First Words

[Language] certainly is not a true instinct, for every language has to be learnt. It differs, however, widely from all ordinary arts, for man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children; whilst no child has an instinctive tendency to brew, bake or write. CHARLES DARWIN, THE DESCENT OF MAN

EVOLUTION'S RAW MATERIAL is the gene pool of a species and the mutations that arise at random in those genes. This formidable constraint means that an organ or faculty cannot be created out of nothing; it can only be shaped, by gradual stages, out of some existing structure, and each of those intermediate stages must confer advantage in its own right. One reason why human language is so deeply puzzling to biologists is that it seems to defy this rule. It is a vibrant, fully developed faculty in people, but is not possessed, even in rudimentary form, by any other species. It seems to have popped up into the recent human line from nowhere. The origins of language would perhaps seem somewhat less mysterious if our archaic cousins, the Neanderthals and Homo erectus, had survived to tell what kind of communication skills they commanded. But these branches of the hominid tree have been docked, leaving only one survivor. Primatologists have therefore looked for the roots of the language faculty in social primates such as apes and monkeys. These species do indeed possess many of the neural systems that are needed in support of language. They can make a wide range of elaborate sounds. They have acute senses of hearing with which to perceive and analyze the sounds made by members of their own species. As for thought, there is no doubt that the social primates are capable of quite elaborate cognitive processes, such as those required in keeping tally of who one's relations are, who owes one favors, and where one stands in the social hierarchy.

But despite possessing much of the neural equipment for speech, monkeys and apes simply lack the ability to translate their thought into anything resembling human language. Several primate species have communication systems of considerable sophistication. Gelada baboons have 22 different kinds of call, and gorillas have been recorded using some 30

different gestures.34 One of the best studied animal communication systems is the repertoire of alarm calls uttered by the vervet monkeys of East Africa. Vervets lead a perilous existence, at constant risk from eagles, leopards and snakes, and they possess a distinctive warning call for each. When researchers record one of these calls and play it back to other vervets, the monkeys reliably scan the skies in response to the eagle call, look down at the ground at the snake call, and leap into bushes at the leopard call. In an interesting link with human language, the basic mechanisms of the vervet's calls seem to be innate but are refined by learning. Baby vervets will give the eagle call in response to almost anything airborne, including falling leaves, but by the time they are adults the call has become focused on eagles, particularly the martial eagle, while nonpredatory birds

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