Language: Interview with Gregory Radick

Gregory Radick is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds University,  and a Council member of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology.   His book The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007) won the History of Science Society’s Suzanne J. Levinson Prize in 2010.  Other publications include:

  • Darwin in Ilkley. Co-authored with Mike Dixon. Stroud: History Press, 2009.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, Second Edition. Co-edited with Jonathan Hodge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • “Race and Language in the Darwinian Tradition (and what Darwin’s Language-Species Parallels have to do with it).” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 39 (2008): 359-70.

His particular interests include: animal mind, language and behaviour; Darwinism and its contexts; Mendelism and its rivals; the epistemology of scientific instruments; intellectual property in the sciences; the relations between genetics and eugenics; the theory and practice of counterfactual history.

Click on the audio players below each question to hear the answers from the interview.

According to Darwin, how did language begin?


Well, Darwin’s account of the evolutionary origins of language is in his book The Descent of Man, published in 1871, in which he sets out his general views on the evolutionary origins of humankind. And along the way he takes up the question of the origin of a number of what he calls mental powers, and one of these is the power of language. And the most important element in Darwin’s account of the origin of language is imitation. In general, Darwin has a massive preference for explaining the origins of something in the past in the same way in which it would arise today, by processes that we can witness right now. And this runs through his accounts of geology, runs through his views on natural selection theory, and so when it comes to language, he asks how would language begin now? And what can we see around us which shows us how that would work? And for him, as for a number of other writers at the time, it’s imitation. So, someone, as he says, some especially wise progenitor, might have wanted to talk about a predator. And so, this progenitor imitates the sound of the predator, and that sound, that imitation, becomes a sign for the predator. And in that way, a noise comes to represent something in the world through imitation, imitation of sounds in the world—so the cry of a predator, imitations of the sounds that other humans make when they’re in pain, or whatever it might be. And so through imitation signs, standing for things in the world or standing for feelings, begin to accumulate, and Darwin says these signs gave advantages in the struggle for life, and in the struggle for mates. The struggle for life, of course, matters for natural selection. So groups of humans who became able to communicate about predators that might attack them, whatever it might be, Darwin thinks had an advantage in the struggle. And the ones that got good at this, the ones that had brains which were sufficiently advanced that they could understand the signs and invent new ones, were the ones that tended to survive, and to reproduce, and to make more people who were capable of doing the same thing, even more so.

So language begins to accumulate like that. Likewise, Darwin thinks, in the courtship competition for mates, the men who were better able to use signs in order to woo women were again going to be the ones that had more offspring, and those offspring would inherit their abilities. And so through imitation, through natural selection, and through sexual selection, language would begin to accumulate, and along with it, bigger, better functioning brains. And a very important part of Darwin’s account of the origin of language is the way it kind of drags the brain with it, and as the brain gets bigger, and better developed, humans become more intelligent. And with larger intelligence comes, Darwin thinks, so many things—the ability to think abstractly, a moral sense, a more developed moral sense, and so forth.

Was this an important topic for Darwin? And if so, why?


It was hugely important for Darwin, because one of his greatest opponents at the time had laid down a public marker in saying that language was what divided humankind from the beasts, and it was something that Darwinians could never explain. His name was Friedrich Max Müller He was a professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, and in 1861 he gave a series of lectures at the Royal Institution on the science of language in which he made absolutely explicit that language was the Rubicon, as he put it, and that no beast would cross it. And that Darwinians might think that they could explain how you go from the cries of beasts to articulate language just by natural law, just by supposing that brains got more developed and through struggle. But, Müller said, no scientific explanation worth having could ever be made for that case. Rather, the evidence of the science of language—comparative philology, as Müller represented it—showed, Müller said, that the Darwinian case was a bust, that language started in a fully conceptual, fully developed way. It leapt into being, and it leapt into being with humans. There’s a difference of kind between the communication systems of nonhuman animals, and human language.  And so Darwin saw himself as trying to combat that, and to show that actually, one could give a very good, well-evidenced, persuasive Darwinian account of the origin of language.

Darwin made a famous comment about parallels between changes in language and species change. Could you tell us a bit more about that?


Well, there’s a famous passage at the end of Darwin’s discussion of the evolutionary origins of language in The Descent of Man in which he seems to break off, and almost a propos of nothing, observes, isn’t it remarkable how many parallels there are between the way in which languages change, and the way in which species change. And he goes on to list about ten of these remarkable parallels. So, for example, he says, sometimes you get similar words in different languages because these languages are themselves descended from a common ancestral language. And that’s very much like species, where you can get similar traits in different species because they are descended from a common ancestral species. And on he goes, listing about ten of these. And a question has arisen, quite what was Darwin getting up to in pointing out these apparently a propos of nothing parallels? And there’s a little scholarly debate, and on the one side are people who say that Darwin couldn’t resist an opportunity to review his basic principles—homology, analogy and so forth—and that he used the linguistic setting in order to drive home, using more familiar phenomena, his basic conceptual principles.  That’s not my view: I think that’s what they do, inevitably, but I also think something more is going on there. Darwin was very concerned to defend his position on the evolutionary origin of language against creationist opponents who had said, look Darwin, isn’t it a problem for you that around the world we find (to talk their language) lowly peoples who nevertheless speak high languages? These critics went on to say, look, on a Darwinian view, on an evolutionary view, on an up from the ape view, what you expect to find are peoples in otherwise lowly circumstances with no interesting technology, no advanced civilisation, speaking lowly languages. And that as they go up the scale of civilisation in other respects, so their language will go up. But that’s not what we find, say the critics. We can find people in the most debased circumstances, who nevertheless have grammars, speak languages with grammars of the utmost perfection. Doesn’t that show, they thought, not that we’re all up from the ape, with some of us having gone further than others, but rather that we’re all down from a more perfect original state—down from Adam and Eve, some of us more fallen than others, but even though they had fallen so far, these savage groups, the languages still show the formerly high state.

So Darwin’s concerned, in my view, to answer them, and his listing of the language-species parallels is a part of his answer, and it’s quite a sophisticated answer, in some ways quite a sneaky answer, because what he’s doing here, as I read him, is to show you how useful in general it is, when trying to characterise language change, to borrow from the tool kit of those who study species, from the naturalists. So having dragged you through this list of parallels, he’s then softened you up, he thinks, to accept what he really wants you to buy, which is the notion that the naturalists’ definition of perfection is the correct definition to apply when you’re talking about languages. And on the naturalists’ definition, a perfect grammar is not a highly symmetrical, simple grammar but, on the contrary, a highly asymmetrical, highly differentiated, highly complex grammar. And if that’s the case, so if we use the naturalists’ definition of what counts as perfection, it turns out there’s no problem. It turns out that these languages are as lowly as the rest of these cultures, so lowly people speak lowly languages. Now this is a surprising and uncomfortable argument for many people who like to think of themselves as fans of Charles Darwin because, of course, we don’t subscribe to anything like this view today. Linguistics has taught from the early twentieth century that all human peoples, no matter what the states of their civilisation, speak languages of more or less equal complexity, and I think there’s a fascinating story to recover of how it is that evolutionists came to change their minds about what the theory of evolution predicts, because nowadays the theory of evolution predicts exactly that, equality of languages. But that wasn’t the case for Darwin, that wasn’t how he understood his theory. And part of reading him well, I think, on these topics, is allowing for these differences between him and us, however uncomfortable.

How did you use Darwin’s correspondence to re-evaluate his views of the Fuegians and Fuegian language?


Well, through talks that I gave about my interest in these topics, I learned that there was a story around about how Darwin, very late in life, had changed his mind about the Fuegians—came to think that as a young man, he had underestimated just where they were in the scale—and that he got new information late in life, in particular, it was said, he was much impressed by the work of a missionary who had accumulated a large dictionary of the Fuegian language. And on seeing this, or so it was said, he came to reconsider his old views and to recant, and say that he’d got it wrong. And I went and did a little bit of study of all this, and it turns out that from the time of Darwin’s death through till now, reports have been circulating about a kind of a deathbed conversion, not quite at the deathbed, but in 1881, a letter in which Darwin wrote to a friend of his that he was amazed about the revelations of what the missionaries had done with the Fuegians, in particular what they’d uncovered about their language, and he now saw just how wrong he’d got it. So, on digging into this a little bit further, and actually looking at the letter myself, I came to see that this had all been massively overblown, and in very interesting ways. In my reading of it, Darwin, from the beginning right on through, really never changed his views about the Fuegians or their language. He thought that they were lowly, but improvable. Because for all that he saw the Fuegians as really just on the edge of the human-animal border, he nevertheless thought of them as humans, and nevertheless thought, again right from the beginning, that it was worthwhile investing in missionary efforts to help to civilise them, and Christianise them. He also, however, knew through his own experience, but also through the difficulties of others, just how hard it would be to get a missionary effort going in that part of the world with those people. So part of the surprise he was registering throughout his life was not that the Fuegians had turned out to be improvable, but that missionaries had managed to create a stable mission outpost to such an extent that they were able to do the job. He thought that was really amazing.

He was also, in my view, being polite to a friend of his to whom he’d always been encouraging and friendly, a man named Bartholomew Sulivan who had been a mate from Beagle days onward. Their correspondence is always full of Darwin’s expressing amazement and pleasure at the progress that Sulivan reported with the South American missionary groups that he supported. So, partly that’s, I think, how to read this rather anodyne bit of correspondence—it’s Darwin being friendly in the way that friends often are with one another. But it’s also, I think, amazing and instructive for us now to look at the afterlife of this correspondence, the way that both scientific groups and religious groups seized on it for their own different purposes, and began to talk about this late change of mind on Darwin’s part. Among scientific groups, it was because, for their own reasons, a number of people came to think that the idea of a race-language scale, going from high to low was a mistake, and secondly, a mistake that evolutionary theory didn’t need to make. It was the wrong view of evolutionary theory, and so they tried to recruit Darwin, a later Darwin, to these revisionist efforts. And on the religious side, they were, of course, delighted to find that Darwin was cheering on the missionaries and pleased with the efforts that they had made. So, between the two of them, they’ve kept in circulation this notion of a late change of mind which I think the correspondence shows just really didn’t happen.

What is the impact of Darwin’s writings on the study of language? What were the responses to Darwin’s research after his death?


Darwin’s writings on language, as with so many of his other writings, it’s amazing the extent to which they’re still being read, and still being read with profit by scientifically engaged people now. Linguists can still often be amazed when they read Darwin’s pages at how insightful he was on a whole range of topics. Steven Pinker quoted Darwin on the extent to which the ability to acquire languages, as Darwin put it, a half art and half instinct—it’s a wonderful phrase and Pinker thought it couldn’t really be improved upon. His remarks on sexual selection and language have remained fruitful, and exciting to linguists, thinking both about the origin of words, but also thinking about, for example, the musical quality of our language—the way that languages, speech goes up and down, and the way that the up and down of speech is connected with our emotions. We wouldn’t necessarily buy into Darwin’s account now, but it remains something worth thinking with when we try to come up with our own theories.

Nearer to Darwin’s own day, I don’t think that most people who were already Darwinians just subscribed to his theory. What they did do was think that there had to be a Darwinian theory out there, and there had to be evidence which would show that Darwin was ultimately right. And so what Darwin did by joining Müller on the other side of the debate over whether or not there could be an evolutionary origin for language, and whether one could trace out the connections between the nonhuman animals and their communication, and human language, Darwin energized research into this topic. And one of the most fabulous responses that he ever got, or rather his writings ever got after Darwin died, was by an amateur American businessman and schoolteacher named Richard Garner. And Garner in the 1880s had a kind of epiphany in which he saw that one could find the evidence that Darwin never had for the truth of his theory thanks to a brand-new invention—the phonograph—invented by Thomas Edison. In fact, the phonograph had been invented in the 1870s. The first models, however, weren’t a great success. In the late 1880s Edison had a new model, which was thought to be much better—he, in fact, called it the perfected phonograph. And Garner saw that one could take the phonograph to monkeys and apes in zoological gardens around the United States at that time. You could record the utterances that the animals made, and then—this is the beautiful thing—you could, under controlled circumstances, repeat the recorded utterances back to the animals and observe their responses. And in this way, Garner saw, you could work out what the utterances mean for the animals—mean in the same way that our words have meaning for us.

And through these experiments, Garner came to conclude that monkeys have a language of their own, which was similar in degree to the human languages. Indeed, he thought that the highest apes would have a language just one step below the lowest humans. And he called this language of monkeys and apes “the simian tongue,” and he became unfeasibly famous in the early 1890s for the claims he made on the basis of these experiments in the United States, but also for plans that he had for taking the phonograph to the apes—to Africa, to West Africa, to what’s now Gabon. And Garner’s plan, which he carried out, though with mixed success, was to take his phonograph out to Africa and to sit himself in an iron cage in the jungle and there to take down onto the wax cylinders the missing links of language. And it all went wrong in the most comical and horrible ways. But that was the plan. And to my mind it shows just how exciting the debate on the evolutionary origins of language became in the latter part of the nineteenth century, such that a nobody in southwestern Virginia thought that this was an exciting way to make a contribution to a massively important public debate, and to show that Max Müller was wrong, that language was not a Rubicon that was un-crossable, and that one could use the best technology of the time to show this.