comforting illusion

“So Wallace turned to crime—the crime of moving selection beyond the reach of “natural” selection: “We must therefore admit the possibility, that in the development of the human race, a Higher Intelligence has guided the same laws [of variation, multiplication, and survival] for nobler ends” (1869, 394). Darwin was aghast. He wrote to Wallace, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child” (Marchant 1916, 240).

We think that Wallace’s “crime” was not, in the end, a grievous sin. He had merely pointed out the truth: Darwinism demanded strict gradual continuity with the past—“numerous, successive, slight modifications” between our ancestors and us. Yet there is a yawning chasm between what we can do and what other animals cannot—language. And there lies a mystery. As with any good mystery, we have to figure out “whodunit”— what, who, where, when, how, and why.

In the rest of this chapter we will try our best to answer each of these questions. Briefly, our own answers to the language questions run as follows:

• “What” boils down to the Basic Property of human language—the ability to construct a digitally infinite array of hierarchically structured expressions with determinate interpretations at the interfaces with other organic systems. 1

• “Who” is us—anatomically modern humans—neither chimpanzees nor gorillas nor songbirds.

• “Where” and “When” point to sometime between the first appearance of anatomically modern humans in southern Africa roughly 200,000 years ago, but prior to the last African exodus approximately 60,000 years ago (Pagani 2015).

• “How” is the neural implementation of the Basic Property—little understood, but recent empirical evidence suggests that this could be compatible with some “slight rewiring of the brain,” as we have put it elsewhere.

• “Why” is language’s use for internal thought, as the cognitive glue that binds together other perceptual and information-processing cognitive systems. As far as we can make out, this picture of human language evolution fits very neatly into Jacob and Monod’s view of evolution by natural selection as opportunistic bricolage. We argue that most of the ingredients for human language were antecedently in place. Existing cortical circuits were repurposed. Small genomic changes then led to relatively large cognitive effects—precisely the picture outlined by Ramus and Fisher (2009) that we cited in chapter 2. Unlike some, we don’t think there’s any need here to invoke either gossip, a Pleistocene version of Google maps, or cultural evolution of an obscure kind.”

Why Only Us

Language and Evolution
Robert C. Berwick
Noam Chomsky



“The study of universal grammar, so understood, is a study of the nature of human intellectual capacities.”

Noam Chomsky


“Linguistics, so characterized, is simply the subfield of psychology that deals with these aspects of mind.”

Noam Chomsky



“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion. “

Noam Chomsky


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Kocaeli Üniversitesi Psikolojik Danışmanlık ve Rehberlik

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