Unravelling the Evolution of Language

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Elsevier, 2003 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 244 pages
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What blocks the way to a better understanding of language evolution, it is widely held, is above all a paucity of factual evidence. Not so, argues Unravelling the Evolution of Language. This book finds the main obstacle, instead, in a poverty of a specific kind of theory - restrictive theory. It shows, too, that this poverty of restrictive theory is one of the root causes of the paucity of factual evidence.

Unravelling... takes it that a theory of a thing T - for example, language - is restrictive if it gives us a basis for distinguishing T in a non-arbitrary way from all things that are in fact distinct from it, including those that happen to be related to it. The book then argues in detail that much of the recent work on language evolution proceeds from loose assumptions, rather than restrictive theories, about a number of crucial "things":

The entities, prelinguistic or linguistic, that are believed to have undergone evolution

The processes by which these entities are believed to have evolved

The ways in which these (pre)linguistic entities link up with entities that are believed to be correlates of them

The sources of data that are believed to yield indirect evidence about the evolution of language

The factors that add to or subtract from the scientific substance of accounts of language evolution.

In support of its main argument, Unravelling... puts forward detailed analyses of various recent accounts of language evolution, including

co-optationist accounts by Noam Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini and Lyle Jenkins

preadaptationist accounts by Philip Lieberman, Wendy Wilkins, Jenny Wakefield, Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, William Calvin and Derek Bickerton

adaptationist accounts by Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom and others.

This means that Unravelling... as it builds its main argument, also offers an appraisal of some significant contributions to recent work on language evolution.

"This book is a sound and sober, yet sympathetic, extensive comment on the widely publicised current debate on the evolution of language. While fully acknowledging the great interest of the question, Botha shows that the biologists, paleontologists, linguists, psychologists, philosophers and other participants in this unique interdisciplinary debate, are in dire need of clarification and explicitation of the assumptions, presuppositions, established forms of argument and theoretical premises current in the sister disciplines involved. Besides taking part in the actual process of unravelling the evolution of language, Botha also unravels the debate itself, and he does so with the typical combination of acumen, merciless systematicity and empathy that we know from his previous writings. Like his other works, this new book makes for great reading".

Pieter A. M. Seuren, Research fellow, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

"The evolutionary emergence of language is an exciting new field, generating a rapidly expanding scientific literature. But is it really science? This razor-sharp, relentlessly critical book - the first systematic overview of recent thinking in this area - shows that the problems run deep. Competing hypotheses recall ships passing in the night, their concepts and terminologies wholly incommensurable. Scholars on all sides feel misunderstood, lacking even the rudiments of a conceptual framework which might allow them to settle their differences. What, for example, is 'language'? Not even on this fundamental point is agreement in sight. No currently available paradigm offers hope of unifying the field. The irony of the situation is therefore painful. Lacking a scientific language of their own, Botha reveals 'evolutionary linguists' to be in disarray. It is precisely these scholars who illustrate - perhaps more poignantly than any other known population - the complications of life in the absence of language".

Chris Knight, University of East London, UK

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