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February 27, 2005

Written Language

I saw razib's note on Zimmer's article, and it gave me a couple ideas which I posted at my site. GNXPers might be interested, so I'm reposting here. The advantage of discussing written language instead of spoken language is that it by definition moves us up into historical time periods instead of prehistoric.

If you took a monkey's brain, and without any structural changes, blew it up to three times its size, would it have the capacity for language? Carl Zimmer discusses whether language is a product of natural selection or whether it sprung up spontaneously once the capacity came into existence. Zimmer's article is open-ended, but he claims that a part II is in the works which will deliver some conclusions.

I'll just note two points:

  • Proving that certain recent genes are necessary for spoken language doesn't help much in this argument because there is a good chance that early language was gesture based.
  • Proving that rudimentary languages are advantageous to survival does not disprove the 'almost everything for language was already there' hypothesis, it only contradicts a certain piece of supporting evidence for it.

How much language, gesture based or verbal, would a monkey be capable of if its brain were three times larger? I have the feeling that we're a long way from answering that, although I'm interested in Zimmer's part II.

There is a related question, however, and this one may be a bit easier to approach.

Could our ancestors of 100,000 years ago have learned written language if it was in existence at that time? In other words, are evolutionary adaptations necessary for a brain that is capable of spoken language to comprehend visual symbols? Why didn't written language spring up as soon as spoken language did? Did the written word have to wain on an inventor, or did it have to wait on natural selection?

I would judge the evidence to be in favor of an 'almost everything' theory of written language. Our ancestors would probably have been capable of learning to write if they had been given a chance. The fact that written language is nearly cotemporaneous (evolutionarily speaking) with the arrival of cities and agriculture, suggests that the conditions were ripe for invention. And, more tellingly, there seem to be no groups of humans today incapable of written language.

On the other hand, there may well be a cut-off IQ for the capacity of literacy, and it would be interesting to ask at what point in our evolutionary history a reasonable fraction of the population reached that IQ.

This leads to other interesting questions. Were the first modern humans capable of cities and agriculture? Did that wait on invention of technique or upon natural selection? Presumably it is a specific social type that can live in close proximity with lots of other people, after all. Did the first alphabetic scripts wait upon invention or natural selection? The Japanese, for example, had one for a short time, but gave it up for an ideographic script. Native Japanese dislike having to read texts written completely in their alphabetic versions (hiragana or katakana), and prefer the ideographic style instead. On the other hand Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and so forth seem to have no trouble learning and using the alphabetic scripts of other languages.

Posted by Thrasymachus at 09:02 AM