Sunday, August 12, 2007

Could Dinosaurs Have Had Language?

Philosophers have historically had a reputation for coming up with some pretty outlandish ideas, from time to time. Today, I want to have a go at joining the philosophers with strange ideas. The question which forms the title to this post is not as entirely barmy as it may appear, for reasons I will outline below.

Although not entirely uncontroversial, some theorists are now beginning to accept the idea that dinosaurs are not entirely extinct, in the manner they have traditionally thought to be. The fiction of Jurrassic Park notwithstanding, the notion that dinosaurs gave rise to modern birds is one that is now becoming part of the mainstream. As has been noted here before, one consequence of this is that the question 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' will now have to be updated to 'Which came first, the dinosaur or the egg?'. There may be other interesting implications too though. It is one of these that I will explore.

A while ago, I mentioned a recent report that discussed new evidence that children engage in deceptive behaviors when as young as six months of age. This is just one bit of evidence that behaviors and abilities that have traditionally been assumed to be quite sophisticated, actually appear a good deal sooner than was initially thought. Something similar is happening when it comes to abilities and where they are traditionally assumed to show up in the evolutionary hierarchy. Recently, I saw some strong experimental evidence, which is as yet unpublished, demonstrating numerical abilities among reptiles. Such abilities have, until now, only been seen in humans and primates. If this trend continues, then the question in the title of this post may not be quite a preposterous as it may initially sound.

One of the reasons this fact is of interest has to do with the parts of the brain that are shared by so-called 'higher animals' (like primates) and reptiles. There are parts that all species have in common. As Linden argues elegantly in his recent book The Accidental Mind (2007), apparent oddities in human cognition, such as the phenomenon of Blindsight can be easily explained by the brain having multiple systems, some more primitive than others, for performing particular tasks. If the 'language instinct', as Pinker calls it, could be shown to have causes in parts of the brain that reptiles or birds share with humans, then it is at least possible that dinosaurs might have had analogous abilities.

In fact, I think that an even stronger conjecture can be maintained. One of the distinctive features of language is that it has syntax. Yet, it has been clearly established that songbirds have syntactic abilities. Thus, given the relatively close connection between dinosaurs and birds, it is not impossible that they too might have also shared this ability.

Now, I am not suggesting that we could have had a conversation with a dinosaur. After all, even communicating with language trained apes is not entirely straightforward. However, there are two points I want to make here. The first of these is that the question posed at the beginning of this post is not quite as outlandish as it might initially appear. The second point, is that looking for evidence of rudimentary linguistic abilities in lower animals may be more fruitful than initially it may seem. To the best of my knowledge, no serious researcher has looked at the topic of language in dinosaurs. I think, given the evidence briefly discussed here, that it may be an interesting research direction.

The CP

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