Dennett’s FBtBaB: Chapter Twelve

I continue my series of short comments on Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. These comments are mainly written for an online forum, in which undergraduate students of Professor Dennett post. Each time I raise a point about one chapter. This time I comment on chapter twelve.

How Much Work Can Memes Do for Explaining the Origin of Language?

Here is what I take to be a major issue in the twelfth chapter: Language cannot be simply explained by all the wonderful applications it has for us (coordination etc.). These applications should also be useful for other species, but none of them exhibit complex language use anywhere close to the extent we humans do. Language must be hard to get. It is so useful that, if it were easy to get, everyone would have it. So there is a gap to be bridged, otherwise the human linguistic exceptionalism cannot be made sense of.

I take it that memes are supposed to help bridge this gap. The idea in chapter twelve seems to be that you do not need to start with a complete language. You can start with self-reproducing memes which at some point allow language to arise. My question is how exactly this introduction of memes solves the problem of linguistic exceptionalism. Why were only humans hosts of the relevant memes? What is so special about humans that makes them the brooding place for language-spawning memes? Why did other species not become such a brooding place?

I gather that our special brains are the answer. They must be particularly good and therefore were a much better environment for the relevant memes. But then the exceptionalism is again just pushed down one line. Why are our brains so special? Why did other species not become the appropriate environment for the language allowing memes? Dennett suggests various answers to these questions, but they are independent of memetics.

It seems to me that memes might be one link in the story to the origin of language, but that they cannot bridge the whole gap of linguistic exceptionalism after all. Is their contribution then very significant? And could nothing else take their place in the explanatory chain?

Let me raise the issue from another direction: Our brains are very special and this allows language to flourish. Why exactly does this allow language to flourish? The answer in the book is “because (amongst other things) it allows certain memes to reproduce”, but are there other potential answers?


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