Evolutionary Psychology Meets Linguistics

Erika Hoff reviews Christine Kenneally’s The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language in Evolutionary Psychology:

Two developments in the later half of the 20th century changed the scientific landscape in a way that laid the groundwork for a new approach to the study of language origins. First, Noam Chomsky asserted that language was a property of the human mind, thus bringing linguistics into psychology and creating a field known as psycholinguistics, now more frequently referred to as the psychology of language. Then Leda Cosmides and John Tooby asserted that the mind, no less than the body, is the result of natural selection,  thus bringing evolution to psychology and creating the field of evolutionary psychology. Together, the premises of these two fields raised the question of how language evolved. As linguists became interested in the question, the field of evolutionary linguistics (or evolingo to insiders) emerged, and as these theoretical developments made the question of language origins legitimate, developments in related fields of science made the study of language origins potentially fruitful. Researchers in animal intelligence and communication, genetics, neurobiology, computational modeling, and developmental psychology all contributed to the enterprise. The study of how language came to be is now an active field.

In The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, Christine Kenneally describes the history and current state of this enterprise for a general audience. The task she has undertaken—describing to nonscientists the several highly technical fields that address this topic—is formidable. Kenneally does it very well, clearly supported by both her skills as a free-lance journalist and her Ph.D. training in linguistics. The first four chapters of the book focus on four researchers or research teams who have staked out different positions on the issue. The book begins, appropriately, with linguist Noam Chomsky who started the modern study of language. Chomsky has historically been associated with the position that the human language capacity is a self-contained module, separate from other cognitive abilities and unrelated to the communicative purposes to which language just so happens to be put. How this module came to be is not particularly of interest to Chomsky, and he has publicly and frequently expressed reservations about the value of considering the question.