Why science needs to understand language

Human cognition depends on language, but a definition of language remains elusive. This theoretical problem divides scientists who study human behaviour. We can overcome it by examining a fundamental feature of language: kin terms

In the study of human behaviour, there are many neurologists, geneticists, cognitive psychologists, psycholinguists and other researchers with an analytic approach. These professionals view our actions as determined by our component parts, such as cells and molecules. They believe that this internal mechanism can sometimes malfunction, so they often have a medical inclination.

On the other hand, there are researchers who believe that human behaviour is determined by ‘society’, of which we are component parts. This camp includes many sociologists, anthropologists, social psychologists and sociolinguists with a holistic view of our actions. For these people, the mechanism of society can sometimes malfunction, so their inclination is humane as opposed to medical.

These two academic teams may have heated debates or simply ignore each other. An analytic scientist will often sneer at the holist’s lack of rigour, whereas the latter will look at the first as insensitive and narrow minded. Sometimes the disagreement will even be part of the same scientist’s multidisciplinary approach [3; 14]. Why does this happen? Why do all these experts avoid examining the level of individuals and our everyday interactions? Perhaps we are not either governed by microscopic parts or by a superior entity, and these unordinary things are attractive because we are prone to symbolic thinking.

One way to see the value of this alternative supposition is by comparing ourselves to cells and molecules precisely. These microscopic entities are governed by the same biochemical laws across organisms. They do not create their own laws of association as human beings do when we form different groups, cultures and nations through our use of language. Indeed, our linguistic signals, signs or symbols, are the ‘natural laws’ that bind us or split us apart; and we often perceive them as deterministic laws, such as when we speak of destiny, of a nation resulting from the will of God, or some other myth. That is, language disguises itself as a force that determines human behaviour, which might explain the conflicts among scientific disciplines and cultures alike.

Language and evolution

There is a third group of scientists that does look at individual interactions, though still overlooks language. Economists, for example, are aware that individuals make their own decisions. They may see ‘the economy’ either as an aggregate of those decisions or as an integral part of ‘society’, thereby reflecting the same dichotomous thinking.

Notably, evolutionary biologists, with their bird’s-eye view of human origins, have likened our interactions to economic games in a continuum with other animals that do not have language [9]. This is even though language appears to be a major evolutionary transition [13]. In this analytic view, all human behaviour can be reduced to the laws of natural selection, including cooperative behaviour; and the fact that we largely cooperate around the symbols of language, and that we use them to artificially select our reproductive partners [11] is of no great significance.

Evolutionary biology has, anyway, got something right. Science advances through conceptual reductions that provide integration, and they often do so by overcoming moral imperatives. Before Darwin, naturalists believed that all animals had been created by God, so they could have different theories as to how they were related. Some had an analytic tendency to see differences among them, whereas others felt that they could be classed together. Now Darwin’s theory is the only scientific way to understand how all these species have come to be, and we don’t find much competition in the field of zoology.

The same conceptual integration is seen today in physics, chemistry and biology, especially as compared to other not-so-natural disciplines. It is built from the ground up, so to speak: physics integrates chemistry and chemistry integrates biology. So, we should expect biology to be able to integrate anthropology, psychology and linguistics primarily. What is preventing this? How does the phenotype of language, common to all those disciplines, resist our understanding?

In order to answer this question, we could try to find words (linguistics) that are common to all societies (anthropology), have a strong effect in our minds (psychology) and have a meaning related to reproduction (biology). I personally can think no further than the words we call our parents and kin.

Family ties

Probably all human societies that ever existed have been characterised by a reproductive system that deviates from those of other social animals through a symbolic notion of kinship and marriage [1]. Kin terms, like Mum, Dad and Uncle Sam, do not necessarily indicate genetic relatedness and are often applied to non-kin [2; 7]. However, they build on the biological notion of being born of a certain woman and by a certain act. So, if I call you my husband or wife, I am invoking the same kind of bond that we have with our parents and that we will reproduce with our children [11].

Human societies have been performing this magic for 50,000 years, at least [15], which has involved a certain taboo around calling parents by personal name [6]. In this way, societies have linked moral authority to a sense of reality and real parenthood [10]. This psychological phenomenon expresses itself in most forms of myth, such as with Mother Earth or a fatherly God. Still, we can imagine, as Nicholas Allen has done, a people without such a system [1].  

Indeed, kinship and myths are not necessary for a species of mammal to have generations of healthy children. This might be why the modern world seems to be growing ‘relationless’ [2], and why so much dysfunctional human behaviour is seen to emerge from the family [12]. The same is, of course, reflected by the humanities and all matters of the heart. Unlike cells and molecules, we have feelings. We feel the linguistic forces that direct our association for better or worse.

The current biomedical paradigm in psychiatry is a good example of how analytically minded scientists tend to ignore this real aspect of life [12]. They work under cold assumptions akin to saying that physical or biological fact is all there is to the meaning of ‘Dad’: this adult male is supposed to behave as a father because that’s what he is, just as a person is mentally ill and their neurons misfire when fail to conform to certain behavioural patterns. This narrow-mindedness justifies holistic or social researchers in seeing this ‘science’ as just another form of culture, the ‘West’, whose worldview is no more true than that of any other culture. But this is akin to saying that ‘Dad’ has nothing to do with biology, or that a mother is anyone who will behave as such, which is clearly not true either.

It’s all in the language

Many researchers try to find ways to help an increasing variety of diagnosed people through psychosocial approaches like family therapy [12]. And they take issue with the words ‘mentally ill’, ironically, due to their analytic sense of precision in meaning: there is no such thing as an illness of the mind; only people who suffer from ‘trauma’ and other misfortunes.

Unfortunately, if one turns to those who study words in themselves, one finds that they, too, are divided between analytic and holistic approaches [8]. The first kind of linguist believes that words and sentences are a sort of computation happening in the brain, one that resulted from a lucky genetic mutation in our ancestors [5]. Whereas the second believes that language is a tool that societies use for communication, a tool no different from fire or music [4]. Linguists have spent a great deal of energy on this debate because, of course, their object of scientific study must be correctly defined. Why does this happen? How can roughly half of the people who study language or any other aspect of human behaviour get it consistently wrong? Why do they take it personally?

The quarrel between Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett is well known: ‘In 2002, Everett took a research post in linguistics at the University of Manchester. One day, he decided to tell his wife about the thing that had been nagging away at him – he no longer believed in God. “I remember when I finally said, ‘I just don’t believe in this stuff at all any more’, and she immediately got up from the table, walked over to the phone, and called our children. She left me three weeks later.’ (The Telegraph)

To conclude, science needs to understand language because all human understanding is dependent on language. Much about this remarkable form of animal communication begs for an explanation. Probably all societies share the moral and mythical principle of calling parents by names or nicknames that mean they are parents (see my other note). In principle, this is not necessary for our species to communicate, cooperate and endure, so why are these words so important? I think that by paying attention to these facts of life, we can begin to explain ourselves in the beautiful, helpful way that is characteristic of scientific theories.

Jose Maanmieli


1. Allen, N. J. (2011) Tetradic theory and the origin of human kinship systems. In N. J. Allen, H. Callan & R. Dunbar (Eds.), Early human kinship: from sex to social reproduction. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.

2. Ball, C. (2018) Language of Kin Relations and Relationlessness. Annual Review of Anthropology, 47, 47-60. 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102317- 050120

3. Baumeister, R. F., & Von Hippel, W. (2020) A Meaningful Discussion of Evolution and Meaning: Reply to Commentaries. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 4(1), 69-75. 10.26613/esic.4.1.171

4. Corballis, M. C. (2017) Language evolution: a changing perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(4), 229-236. 10.1016/j.tics.2017.01.013

5. Everaert, M. B., Huybregts, M. A., Berwick, R. C., Chomsky, N., Tattersall, I., Moro, A., & Bolhuis, J. J. (2017) What is language and how could it have evolved? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(8), 569-571. 10.1016/j.tics.2017.05.007

6. Fleming, L., & Slotta, J. (2015) Named relations: A universal in the pragmatics of reference within the kin group. Proceedings of Chicago Linguistic Society, 51, 165-179.

7. Fox, R. (1983) Kinship and marriage: An anthropological perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

8. Harris, R. A. (1995) The linguistics wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

9. Maanmieli, J. (2019) Money is a token of cooperation: The biology of indirect exchanges. Alethes.Net, 1(1)

10. Maanmieli, J. (2019) The nature of kinship: From dad and mum to god and society. Alethes.Net, 1(1)

11. Maanmieli, J., & Maanmieli, K. (2019) Children’s pretence: A scientific perspective on social reality. Alethes.Net, 1(1)

12. Maanmieli, J., & Maanmieli, K. (2019) Social destructionism: Psychosis and the limits
of dialogue. Alethes.Net, 1(1)

13. Szathmáry, E., & Smith, J. M. (1995) The major evolutionary transitions. Nature, 374(6519), 227-232. 10.1038/374227a0

14. Von Hippel, W., & Buss, D. M. (2017) Do ideologically driven scientific agendas impede the understanding and acceptance of evolutionary principles in social psychology. In J. T. Crawford, & L. Jussim (Eds.), The Politics of Social Psychology. London: Psychology Press.

15. Walker, R. S., Hill, K. R., Flinn, M. V., & Ellsworth, R. M. (2011) Evolutionary history of hunter-gatherer marriage practices.PLoS One, 6(4), e19066. 10.1371/journal.pone.0019066

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One thought on “Why science needs to understand language”

  1. (Not surprised to see Chomsky in the notes). Yes, thank you. I look forward spending time digesting and assimilating this. I’m trying to direct my continuing education and this is very helpful.

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