Introduction – Searching the Missing Links
Terrence Deacon’s “The Symbolic Species” came out in 1997 and became an important participant in the renewed focusing upon the issue of the origin of man. The basic Darwinian framework agreed upon by all serious research since early 20C had left the important problem of accounting for the evolution of man’s special intellectual abilities, including human language, as compared to other higher animals in general and man’s primate relatives specifically. The many competing theories of the origins of language along with the lack of empirical evidence to support either of them had, for many years, made speculations upon language origins obsolete – but with the increasing amount of knowledge about man’s genetic evolution, historical linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, the archeology of early human migrations etc. created a new platform for taking up this old issue. Deacon’s proposal was fourfold – based upon the combination of an evolutionary, a semiotic, a neurological, and an anthropological hypothesis. The evolutionary hypothesis was based upon so-called “Baldwinian” evolution – after the American psychologist James Mark Baldwin: the idea that in social species with individuals possessing a certain degree of ontogenetic learning abilities, new, acquired capabilities may assume a large degree of selective advantage for those individuals able to learn them. Thus, seemingly Lamarckian effects of inheritage of acquired characters may occur within a completely Darwinian framework: the acquired capabilities are not inherited, but the possession of them in some individuals provide a large selection advantage over those who have less ability to learn them. The example chosen in Deacon was, of course, human language: speakers will be strongly favoured at the expense of non-speakers, and thus the appearance of early, primitive language will speed up the process of evolution, eventually making the evolution of language and the evolution of the human brain two aspects of one basic process with intense feed-back between the two.