Language and Human Behavior

Language and Human Behavior

Language and Human Behavior

Language and Human Behavior


"What this book proposes to do," writes Derek Bickerton, "is to stand the conventional wisdom of the behavioral sciences on its head: instead of the human species growing clever enough to invent language, it will view that species as blundering into language and, as a direct result of that, becoming clever." According to Bickerton, the behavioral sciences have failed to give an adequate account of human nature at least partly because of the conjunction and mutual reinforcement of two widespread beliefs: that language is simply a means of communication and that human intelligence is the result of the rapid growth and unusual size of human brains.

Bickerton argues that each of the properties distinguishing human intelligence and consciousness from that of other animals can be shown to derive straightforwardly from properties of language. In essence, language arose as a representational system, not a means of communication or a skill, and not a product of culture but an evolutionary adaptation.

The author stresses the necessity of viewing intelligence in evolutionary terms, seeing it not as problem solving but as a way of maintaining homeostasis--the preservation of those conditions most favorable to an organism, the optimal achievable conditions for survival and well-being. Nonhumans practice what he calls "on-line thinking" to maintain homeostasis, but only humans can employ off-line thinking: "only humans can assemble fragments of information to form a pattern that they can later act upon without having to wait on that great but unpunctual teacher, experience."

The term protolanguage is used to describe the stringing together of symbols that prehuman hominids employed. "It did not allow them to turn today's imagination into tomorrow's fact. But it is just this power to transform imagination into fact that distinguishes human behavior from that of our ancestral species, and indeed from that of all other species. It is exactly what enables us to change our behavior, or invent vast ranges of new behavior, practically overnight, with no concomitant genetic changes."

Language and Human Behavior should be of interest to anyone in the behavioral and evolutionary sciences and to all those concerned with the role of language in human behavior.


The material on which this book is based was first presented in three public lectures at the University of Washington under the sponsorship of the Jessie and John Danz Fund.In inaugurating the Danz lecture series, the principal motive of its founder and benefactor John Danz was to bring to the university scholars who had "concerned themselves with the impact of science and philosophy on man's perception of a rational universe." When Danz spoke of a "rational universe," what did he have in mind? Surely no more (and no less!) than a universe that is lawful, about which we can make significant generalizations that hold over broad domains, and in which, if one selects an appropriate level of abstraction, the purely contingent has no role to play.

Assumptions of this nature are routinely made in the physical sciences—made without needing to be stated—for no science is possible otherwise. But those assumptions are not always made, or held to, in the behavioral sciences. When humans study themselves, they often hold the view that different rules apply, or that they are somehow exempt from the lawfulness that governs other forms of matter.

I feel that John Danz would have rejected such a view, and would have been absolutely right to do so.And yet one has to admit that those sciences that have tried to account rationally for human behavior have come nowhere near equaling the achievements of the physical sciences. The physical sciences have given us penetrating insights into the nature of matter and have even dared to suggest how matter came into existence. They have done a much better job of describing the material universe than literature has. Yet despite much effort on the part of the behavioral sciences, we still, in words cited approvingly by a previous Danz lecturer (Alexander 1979:ix), "don't know who we are, or where we came from, or what we have done, or why." If we want to obtain a glimmering of what human nature is like, we are still on firmer ground with Shakespeare or Aeschylus or Joyce or Dostoyevsky than with any behavioral scientist.

There is a more concrete dimension to this contrast. While the link between theoretical concepts and practical achievements is by no means always as tight as it appears, such achievements do give a sense of confidence that the theories supporting them must be heading in the right direction. The physical sciences can show an abundance of this kind . . .

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