Big brain evolution: advanced brain before language started (Evolution)

by David Turell @, Monday, July 22, 2019, 01:11 (379 days ago) @ dhw

This article states brain cognition existed at least 100,000 years before language appeared:

As long as there is language, there will be argument—especially about language. This state of affairs was recognized by the nineteenth-century Parisian sages that Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky cite in their essay. After all, an entire century and a half later, there is still remarkably little agreement even about what language is, let alone about how we modern human beings acquired this unique and remarkable apomorphy. Whatever language may be, some observers discern its roots deep in primate vocal and even gestural communication, whereas others see it not only as strictly a property of modern humans, but even, at least in origin, as unrelated to communication.

A major difficulty here is that, as an abstract quality, language does not preserve directly in any material historical record. As a result, the use of language and of any of its putative precursors has to be inferred from indirect proxy evidence furnished principally by archaeology.


Berwick and Chomsky sensibly settle on evidence for modern symbolic behavior patterns as the most reliable indicator of linguistic skill among extinct hominids. This conclusion allows them to situate the acquisition of this behavioral property about 100,000 years ago—within the tenure of our own species, Homo sapiens.


Wherever in Africa language may have been invented, all that was required for its spread was that recipient populations had the potential to acquire and exhibit the new behavior. That potential had probably arisen in the neural rewiring that occurred as part of the radical developmental reorganization that produced anatomically modern Homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago. Language acquisition would almost certainly have been biologically possible for members of any structurally recognizable Homo sapiens population. (my bold)


In our view, as well as in Berwick and Chomsky’s, the potential for modern human cognition was almost certainly born some 200,000 years ago with anatomical Homo sapiens. The archaeological indications are that this new potential lay fallow for upwards of 100,000 years, until it was activated by a cultural stimulus of some kind. The evolutionary phenomenon involved here is a routine one. The most plausible cultural stimulus was the spontaneous invention of language, which would then have been readily passed on among individuals and populations of this species that was already biologically enabled for it.
This scenario is in complete agreement with Berwick and Chomsky’s requirement that “the final events leading to the BP [basic property] must have been simple … a conclusion in agreement with the minimalist program.” But the scenario departs from their well-known contention that externalization came after internalized language. They bolster this position with Riny Huybregts’s recent conjecture that “the language faculty emerged with Homo sapiens, or shortly thereafter, but externalization in one form or another must have been a later development.”

Comment: Note my bolds: brain capacity first, then language develops, not as dhw proposes, which is a drive to spoken communication changes the existing brain so language can appear.

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