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The phenomenon of sign language in children


The evolution of language
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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Language, I certainly think is unique. If I was a young man of 20 or 25 or something, I'd be tempted to work on the evolution of language, it's a fascinating topic.

[Q] It was actually forbidden by the French Academy as being impossible to work on.

And I think with some justification. I mean, a lot of rubbish was being written about the evolution of language. My own prejudices, because I'm a geneticist, is that we shall really get our teeth into the evolution of language when we get to know something about the genetics of language. I mean, I'm assuming - though it's a big assumption - that the sort of Noam Chomsky position on language is correct; that being that we have, in his words, a special language organ, a special part or component of our minds, which enables us to learn languages, as children. And if you've brought up children and watched them learn languages, it's very persuasive. They do so with so little reinforcement and so quickly that one really feels that they have some special preadaptation, if you like, for learning language. If that's right - and I think this is the step that Chomsky, for obvious reasons, has been reluctant to take - but if it's true, it has to be genetically programmed. I mean, we're not born with complex adaptations by chance, that would be rubbish. I mean, if this is a highly complex adaptation, it must have a number of genes responsible for programming the development of the capacity.

[Q] And must have evolved gradually over a longish period.

Yeah. I mean, until we know how many genes, it's hard to say how long it could have been, but yes. Mind you, the problem here is that it didn't come from nowhere, because new organs don't. I mean, birds do not develop wings from nothing, they develop wings from arms, you know. Usually, a new organ evolves by the modification of a pre-existing organ. I think that whatever it is that... the part of our mind that is coping with language was doing, it wasn't doing nothing, it was doing something else. But if we can identify the genes or some of the genes responsible for language, and by identify it's going to mean finding mutants which have quite specific effects on people's ability to construct grammatical sentences.

[Q] Specific aphasias.

Yes. And they exist. And in one case, there's really rather convincing evidence for a genetic involvement. But one swallow doesn't make a summer, we need more. All sorts of possibilities open up. We can start asking, all right, what were these genes doing before they - what are they doing in the mouse, what are they doing in the chimpanzee, you know. And furthermore, we can ask, what are they actually doing, what is the nature of the defects which happen when one of them is missing, and so on. And I think we... that approach, together with the much formal and mathematical approach to the problem of how language can evolve, I think that it's... the whole area is a very exciting one, it's just being born. The sort of area you want to get into, you don't want to work on something that people have been working on for years and years and years, you want to get into something new. I think it'd be a lovely thing to start on.

[Q] But do you... are you suggesting that Lucy, for example, though she may not have spoken, was using the precursor of the language module in her brain to do something else, like organise her behaviour, or organise her... plan her strategy for hunting for a water-hole or something?

Yeah, I do. Or maybe something much more primitive than that, like analysing visual input. I mean, there's possibly quite a lot of grammar involved in analysing and turning the pattern on our retina, which is a very optic problem, to make the pattern on the retina, but to turn that into an image in our minds of a chair or a radio or something, I mean, that's hard.

[Q] It's 'syntax-like' isn't it?

It's syntax-like. And I think it possible that we've duplicated and recruited some of that material for talking with. I don't know, it's pure speculation. My point is that it is an answerable question.

[Q] It's very interesting speculation.

And I think we can answer it, you know, given... given time. And given that linguists and geneticists talk to one another. But it's this old, old problem in science, people from different disciplines find it difficult to converse. And when... it's particularly difficult when genetics has traditionally been seen as a science and linguistics has typically been seen as one of the humanities, and communication between linguists and geneticists is hard. It's beginning to happen, there are a few honourable people who are actually talking across the divide, but far too few.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: L'Académie française, French Academy, Noam Chomsky

Duration: 5 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008