a super(b) paper on human evolution

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Mon Aug 8 18:42:44 UTC 2005

Dear FUNK people,

As some of you may know, I am a slow reader & live out in the boonies.
So it took me a while to get to a superb (tho long & complicated) paper
on human evolution that I would like to alert y'all to. It is of great
interest first in term of general evolution (human or otherwise), but
also in terms of its profound implications for an eventual
undedrstanding of  language evolution. The full  reference is: S.
McBrearty & A. Brooks (2000)  "The revoluition that wasn't: A new
interpretation of the origins of modern human behavior", J. of Human
Evolution, vol. 39, pp. 453-563. It is a careful, massively-documented
re-evaluation of the henceforth prevalent model of  a "Modern Human
Revolution", reputed to have occurred ca. 40k BC. According to that
'revolutionary' model (see summary in C. Li, 2002), all 'modern human
behavioral traits' (complex tool btechnology, complex social structure,
organized domestic space, expanded ecological range, sophistacated
hunting, trade networks, art, symbolic behavior & by inference "language
as we know it now") emerged suddenly, in Europe (Cromagnon Man) without
apparent gradual development. The paper reviews the archaoeological
evidence--skeletal, ecological, nutritional, artefactual--in  Africa and
Europe, as well as the behavioral implications that can be drawn from
the physical evidence.

Some of the main conclusions drawn there are: (1) the development of
'modern human traits' already occured in  Africa, gradually, and is
attested there as early as 300,000 BC. (2) The apparent discontinuity in
the European archaeological records is due to repeated out-of-Africa
migrations & subsequent extinctions (glaciation). (3) The graduality was
not only a matter of cultural evolution, but also of the existence of
many sub-variants of 'early'  homo sapiens in Africa. That is--as
elsewhere in biology & diachrony--graduality & variation go
hand-in-hand. (4) As elsewhere in biological & cultural evolution  (cf.
many works by E. Mayr & the recent book by Boyd & Richerson), there was
no firm boundary between biological (genetic) and behavioral (cultural)
evolution. Rather (to paraphrase Mayr), "behavior is the pacemaker of

The implications of the McBrearty/Brooks paper to the evolution of
language are many & fairly obvious. (1) Out of the windows goes the
Chomsky/Gould revolutionay model of sudden emergence. (2) Both lexical
and grammatical development lend themselves quite naturally to a
gradualistic model. (3) With a certain amount of caution (see critical
article by Dan Slobin in our recent TSL volume "The Evolution of
Language out of Pre-Language" [2002] and my  response to it in the same
volume), one could infer from the non-evolutionary developmental data
accessible to us now (child learning, pidginization, diachrony) some
possible gradual courses of both vocabulary & grammar evolution. These
inference may follow, in the main, suggestions made in Givon (1979) and
Bickerton (1981) about the "fossils of language". But there is more
possible room for treating gradual evolution seriously & responsibly.
Here are some quantifiable hypotheses:
   (i) All other things being equal, typological features that are more
widely attested
        cross-languages may appear earlier in evolution.
   (ii) Typological features that are more frequent in live
communication may
         appear earlier in evolution.
   (iii) In Grammaticalization  Chains, earlier stages, those that tend
to be 'source
         constructions', may have also evolved earlier.
    (iv) Likewise in morphemic development, concrete lexical senses have
most likely
          evolved before more abstract, metaphoric and/or grammatical,
    (v) Communicative behavior (function) most likely has preceded
          (structure) in evolution.

Since abstraction and complexity in both vocabulary and grammar are a
matter of degree, and since the semantic space (of vocabulary) and
discourse-pragmatic space (of grammar) are complex & multi-dimentional,
graduality in evolution, acquisition and diachrony is probably the norm.
This brings language and culture back into line with the rest of the
biologically-based universe, where variation, behavioral exploration and
gradual emergence are the norm.

I hope this is not too far out for y'all. But if we are ever to come up
with a viable theoretical perspective on language, a
developmental-diachronic-evolutionary framework is, it seems to me, the
only way to go.

Best,  TG

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