Philip Lieberman - Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language

"...a true science tests the predictions of theories against data. Theories are discarded or revised in light of observations or experiments. In contrast, theoretical linguists of the Chomskian school test their theories against theories of data, not actual data." -- p. 61
Similar to Lieberman's other book, Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain, the popular theory of language as a module in the brain containing a universal grammar is critiqued. The author takes the more logical approach to understanding human language--looking at how Darwinian evolution can, and does, explain human language and the more limited language capabilities other species use.

Lieberman delves into more details and technical discussions than readers looking for a purely "popular science" version will be able to stomach. However, even those looking for something easier to read will benefit from skipping portions and at least absorbing the "Take-Home Messages" offered at the end of each chapter. A good chunk of the mid-portion of the book is a synthesized version of Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain so if you make it through this book you shouldn't need to read his other one.

I found the Neanderthal discussion to be especially interesting. His conclusion, based on analysis of Neanderthal bones is that, "speech may have served as a genetic isolating mechanism in the era in which humans and Neanderthals shared the planet." (p. 316) In other words, sharing of genes may not have happened as frequently, if at all, between these closely related species because the one species couldn't communicate with the other.

Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language is hopefully not the last book that discusses language in its true, evolutionary context. This book should prove to be of particular interest to those interested in the physical requirements for human language production.

from the publisher:
In this forcefully argued book, the leading evolutionary theorist of language draws on evidence from evolutionary biology, genetics, physical anthropology, anatomy, and neuroscience, to provide a framework for studying the evolution of human language and cognition.

Philip Lieberman argues that the widely influential theories of language's development, advanced by Chomskian linguists and cognitive scientists, especially those that postulate a single dedicated language "module," "organ," or "instinct," are inconsistent with principles and findings of evolutionary biology and neuroscience. He argues that the human neural system in its totality is the basis for the human language ability, for it requires the coordination of neural circuits that regulate motor control with memory and higher cognitive functions. Pointing out that articulate speech is a remarkably efficient means of conveying information, Lieberman also highlights the adaptive significance of the human tongue.

Fully human language involves the species-specific anatomy of speech, together with the neural capacity for thought and movement. In Lieberman's iconoclastic Darwinian view, the human language ability is the confluence of a succession of separate evolutionary developments, jury-rigged by natural selection to work together for an evolutionarily unique ability.