basis of lexical material'' (p. 107).
In the section dealing with creativity in art, Wildgen provides a semiotic
analysis of some works of Leonardo da Vinci, William Turner, and
Henry Moore (pp. 111-127), as examples of ''more radical innovations
which involve reshaping the organizing schema or rule'' (p. 112).
Again omitting details, here only some of the main conclusions
relevant to the issue of language evolution:
(i) Leonardo introduced proportions in painting corresponding to ''a
new cognitive or image-schematic model'' applicable to ''innumerable
situations of communication'' (p. 114).
(ii) Leonardo introduced a narrative function in his paintings by means
of dynamic representations, solving a ''basic semiotic problem'' central
in the evolution of language: How combine the elements of a scene so
that a narrative structure emerges? (p. 119).
(iii) Turner's and Moore's works introduced a level of abstraction
comparable to the one which led to the evolution of spoken and
written language (p. 120).
Starting from Copernicus' paradigm change from geocentric to
heliocentric astronomy, Wildgen posits some claims, such as the
(i) Radical scientific reorganizations presuppose ''mental modelings''
involving abstraction operations (pp. 127f.).
(ii) ''The transmission and conservation of innovation [...] supposes
[sic] an elaborated symbolic system beyond the capacity of a
protolanguage'' (p. 132).
Chapter 7 -- ''Fossils'' of Evolution in the Lexicon of HAND and EYE
(mainly in German, English and French) (pp. 137-158)
In this chapter, Wildgen aims to track down '''fossils' of linguistic
evolution'' in living languages starting from the lexicon of HAND and
EYE as concepts and offering a further (more linguistically based)
explanation for the advent of syntax (p. 137). The over-all conclusion
is that there are some universals, which, nevertheless, should not
obscure the central role played by specificities of different languages
Some of the universals posited by Wildgen are:
(i) A ''folk-theory of evolution'' can be traced in the lexicon of natural
languages in that physical similarities between humans and other
animals and even plants ''are encoded [...] in the lexicon of terms for
body-parts (nouns) and bodily activities (verbs)'' (p. 138).
(ii) More general ''object-schemata'' play a central role in the ontogeny
and phylogeny of language in that the human being (hominid, child)
discovers the ''specific valences ('affordances')'' the objects in his/her
environment have and begins to develop syntactic structures (in terms
of semantic roles and syntactic functions) able to encode them and
their relations to each other (pp. 139, 156).
(iii) The synergetics found between the manual and the visual
system ''was a physiological/cerebral precondition for the transition
between simple call systems to a phonetically complex protolanguage''
(iv) The ''functional relevance'' of these both systems for the linguistic
system is encoded in the ''highly elaborated lexicon for the body parts
and '' (p. 150).
Some of the specificities are related to the following claims:
(i) Languages communities develop specific object-schemata encoded
in typical metonymies and metaphors (p. 143).
(ii) ''[T]he evolution of constructional complexity even at the level of
idioms tends to abolish general, species specific [sic] forces'' (p. 154).
Wildgen formulates some methodological desiderata for further
(i) The ''evolutionary dimension'' has relevance not only for diachronic,
but also for ''proper synchronic'' investigations of natural languages (p.
(ii) Further advances in linguistic analysis may make possible ''to
separate different layers of fossilization in the grammars of languages''
(iii) A separated analysis of the evolution of phonetic/phonological
capacities on the hand, and cognitive/semantic capacities on the other
hand ''seems [...] methodologically coherent''; at the same time,
a ''return to a pre-structuralist position'', in which there is no
separation between phonetics and phonology, ''will allow a more
naturalistic view of language and facilitate the application to linguistics
of results obtained in the natural sciences'' (p. 157).
(iv) ''A future theory of the evolution of complex syntax should
probably sooner consider the principles of self-organization inherent
in hearing/uttering than the mysterious inborn universal grammar with
its strangely sophisticated ad hoc machinery'' (p. 158)
Chapter 8 -- The Form of a ''Protolanguage'' and the Contours of a
Theory of Language Evolution (pp. 159-184)
In this chapter, Wildgen aims to provide some insights in the form of a
protolanguage (pp. 159-175), before he formulates some thoughts
concerning futures attempts to establish a theory of language
evolution (pp. 175-184).
The term ''protolanguage'' ''designates a zone between the linguistic
capacities of early hominids and modern humans'', which ''could have
existed 1 my BP'', probably combining gestures and phonations (pp.
160, 162, 163). The scarcity of empirical evidence explains the
treating of protolanguage as a single stage and the fact that nothing
more than ''an informed guess'' at its form can be established (p. 161).
Starting from ''a model of event-schemata using catastrophe theory'',
Wildgen suggests the following ''order of emergence of grammatical
features'' (pp. 166, 169):
(i) ''elaboration of valence patterns''
(ii) ''elaboration of the manner component'' (''related to type of object,
motion and rhythm of objects, their resistance, etc.'')
(iii) ''elaboration of the TMA-component'' (T=Time, M=Mode, A=Aspect)
For an proper account of (nominal) phrases within an evolutionary
frame the classical X-bar Theory turns out to be inadequate, since
it ''underestimate(s) the problem of (iterated) attributes to nouns'' (pp.
171f.). Instead, the approach should starts from the notion of the ''self-
organization of a grammatical system'' (p. 172), since ''[t]he
deeper'', ''the tremendous problem, which has to be resolved in order
to allow for a stable and reliable communication via phrases and
sentences'' is not the ''purely syntactic problem'', but ''that of semantic
compositionality'' (p. 173). Moreover, ''the central question is not how
syntax came about, but what made it rewarding to use the available
cognitive potential for syntax'' (p. 173).
As for his thoughts about a theory of language evolution, Wildgen
asserts at first that it ''may focus primarily on biological processes,
which induce genetic, anatomic and (basic) behavioral changes'';
however, demographic growth and expansion of communication
networks require a shift of the perspective to processes of cultural
(socio-communicative) selection (p. 175). An analogy between genetic
code and human grammar has ''misleading consequences'' and is,
therefore, not commendable (pp. 177f.). On the other hand, the
application of two Darwinian principles, mutation as ''variation by
chance'' and selection as ''fitness in relation to external forces'', to the
study of language evolution may be useful, it is, nevertheless, not
sufficient (pp. 178ff.). It should be completed by Bichakjian's (2002)
notion of ''advantages'' in language (pp. 180f.). One of these
advantages ''refer to the transition between the non-symbolic and the
symbolic'' which may explain the separation of man from other
primates (p. 181). In this context, ''the _toil_ and the _theft_ strategy''
posited by Cangelosi, Greco, & Harnad 2002 (p. 182, original
emphasis) play a central role: In the former, ''categories are acquired
by trial and error''; in the latter, ''the symbolic (categorical) information
is 'stolen' from others'' who uttered labels of the category in question
(p. 182). The ''toil strategy'' is, on its turn, ''related to the mirror system
(mirror neurons) discovered by Rizzolatti et al. (1995)'' and the ''new
qualities of behavioral learning'' (''self-correction'', ''social
interaction'', ''learning by imitation'') it led to in humans (p. 183). In
addition, Wildgen suggests some approaches to the problem of a
theory of language evolution, such as the application of findings from
studies on language change and language typology, amongst others
and concludes by stating that ''we have to wait for more data from
paleontology, genetics, comparative ethnology and general/typological
linguistics'' to be able to gradually fill in the gaps still existing (p. 184).
Chapter 9 -- Symbolic Forms, Generalized Media, and their Evolution:
The Place of Language in the Context of General Semiotics (pp. 185-
In this short chapter, Wildgen briefly reviews the usual definitions of
the term 'symbol' before he, starting from Cassirer's and Luhmann's
reflections on the topic, posits two ''hypotheses on the evolution of
In his review of the several definitions given by other authors to the
term ''symbol'', Wildgen concludes that ''none of them explains the
evolution of 'symbolic or sign-behavior' corresponding to the state of
the art in evolutionary biology'' and uses the term ''symbol'' for ''all sign-
behaviors which evolved parallel to language'' and which refer to the
transition between ''ad hoc referential behavior'' and ''modern symbolic
media'' (p. 185).
On the basis of ''Cassirer's [1921, 1944, S.B.] philosophy of symbolic
forms'' (pp. 186-189), Wildgen formulates a ''first hypothesis on the
evolution of symbolic forms'': ''Between emotional expression [...] and
perfectly abstract meanings (in mathematics), we observe an
overlapping sequence of semiotic genres'': myth, language, and
science (p. 189).
On the basis of Luhmann's (1975) theory of symbolically generalized
media of communication'' (pp. 190-194), Wildgen formulates a ''second
hypothesis on the evolution of symbolic forms'': ''Language evolved as
a trans-medial tool'' in the transition of the media love, possession/art,
and law from non-symbolic forms to ''socially codified, symbolic forms''
Two conclusions are worth mentioning:
(i) '' [...] the evolution of the symbolic capacity is continuing and we are
now only witnessing a transient stage far from some (final) stability'' (p.
(ii) While ''[i]n both Cassirer's and Luhmann's system language is
relevant but not central'', hominization seems to have led to ''a
centralization of semiotic capacities'' on language (p. 198).
Chapter 10 -- Consciousness, Linguistic Universals, and the
Methodology of Linguistics (pp. 199-208)
In this final chapter, Wildgen discusses the relations between the
evolution of both theory of mind and language, formulates some levels
of evolutionary principles which may facilitate the detection of linguistic
universals, and finally draws some conclusions of ''the argumentative
network presented in this book'' (p. 198) for linguistic methodologies.
On the one hand, ''sign-use triggers the emergence of cognitive self-
consciousness''; on the other hand, ''_social consciousness_ is a
necessary precondition for effective human sign-communication'' (pp.
For the relation between evolutionary principles and language,
Wildgen proposes an ''evolutionary stratification of the linguistic
capacity of humans'' which may help in the task of uncovering
linguistic universals (pp. 202f.):
(i) ''Basic level'' (before 2 my BP): tool-use and ''understanding of
(ii) ''Emergence of performing vocal articulation and auditive
perception'' (about 1,6-1,0 my BP): ''evolution of mirror-neurons'' and
of vocal apparatus, ''basic principles of phonology''.
(iii) ''A protolanguage based on a compositionally enriched lexicon''
(until about 200 ky BP).
(iv) ''The evolution of syntactically and textually complex languages''
(100-12 ky BP): ''mastering of stable valence patterns and the use of
verbal art'' in narratives, song, etc.
(v) Modern and future phases on the evolution of human
communication'' (from later Neolithic onwards): development of writing
The consequences of such an evolutionary approach to language for
linguistic methodologies are ''dramatic'', since ''[i]t involves a demand
for a new definition of language studies in general'' (p. 204). It would
not only signify the refusal of the structuralist synchronic approach
(time span of 30-50 years) and the return to the diachronic
perspective of the traditional German historical linguistics (time span
of 2 ky); most importantly, it would signify the expansion of this
temporal scale ''of 2 ky to 200 ky or even 2 my years'' (p. 204).
Despite of the scarcity of (linguistic) data, a proper theory of language
should therefore consider or involve:
(i) the biological differences between modern man and the hominids
speaking a protolanguage (see chronology above), and,
consequently, the differences between this protolanguage and
modern languages (p. 205);
(ii) the ''(implicit) evolutionary dimension'' present in current lexica (p.
(iii) ''other not dominantly phonic means of communication'': gestures,
tool-making and use, art, ritual, etc. (p. 205);
(iv) a ''cognitive-semantic'' reinterpretation of tool-making and use, art,
ritual, etc. (pp. 206f.);
(v) the findings of research on unimpaired and impaired language
acquisition (p. 207);
(vi) the findings of studies on linguistic and cultural contact (p. 207);
(vii) the relatively late emergence of syntax (after the emergence
of ''phonetic production/memory and lexical semantics'') and the
consequence that syntax ''is not the first and major feature of
language which has to be explained'' (p. 206);
(viii) the ''explanatory endeavor'' as the starting point and raison d'être
of any ''scientific study of language'' and not as ''the last step following
a purely technical methodology be it inductive, as the discovery
procedures of American descriptivism, or deductive and falsifying like
the methodology of generative grammar'' (p. 208).
Despite the great merits this book surely has, its shortcomings are in
my view unfortunately so numerous and, in part, so serious that an
overall statement about it must in many aspects be rather
unenthusiastic. The drawbacks are related to editorial aspects, the
structure and style of the monograph and, above all, its scientific
validity in terms of goals, methodologies, and conclusions.
Firstly, I would like to make some editorial remarks. The edition is, all
in all, accurate: It seems to contain no more than only a dozen or so
misprints or inconsistencies. Unfortunately, the notes are impractically
placed at the end of the volume; in my view, footnotes are more
practical, but this is of course a matter of taste. Most importantly, there
are several relevant names and terms missing in the respective
indexes, such as Enard (p. 26), Aristotle and Galileo (p. 44), Jakobson
(p. 177); ''gene expression'' (p. 61), ''TMA-component'' (p.
169), ''artificialism'' and ''animism'' (p. 43), ''deductive'' and ''inductive
methodology'' (p. 208), amongst many others.
Secondly, I would like to make some observations on the structure and
the style of Wildgen's monograph. First of all, the information about
references is sometimes not really accurate. To begin with, incomplete
references are not rare: Some authors' names appear without even
the year of publication, let alone number pages: e.g., Leibniz (p. 65),
Jakobson (p. 91), Thissen (p. 95), Descartes (p. 152), Jakobson,
Crick, Watson (p. 177), Cassirer, Saussure, Peirce (p. 185), Carnap
(p. 208), amongst others. Moreover, in several passages, Wildgen
make statements that clearly refer to other authors/titles without giving
any references whatsoever. Some examples:
- ''a self-referential process, which is called run-away'' (p. 18): who
calls this process ''run-away''? Fisher (1930) used the term ''run-away
process'' in his accounts of female mating preferences -- does
Wildgen refer to him?
- ''the aquatic ape theory'' (p. 16): Wildgen does not mention the main
names connected to this theory: Westenhöfer (1942) and his
assumption about an aquatic stage in the hominization process; Hardy
and his reflections since 1930, culminating in his famous paper in
_The New Scientist_ (1960); and Elaine Morgan (e.g. 1982) as the
most important advocate of the theory.
- ''[...] nominal composition is learned before complex phrasal or
sentential structures are acquired'' (p. 102): Which are the empirical
results supporting this claim?
- review of definitions of the term ''symbol'' (which is, incidentally, too
brief and, therefore, superficial for a book dealing with a semiotic
perspective of language evolution) without references whatsoever (p.
As for the structure and style per se, the macro-structure of the
monograph is fine: The order of the chapters seems logical and the
articulation between them is mostly achieved by means of statements
or questions posited in the last or first section of the respective
chapters providing an organic transition to the posterior or previous
chapter, respectively. Only, it is a disappointment that the chapters do
not contain a proper conclusion or summary section. That would have
been very useful, since the micro-structure of the monograph is not so
fine as the macro-structure. Specifically, some sections in a chapter
are not clearly articulated with each other or in themselves or they
gradually lose coherence in the course of the exposition. For instance,
the section 3.4 ''The place of laughter in the evolution of semiotic
behavior'' (Ch. 3, pp. 37-41) is at the beginning articulated with the
previous section 3.3. ''Laughter and the origin of the comical genre''
(pp. 31-37), but the transition to Condillac's and Rousseau's views of
language (cognition and emotionality, respectively) in section
3.4.1 ''Critique of emotional expressivity (and appeal) as origin of
language'' seems not very clear; still less clear is the discussion
on ''proposition'' and ''argumentation'' and the statements about
argumentation being ''the critical level in the transition to language
capacity'', and not ''proposition'' (pp. 38f.). The last sub-section
3.4.2 ''Argumentation in archaic societies'' (pp. 39-41) finally does not
seem to have any relation whatsoever to the superordinated
section ''The place of laughter in the evolution of semiotic behavior''
(perhaps a misprint: instead of sub-section 3.4.2 Wildgen meant
perhaps a new section 3.5? In any case, the relation between laughter
and proposition/argumentation does not seem that obvious).
That was only an example; as a matter of fact, in almost all chapters,
the reader might get the impression that some reflections are not
clearly integrated in the general thought building. This state of affairs
is worsened by the fact that there is no real overall conclusion
articulating the several subjects discussed in the course of the book. It
is true that Wildgen in the final chapter resumes the relationships
between theory of mind and linguistic signs and draws general
conclusions concerning both an evolutionary background for the
formulation of linguistic universals, and consequences of the
evolutionary perspective for linguistic methodology. But he fails to
provide explicitly a common denominator reuniting the several topics
discussed -- it is not the case that these topics are per se disparate,
rather I believe that the discussions on them were very often
somewhat confused and dissolved by the inclusion of rather
secondary or not well integrated or somewhat unrelated aspects, and
also by problems of methodology (see below.).
Incidentally, the two last chapters are very short (5-10 pages) in
comparison to the precedent ones (about 20-40 pages), although
their subjects (evolution of symbolic forms; consequences of the
evolutionary view for the postulation of linguistic universals and the
theory of language and language evolution, respectively) are, in my
view, far more relevant for the whole discussion than, say, the
extended analysis of Leonardo's, Turner's, and Moore's works (ch. 6).
In the context of slight vagueness, it must be mentioned that Wildgen's
principles and hypotheses remain, in my view, for the most part
somewhat nebulous in their enunciation; it would have been useful to
fit out these principles and hypotheses with headings summing up
what they are meant to be, but also their definitions could have been
On the whole, the monograph could have benefited from a little bit
more consistency and concision of exposition and argumentation, as
well as from a more equilibrated treatment of the topics corresponding
to their real relevance for the main subject 'language evolution'.
Coming now to more substantial aspects of the monograph, there are
more limitations related to the goals, methodologies, and conclusions;
but there also are some merits to mention.
The goals of the monograph are not explicitly formulated. A cue can
be given by the sub-title of the monograph, ''Scenarios, Principles, and
Cultural Dynamics'', since it is related to some of the perspectives from
which Wildgen aims to analyze the evolution of language: the possible
evolutionary scenarios in which devices crucial for the development of
language in particular (and not of ''symbolic behavior'' in general, as it
reads in the editor's description, see URL
2057) could have evolved. Such devices are related to physical and
cognitive evolution, environmental and genetic conditions, social
factors, and the gradual sophistication of species-general symbolic
skills. The importance Wildgen does ascribe to symbolic behavior
related to cognitive skills and cultural production and innovation over
biological and environmental factors in the latter stages of the process
of hominization and, therefore, in the evolution of language, is
manifest through out the monograph. Indeed, Wildgen's approach
might be called frankly semiotic and 'culturalist'. Thus, amongst others,
he specifically argues for:
(i) a relevant role played by tool-making and use in the evolution of a
theory of mind and, consequently, of language in humans;
(ii) an analysis of cave art evolution as preparing the way for the
invention of writing;
(iii) a cognitive-semantic analysis of ''the three major 'symbolic forms'''
(p. 97) -- language, art, and science -- in terms of symbolic creativity
To repeat, the sub-title provides some indications to the goals
underlying Wildgen's discussion. But, all in all, the reader can at the
most filter them out from the whole monograph. So far as I can tell, the
author pursues following broad goals:
(i) to argue for an evolutionary view of language that includes both a
refusal of the structuralist and neo-structuralist (synchronic)
standpoint, and integration of findings from other disciplines, such as
molecular genetics, evolutionary biology, and paleontology, amongst
others, in order to uncover the internal and external forces that might
have modeled (or have been modeling) the evolution of language;
(ii) to demonstrate the usefulness of a semiotic and cognitive-semantic
perspectivization of human evolution in general and its application for
the study of language evolution in particular;
(iii) consequently, to formulate desiderata concerning what would be
called a proper theory of language and of language evolution.
In my view, these aims are per se wholly justifiable. They have a
holistic, universalistic spirit that cannot be sufficiently praised: There is
nothing against, and very much in support of, the aspiration of
breaking the synchronic perspective in favor of the diachronic one and
of extending it not only to times in which single languages evolved
and/or began to be written, but to the very periods in which man
developed language in the first place. The same can be said of the
wish of interdisciplinarity: many fields of linguistics (linguistic theory,
historical linguistics, linguistic contact, language acquisition) and other
disciplines (developmental psychology, molecular genetics,
evolutionary biology, paleontology) working together, combining their
findings, complementing one each other -- this is a renascentist view
of science that can only be appreciated in our times of persistent
fragmentation of the sciences in discrete specialized sub-fields and
the continual disjointing of the main scientific disciplines. (Was
perhaps the love for the Renaissance that led Wildgen to his
elongated discussion on Leonardo's art?)
Wildgen's goals and many of his general claims are also from another
perspective -- the perspective of the science of language -- absolutely
commendable. Wildgen's monograph -- though not explicitly showing
such affiliation -- can be situated in the cognitive-functional movement
that has been witnessed in the last 2-3 decades and has been both
demonstrating the pitfalls of the generative paradigm and offering
other, more plausible approaches and explanations to language.
Thus, one very interesting and utterly reasonable claim in Wildgen's
book refers to the dethroning of syntax from its central position (as
has been reproduced in these 50 years of generativism) by the
(admittedly tentative, but not less conceivable) notion that syntax
developed in a later stage of human and language evolution, much
later than phonological and lexical-semantic basics (p. 206).
In the other hand, it is perhaps not without a slight feeling of unease
that the reader is presented with some notions and names from
the 'bleak' times of Behaviorism, such as Heinroth's/Lorenz' ''motion''
and ''intentional movement'' (pp. 26ff.). One might ask whether an
evolutionary view of language had not better dispense with such
ethological categories, which cannot easily be transferred from other
animals to the human species. On the other hand, the evolutionary
view possibly cannot give away the Darwinian notion of continuity
between man and other primates and even other species; possibly it is
not even desirable. I am not an expert in this field, so I am not
competent enough to propose scientifically founded claims. Intuitively I
do believe that some sort of continuity does exist between man and
beast. Only, the investigation on topics related to human cognition on
this basis might conceal the danger of relying on mechanistic notions
that should not be included. Wildgen, in my view, partially succumbs to
At any rate, it is not surprising that Wildgen for instance argues for the
view that all animals (and not only humans) have symbolic capacities
in some degree or other (pp. 29f.). Such claim fits well in the
theoretical background, reveals internal theoretical coherence,
regardless of the question whether or not the reader agrees with it.
The problem rises, of course, when such theoretical premises are
used axiomatically. i.e., when their validity is not questioned and
tested anymore, on the contrary, when the researcher's eye is so
much biased by them that she can only interpret the data according to
them, as confirmation of their validity. In this case, do the final results
provide any explanatory adequacy?
And when comes to discussing the problems of empirical data, the
explanatory adequacy and axiomatism in sciences, the following
question raises: What and how rich are the data available for the
study of language in evolutionary dimensions? In the last page of his
monograph, Wildgen rightly points out the scarcity of data available.
But if the data scarcity seems commonsensical, the same cannot be
said about the way Wildgen attempts to compensate the lack of data
with the goal of ''explanatory value'' (p. 208). What he means, so far I
can tell, is that the data scarceness should not prevent the researcher
from searching explanations. This is perhaps a position that can
hardly be questioned. The problem is that, according to the author,
this ''explanatory value'' can only be attained when the researcher
has ''a proper understanding of language evolution''. And Wildgen's
notion of what ''a proper understanding of language evolution'' has to
look like includes the notion of continuity between man and other
animals and the dangers described above (mechanistic explanations,
In these last paragraphs, the discussion on the monograph's goals
gradually led to methodological questions. In this context, something
else must be pointed out: Wildgen asserts in the introductory
chapter: ''The method of inquisition is neither that of historical
reconstruction, nor that of theoretical deduction'' (p. 2). But he forgets
to mention (and discuss) which method he used at last. As far as I can
tell, he did use exactly the methods he states he would not be using.
An example of the ''historical reconstruction'' method can be found in
Wildgen's analysis of the transition from ''reality-like pictures'' to ''iconic
schemata'' to ''abstract signs'' to writing (ch. 5), in his semiotic
reinterpretation of the evolution of tool-making/use and art, arguing for
parallels and relationships between technique, art and language (ch.
4), as well as in the possible chronology of the forces playing a role in
the evolution of language (ch. 2). Incidentally, the main proposals of
these chapters seem very plausible to me.
An example of ''theoretical deduction'' can be found in Wildgen's
analysis of HAND and EYE as ''fossils of evolution'' (ch. 7). Here
again, the reader might get a feeling of unease and perhaps even
exasperation. Wildgen's explanations remind too much of the naïve
etymology that dominated from Antiquity through the 17th century.
Another example is Wildgen's investigation of innovation in language,
art, and science (ch. 6) that, in my view, few contributed to the general
problem of language evolution. Perhaps these investigations are to be
examined in the mentioned context of data scarcity. There are simply
no linguistic data from the time before 4 ky BP, that is a fact. The
researcher has to rely on other types of data, as well as on more
recent linguistic data. The problem in Wildgen's investigations is the
speculative spirit that dominates them, consequently diminishing the
validity of his results and even the scientifity of the methods.
The goals pursued in the monograph are by all means very
commendable and several proposals and theses posited seem
plausible (ch. 2,4, and 5 -- see above the paragraph on ''historical
reconstruction'' methods); these are also the most comprehensible
and coherent chapters. On the other hand, some chapters are
somewhat vague (ch. 3 on ''expression and appeal in animal and
human communication'', 8 on ''the form of a 'protolanguage''', and 9
on ''symbolic forms, generalized media, and their evolution), or too
superficial (ch. 10 on ''consciousness, linguistic universals, and the
methodology of linguistics'') or, at least in the form they are in the
monograph, even superfluous (ch. 6 and 7 -- see above discussion
on ''theoretical deduction'' methods).
All in all, it seems to me that Wildgen did not well succeed in
presenting the scientific community with a thesis monograph that could
have become a landmark in the field. I do wish the author could catch
up on the shortcomings in a second, revised edition.
[Works cited in the book under review are not included here.]
Fisher R. A. 1930. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Oxford:
Hardy, A. 1960. Was man more aquatic in the past? In: New Scientist,
Morgan, E. 1982. The Aquatic Ape: A Theory of Human Evolution.
Westenhöfer, Max 1942. Der Eigenweg des Menschen: dargestellt auf
Grund von vergleichend morphologischen Untersuchungen über die
Artenbildung und Menschwerdung. Berlin: Mannststaedt.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
The reviewer's interests include unimpaired and impaired first
language acquisition, multilingualism, cognitive science,
developmental psychology, as well as history of linguistics and history