Both papers appear in Frontiers in Psychology, the journal whose retraction of a controversial paper on conspiracy ideation and climate skepticism was, by the editors’ own admission, handled badly.
Here’s the abstract to “The mystery of language evolution:”
Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, 1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; 2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; 3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; 4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.
Hauser is first author. His co-authors include some heavy hitters: Noam Chomsky, of MIT, and Richard Lewontin, of Harvard (who co-taught Ivan’s college evolution class with Stephen Jay Gould), among others.
Hauser’s other paper is “Conceptual and empirical problems with game theoretic approaches to language evolution:”
The importance of game theoretic models to evolutionary theory has been in formulating elegant equations that specify the strategies to be played and the conditions to be satisfied for particular traits to evolve. These models, in conjunction with experimental tests of their predictions, have successfully described and explained the costs and benefits of varying strategies and the dynamics for establishing equilibria in a number of evolutionary scenarios, including especially cooperation, mating, and aggression. Over the past decade or so, game theory has been applied to model the evolution of language. In contrast to the aforementioned scenarios, however, we argue that these models are problematic due to conceptual confusions and empirical difficiences. In particular, these models conflate the comptutations and representations of our language faculty (mechanism) with its utility in communication (function); model languages as having different fitness functions for which there is no evidence; depend on assumptions for the starting state of the system, thereby begging the question of how these systems evolved; and to date, have generated no empirical studies at all. Game theoretic models of language evolution have therefore failed to advance how or why language evolved, or why it has the particular representations and computations that it does. We conclude with some brief suggestions for how this situation might be ameliorated, enabling this important theoretical tool to make substantive empirical contributions.
Hat tips: Krishna Pillai, Rolf Degen