Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock, Utah, USA.
Ancient symbols texture, Petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock, Utah, USA.

The Origin of Language Remains Obscure

One problem is that information is not measured in science in a way that relates to matter and energy.

Earlier this week, we looked at recent research showing that cats can recognize their names. Several readers have written me privately to ask why anyone even wonders about that. Their cats, they say, do recognize their names!

No doubt that’s true. But confusion arises between two different meanings of “recognize their names.”

  1. A vocal sound is used as a signal. For example: MUFFIN! Something usually happens shortly afterward that affects the cat.
  2. A vocal sound signifies an abstraction from nature. We assign names to persons, places, and things around which we manipulate information. For example, “I think Muffin needs to lose weight. Let’s use this coupon to buy that new SlimKat kibble.” The sentences in quotation marks do not signal an imminent event; they comprise an observation followed by a proposal for action. Muffin will probably not pick out his name from this stream of words.

If we distinguish these two meanings of “recognize their names,” it is hard to see why most cats would not learn the first skill after a few tries. And why should we expect them to learn the second?

Unfortunately, animals can suffer when humans don’t see that they cannot recognize abstractions. A “good” dog does not know right from wrong; he knows that he must never attack his humans. A “dangerous” dog does not know that fact. We may need to put down a dangerous dog but punishing him for failure to see a moral dimension to his behavior is senseless cruelty. It’s our responsibility to see the moral dimensions to human behavior.

Similarly, people often express the sense that cats are “indifferent” in situations where the cat simply doesn’t perceive anything happening to which he needs to respond. The same cat who pays no attention to a lecture on the evils of sofa destruction (i.e., an abstraction) will suddenly raise his head and stare in the direction of the front door when he hears human footsteps turning off the sidewalk toward the house. Footsteps are a reliable signal of human activity; abstractions are ambient human noise.

Human language, in short, is much more than a system of signals. And two recent articles in Inference Review, provide insight into some of its ongoing puzzles in the huge unmapped territory of the interaction between the mind and the brain.

In his review of a recent book, Language in Our Brain: The Origins of a Uniquely Human Capacity (2017) by Angela Friederici, of the Max Planck Institute, a University of Maryland linguist outlines the information void:

Which part of our brain carries information forward in time? No one knows. For that matter, no one knows what a symbol is, or where symbolic interactions take place. The formal structures of linguistics and neurophysiology are disjoint, a point emphasized by Poeppel and David Embick in a widely cited study. There is an incommensurability between theories of the brain, TB, and theories of the mind, TM… .

No one has distinguished one thought from another by dissecting brains. Neuroimaging tells us only when some areas of the brain light up selectively. Brain wave frequencies may suggest that different kinds of thinking are occurring, but a suggestion is not an inference—even if there is a connection between certain areas of the brain and seeing, hearing, or processing words. Connections of this sort are not nothing, of course, but neither are they very much…

Cognitive scientists cannot say how the mass or energy of the brain is related to the information it carries. Everyone expects that more activity in a given area means more information processing. No one has a clue whether it is more information or more articulated information, or more interconnected information, or whether, for that matter, the increased neuro-connectivity signifies something else entirely…

Juan Uriagereka, “Kept in Mind” at Inference Review

One problem is that information is not measured in science in a way that relates to matter and energy. That increases the difficulty of developing a system that studies the material transmission of information (brain) at the same time as its essential nature (significance).

In the same edition (March 1, 2019 in Volume 4, Issue 3), we find two distinguished MIT linguists, Robert Berwick, a Professor in the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus), creating some boundaries for this central mystery of ourselves. First, despite efforts to show otherwise, we humans speak and other life forms do not:

There is no evidence that great apes, however sophisticated, have any of the crucial distinguishing features of language and ample evidence that they do not. Claims made in favor of their semantic powers, we might observe, are wrong. Recent research reveals that the semantic properties of even the simplest words are radically different from anything in animal symbolic systems.

Robert Berwick & Noam Chomsky, “The Siege of Paris” at Inference Review

Second, whatever history of the human race is asserted, this situation has prevailed for a very long time:

How far back does language go? There is no evidence of significant symbolic activity before the appearance of anatomically modern humans 200 thousand years ago (kya). The South African Blombos cave site contains abstract patterns using ochre crayon on silcrete. These have been dated to approximately 80 kya.

Robert Berwick & Noam Chomsky, “The Siege of Paris” at Inference Review

Also, the “evolutionary” arguments around the origin of language that we so often hear are not hard science; they are usually just stories theorists prefer:

Linguists told themselves many stories about the evolution of language, and so did evolutionary biologists; but stories, as Richard Lewontin rightly notes, are not hypotheses, a term that should be “reserved for assertions that can be tested.”

Robert Berwick & Noam Chomsky, “The Siege of Paris” at Inference Review

In the end, the most significant fact isn’t that we speak but that we wonder why we can speak. It’s not the correctness of our theories that sets us apart but the fact that we even have them.

See also: Do big brains matter to human intelligence?


The real reason why only human beings speak (Michael Egnor)

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

The Origin of Language Remains Obscure