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Language and Environment

William S. Verplanck
Knoxville, TN, USA


The keys to the origin of language are to be found in the social functions of communicative behaviors in any species, in behavioral processes (e.g., shaping, modeling/imitating, and observational acquisition), and most importantly of all in the behavioral properties of the very active environments in which the members of the species survive and multiply.

The last demands that the progressive changes in the habitats of the successive species of hominids be treated as integral to the evolution of language. As these species gained more control over, and indeed came to develop, their environments, the communicative behaviors we call language changed in conformity with them.

This is a tentative outline of how ‘language’ may have had its ‘origin’ when early hominids came out of the jungle and onto the savanna and began throwing rocks at those animals that preyed on them, and those others that they preyed upon.

Many widely credited theories of language and of “mind” are readily falsifiable by consideration of the revolutionary changes that have come in no more than a dozen millennia. Among these are agriculture, political organizations, organized warfare, writing, and silent reading, the last perhaps a recapitulation of the earlier occurrence of silent talking and drawing, called “thinking.” An account of how and when the diverse behaviors now conflated as “consciousness” emerged from/with language will be offered.

The environment, then, is a very active concept. The environment incorporates objects and events that require the individual to respond; the environment presents consequences to the behaviors of the individual to those responses, those acts, those actions, those gestures, those growths, those physical changes, and responds to them, provides consequences to them, selects among them, reinforces some, punishes others, and on the behavior of the environment vis-à-vis the individual’s activities. There and only there do we find the active environment playing its distinctive role, whether in the wild, in nature, or in the experimental laboratory. When we look at the behaviors or the records of behaviors we call painting or writing, we may consider the following: The visual communication, the visual presentations of the environment produced by the behavior of the individual. such as a wall painting, today produces a very different variety of behaviors than it did to those individuals who painted it. There seems to be no doubt that on observing such parts of his own behavior, such communication, such writings, the individual spur of the behavior was dependent on a large number of antecedent behaviors with antecedent consequences which are now unavailable to us. When, however, we look at the written word, the written page, we can examine the environment of that word. We can examine, study, the words antecedent to it and the words that are consequent on it. The words, which in the context of the whole behavioral history of the writer, determine the choice of that and only that word. We have the consequences of that word in the words which succeed it, that is to say, the responses given to that word when it occurs. So, let me first emphasize once again that excepting the not so obvious fact that scientific theory is essentially a set of metaphors, I submit the following to you: That the metaphor or behavior of all individuals that we must and can follow is derived from the conversation between two individuals, a speaker or writer, and the environment. The conversation is carried on over generations with the selection of behaviors and other structures being determined on the environment rewarding or punishing specific behaviors. In likewise, the development of language, the origins of language, the origins of grammar, of syntax, of lexicon, all are to be found as emerging from the conversation of members of a community with the environment of that community, and a conversation of one individual with his or her successive environments. What we must conclude from this is that if we are to find anything whatsoever out about the origins of language, we must not restrict ourselves to the top-down approach of the entomologist or the bottom-up approach of those who study ape behavior and gesture, but we must add the third, and critical, element because without the investigation that we cannot possibly conceive of how language developed in the history of our species. That is linguists, or all those interested in the problems this society faces, and we are from a number of disciplines, must call in for assistance and wait upon a development of adequate theories, or I should say guesses or speculations, which will never be confirmed because, here, we will never be able to see a real pipe. But at any rate, we must find out about the history of the environment in which the human has evolved. The environments, the ecological niches, the geography with which successive species, communities, individuals conversed. This means that at this meeting we should not only have a paleontologist, who will of course, be able to give us the products of behavior, the tools manufactured by the hominids, the paintings produced by the hominids, and eventually the structures produced by the hominids, who studies the records of human behavior, but we should also have a paleoclimatologist; we must call on the paleogeographer, we must call on the paleoecologist, who can correlate the successive records of the behaviors of humans with the environmental niche in which he occupies. These will no doubt note that the cave paintings, which we have so extensively studied, remained remarkably similar over a span of several tens of thousands of years. They will note, too, that, largely pictorial products of behaviors, sculptures and the like, found outside of caves and called, I believe, petroclifs tend to be stick figures, rather than the remarkably well observed, realistic paintings found in the caves. They will also, no doubt, ask themselves what they could learn from the ecologies within which those painters were behaving, their ecological niche. Are there pictures in those caves of the animals who successfully preyed on the hominidy? Are there pictures of animals who were the prey animals, the source of food, of tools, of clothing? Are there pictures of the competitors of the human species, the animals which, at once, would prey upon us and, at the same time, could serve as our prey, our source of food, tools, and clothing? Earlier speakers have already alluded to the futility of attempting some kinds of languages backwards because the history of the hominids spans several glacial ages. The history of hominids also shows that humans have moved from ecological niche to ecological niche, literally moved. We might hear, for example, the case within recorded history of the moguls, who living in an environment which was not kind in offerings of food, shelter, and the like, moved out of that (having tamed the horse) and went forth–Ghengis Khan, Timberlane–to conquer more generous, kind environments. In this context, it is interesting to note that those who remained in Mongolia, as with the inhabitants of Tibet who could not so easily escape from their harsh environment, became preoccupied with a world, not of objects and events, but a world of spirits, a world that generated a language relating to other worlds. So, we come back again to the basic concepts of the metaphor of all behaviorism, although few behaviorists would acknowledge it, that is, of an understanding of our subject matter as a conversation of the individual in the present with the environment in which he or she lives.

I want to go back now to a point I made earlier, and that is that I noted my own behavior as I emit each word is a function of, was produced by, on the one hand, my whole antecedent history of behaving in this world of ours and most especially, in the present context of behaving with respect to an audience, to which I am speaking. Secondly, my behavior is, as I speak each new word, contingent on the words immediately antecedent, that is to say, those that might be called present in the “here and now,” an interval of time which is indeed measurable. Finally, each new word I say is dependent on the reaction of my audience, of each of your faces as I glance around the room observing, being reinforced or aversively stimulated by your facial expressions, your gestures, your reading a newspaper (if any of your were, which you’re not, I’m glad to say), nodding, sleeping, smiling after a particular statement; these, too, control each word as it comes. Let me note that the agent controlling, if you will, is the environment. The environment has provided me, through long conversations, a bag of verbal tricks. Now, your will note, too, that I can sort out of the environment the immediate environment. I will submit to you that the word “mind” is a word that has developed in our languages, probably very recently, from the historical agencies, and I will also submit that “consciousness,” a subclass of mind if you will, or a cousin concept, refers to the immediate antecedents to my behavior, that is to say, those that are immediately preceding or are concurrent with each new word, each new statement, as I emit them. These are concepts. What the behaviorist argues, and will continue to argue, is that concepts such as “mind” and “consciousness,” when they are treated as agents, the subject of verbs, the actors, the deciders, are all together misleading, but when we consider them as shorthand expressions for the joint consequences of my whole reactional biography with all the behaviors included, including those sequences of rule-following that get called strategies, are themselves the consequence of the proper agent, that is, environmental objects, events, and history. Similarly, the word consciousness does indeed refer to those components of the immediate environment that are controlling that behavior. There is a collorary to this, a collorary that considerably worries me in view of all the research that is now being done by neurophysiologists, neuropsychologists, and philosophers of mind. That is a very simple point. The preoccupation with understanding of human behavior in terms of mind and consciousness not only insures that not only will the proper questions never be asked, but the whole mode of research will be misguided. I have to say that, as a case in point, was a paper we heard a day or two ago, in which Dr. Calvin shows ingeniously the kinds of circuitry that might account for, it says here, some kinds of behavior, some kinds of “mental functioning.” These studies are totally concerned with the immediate consequences of objects and events in the environment, they’re concerned with cortical functions, they’re concerned with, if you will, the invention of a new agent, that is to say, a cortex/mind, because these terms get treated interchangeably, unfortunately, which somehow or other functions independently and does its job, by the agency concept, of choosing among all possible behaviors to be given in respect to those stimuli and shaping, or controlling, a very precise response whose precision is extraordinarily contingent on the environment of details in which the behavior is to be given. This, to me, makes no sense. The functioning of the brain must be considered as fully as possible in the context of that conversation. The conversation is not a one-sided speech by the environment, but it is the total event, the total incident, that is to say, the generation of selection of response even as the input continues. In general, it does seem that the notion of cortex as agent and of mind as agent has fixed within us neurotomical notions, notions whether we like it or not, that the cortex does not change, evolve, show changes in structure as a consequence of successive conversations with the environment, and that, indeed, the very functioning of identifiable structures does not also so change and is not also carrying on in its part of the conversation of individual/environment by modifying its functioning from moment to moment, from class to class, from lecture to lecture, from skill to skill as the individual’s experience, interchange, with the environment continues. Here, I will merely allude to the probability that, from the instant the stimulation, the brain in its participation in behaving begins to shape the response, the individual’s next word, from the very beginning of the whole process. Here I will allude to the game twenty questions. If we ask ourselves what must the brain be doing during a game, we will find that it must be successively isolating out, out of an all but infinite possible events, the singular event most appropriate. The brain cannot act as an agent all at once in an instant as the present concept of mind and consciousness seems to dictate, but rather shapes a response, and I mean shaping in the very sense it is used in a Skinner box, shapes the response through a succession, a great succession of events.

Well, I think I really do have to stop somewhere. I do want to say that if you ask me who I am, I’m an individual in this skin with a behavior repertory which is the product of my whole antecedent history and who is behaving at the moment in the terms of the stimuli, objects and events, that is to say, in my immediate present and immediately antecedent events which set me, as it were, to respond in specific and narrow sets of words. I will not, for example, throwing something at you, but I will throw press the argument by throwing a concept at you, and I think I’ve done that. When I say I, I am speaking as a base speaker; as a speaker, I hear myself; as a speaker, I can respond to what I say aloud, I can describe what I’m doing as I do it, I can record what I am doing, either by hand or machine. In all these cases, I am also a listener, whose functioning is quite distinct from that of the speaker. In other words, let me conclude with this final remark. The individual him- or herself is engaged in a continuing conversation with him- or herself.

Let me close by saying that, given the opportunity, I would be very glad to extend these arguments in great detail. I will also say, as I close, that every speaker that I have listened to over the past two days has enabled me to shape more precisely what I would say today. I would further say that every speaker has confirmed my views on the concept of behaving, living, evolving, growing, learning, the continuing conversation of this sack of skin with the environment within which this sack of skin is embedded. Thank you very much.

Here are more data for you to observe. What will follow the follow after suitable set of astricks’ is the real thing. It is the pipe itself, it is the record of verbal behavior; tape recorded verbal behavior that has been transcribed into writing and I have submitted to you for your most careful obscurant. As then there will be a second record of this speakers verbal behavior. It is the “editing” of the burden of my spoken, note here there is interruption, in order to carry on the verbal behavior.

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