Introducing a new book on language evolution, New Scientist contributor Alun Anderson writes: “I much prefer a speculative account of how language might have evolved to an invocation of miracles.”
Despite its name - The Truth about Language: What It Is and Where It Came From (University of Chicago Press, 2017) - Michael Corballis does not disclose the truth about language.
Anderson begins his review by acknowledging that our language skills are extraordinary:
“HUMAN language has long appeared miraculous. It has enabled us to accumulate knowledge, build cultures and conquer the planet, making us a creature seemingly apart from the rest of the animal world.”
Anderson says that Corballis, an emeritus professor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, mentions two plausible explanations, only to reject them:
“During the 19th century, Alfred Russel Wallace doubted whether natural selection could explain such a unique power. In our century, Noam Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology academic who has dominated linguistics for 60 years, has supported a hypothesis that language and thought arose suddenly within the past 100,000 years.
In The Truth About Language, Michael Corballis rejects all such ‘miraculist’ explanations. He lays out a plausible route by which spoken language might have evolved, not from the calls of our primate ancestors, but through stages in which a language of gesture and mime dominated.”
Corballis suggests that humans acquired language by thinking back on what they had done, for instance on the details of a hunting trip, and on what they planned to do in the future.
This might merely be a just-so story, as both Corballis and Anderson admit. But they have nothing better to suggest.