McCarthy Muddles the Origins of Language

Here’s an old but interesting bit of news. A few months back Cormac McCarthy wrote an article for Nautilus on the nature of human language. It was a largely speculative, rangy piece, enjoyable and thought-provoking in its own way. A few months later he wrote another article addressing some of the criticisms spawned by the original.

McCarthy’s most interesting claim is also his most misguided. He argues that language is an invention of humans, rather than the cold, reductive calculus of biological evolution. This is true, insofar as we are concerned with the specific forms of language and the representational significance of individual words. It seems very unlikely, however, that it is true of the capacity for language itself.

Key to McCarthy’s hypothesis is the claim that human language has no precursor or analogue in other branches of the animal kingdom. There could be a definitional problem at work here. Human language is so vastly elaborated over other forms that it seems to be a thing of its own. But a survey of the relevant literature makes it clear that the rudiments of language exist elsewhere.

Evidence is accruing that prairie dogs emit a diverse range of sounds that stand for certain things and that these differ from place to place and species to species. They are not only able to communicate to one another that a human is nearby, but that everyone ought to pay special attention to the human with the blue shirt and the ten gallon hat. Dolphins have “signature whistles”, that seem to serve as personal identifiers. These are unique to individuals and I don’t see a way around the interpretation that these sounds are symbols.

The idea that humans invented language out of thin air strikes me as very screwy. How would that even happen? A capacity for symbolic communication surely evolved incrementally. It seems very unlikely that you could take a long walk down the ranks of our lineage and spot the relevant threshold event. There isn’t a point where you could say, “these are the guys. The brilliants sods who invented language.” The line would be invisible. Maybe that is why McCarthy is having such a hard time imagining it.

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