Front Psychol. 2014; 5: 226.
Published online Mar 18, 2014. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00226
Conceptual and empirical problems with game theoretic approaches to language evolution
Jeffrey Watumull1,* and Marc D. Hauser2
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.
Keywords: language evolution, evolutionary game theory, communication, universal grammar, models, theoretical
REVIEW ARTICLE Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401
The mystery of language evolution
Marc D. Hauser1*, Charles Yang2, Robert C. Berwick3, Ian Tattersall4, Michael Ryan5, Jeffrey Watumull6, Noam Chomsky3 and Richard Lewontin7
1Risk-Eraser, LLC, USA
2University of Pennsylvania, USA
4American Museum of Natural History, USA
5University of Texas, Austin, USA
6Cambridge University, United Kingdom
7Harvard University, USA
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.
Keywords: language evolution, competence, computations, Representations, animal behavior, Paleontology, Archaeology, Molecular Biology, modeling
Citation: Hauser MD, Yang C, Berwick RC, Tattersall I, Ryan M, Watumull J, Chomsky N and Lewontin R (2014). The mystery of language evolution. Front. Psychol. 5:401. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401
Received: 03 Mar 2014; Accepted: 16 Apr 2014.
Edited by: Andrea Moro, Institute for Advanced Study IUSS Pavia, Italy
Reviewed by: Valentina Bambini, Institute for Advanced Study (IUSS), Pavia, Italy
Marcel Den Dikken, CUNY Graduate Center, USA
Copyright: © 2014 Hauser, Yang, Berwick, Tattersall, Ryan, Watumull, Chomsky and Lewontin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.
* Correspondence: Prof. Marc D. Hauser, Risk-Eraser, LLC, West Falmouth, 02574, MA, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org