Cognitive Daily

Here’s an interesting question:

If we shipwrecked a boatload of babies on the Galapagos Islands–assuming they had all the food, water, and shelter they needed to survive–would they produce language in any form when they grew up?

It comes from Christine Kenneally, who posed the question to a group of experts in the field. It’s a fascinating dilemma–are we all born with language “inside” of us; will it emerge without the social guidance of parents and other language speakers, or does each successive generation have to learn language anew?

Edmond Blair Bolles has provided a nice summary of the answers. But none of the experts offered the answer I found most convincing — the one offered by Bolles himself:

Nobody refers directly to the historical conversion of pidgin languages (protolanguages) into creoles (full languages). This change has happened many times in the past centuries, and Derek Bickerton established nicely that it was the children who converted Hawaiian pidgin into Hawaiian Creole. This feat was not accomplished in a nonlinguistic setting. The pidgin pre-existed the children, so these speakers were not like the lone infants on the Galapagos, nevertheless, the babbling of infants, the creation of the Nicaraguan sign language, and the conversion of Hawaiian English from pidgin to creole offers a pile of positive evidence that humans are born with more than a language-ready brain. We have a set of behaviors and social expectations that make some kind of linguistic communication sure to arise, assuming some kind of minimal social life.

There’s been a lot of talk about Alan Weisman’s book discussing what would happen if the humans disappeared from the earth, but I find Kenneally’s sort of question more interesting. I’ve often wondered how long it would take a small group (say, 50) of humans to recreate modern society. Would 50 average individuals have enough knowledge to rebuild modern technology in a generation? Would they want to?


  1. #1 writerdd
    July 31, 2007

    You asked, “Would 50 average individuals have enough knowledge to rebuild modern technology in a generation?”

    Would they have access to a library? If not, there’s not a chance in hell that 50 average humans could rebuild modern technology in a generation.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    July 31, 2007

    Good point, writerdd. What about 50 hand-picked experts, still with no access to a library? Or 50 average people with library?

  3. #3 Zathrus
    July 31, 2007

    50 people, no matter how educated, could not rebuild modern society (or any rough equivalent) in their lifetime. Their descendants eventually could, but it would probably be several hundred years.

    To put it simply, 50 people are going to be too busy simply surviving to be spending time trying to recreate much of what we take for granted.

    I’d guess that the best mix would be mostly farmers, survivalists, ranchers, and pretty much anyone from non-industrialized countries. Throw in a couple of medical specialists (a midwife would be really good) and some generalists that have a wide, but shallow knowledge base and you’ll probably be able to have some specialization, that might get you some big leaps before that first generation dies — basic metallurgy, pottery, antibiotics, perhaps even very limited electricity.

    The big question is, how will the original 50 pass down the knowledge? Will they be able to maintain a written knowledge base (have to reinvent durable books and inks first)? And, of course, there’s the social changes that will come from such a limited population; how many women will die in childbirth (even with a midwife around) in the first few years? And how do you manage the issue of such a limited gene pool?

  4. #4 GK Nelson
    July 31, 2007

    I think a better question might be, “Would 50 average individuals have enough practical knowledge to keep from starving to death in a generation?” Would they know enough about medicine to survive an appendicitis attack; could they treat a serious infection? Since I assume technology would evaporate, I wonder whether 50 average U.S. individuals would escape extinction.

  5. #5 chezjake
    July 31, 2007

    50 average people with a library (or some selected good reference works — early 20th century editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica had many well illustrated and detailed articles on all aspects of technology) might get a good start on developing the technology they felt necessary *if* they were located somewhere with all the needed natural resources and had some decent tools to start off with.

    Water power would probably come first. I imagine it would take several generations to develop the mining, metallurgy, and metal working technology to the point where steam power could be harnessed for widespread use.

    It’s also worth considering that in such a small population there would be little or no need for long distance transportation or any of our modern communications technology for quite some time. People would develop what they perceived to be the things most useful and practical for their immediate needs — most of which would be concentrated on food production, shelter, and production of the tools necessary for better efficiency in those efforts in the early stages.

  6. #6 Aaron Couch
    July 31, 2007

    I find your last question very interesting: Would they want to?
    In our “modern” society, we perpetually seek out more advanced technology, presumably to make our quality of life better. Perhaps we can look ahead to what technological possibilities exist because we can trace our technological history through past generations.

    My question is, would the new society of 50 babies even be able to desire technological advancement? Would they know what that meant, or would it take a certain amount of luck to develop advancements that would allow them to realize this potential? (A library would certainly help with this, but wouldn’t they need to teach themselves to read too?)

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    July 31, 2007

    GK Nelson/Zathrus:

    I think you’re overestimating the scale of the survival problem. We’re not talking about people stuck on a desert island. Historical accounts of starvation and deprivation among colonists (Jamestown and Plymouth in the US, for example) are largely due to the fact that there was competition with other human groups (i.e. Native Americans).

    Assuming our group is living in a good site (fertile ground near water and good hunting), basic survival needs should be met within a few years at most. Then they could focus on building for the future.

    If we’re talking about a group of experts, perhaps only 2 or 3 of them need to be survival experts, and after the first few years, the other areas of expertise could be exploited to rebuild civilization.

    But I still wonder if such a group would try to avoid some of the problems plaguing modern society as they became “civilized.”

    Would they try to limit their population to minimize environmental impact? Would they develop renewable energy sources? Or would they figure this would be someone else’s problem a few centuries down the line?

  8. #8 JoeBlu
    July 31, 2007

    I don’t know that 50 humans would be enough to even survive as a population — there were once groups of several hundred on small Australian islands but they were not sufficiently populous to maintain themselves. Tasmania had 10,000 people and actually devolved technologically from its original settlement.

    Would 50 people be enough to survive as a group when they start having fights and killing each other?

  9. #9 Markk
    July 31, 2007

    If you don’t allow books then no I don’t think 50 people would be able to recreate anything close to modern society in any time shorter than it took anyway. 50 people must do all the things needed to survive and have children and raise them. They are simply not going to have time to do all that and remember enough to be useful. They won’t have pens and paper – they would have almost no way to preserve knowledge. So no matter how much they had in their heads, most of it would be lost. I don’t think you are taking into account how important written records are to civilization. I would give the people a good chance if they had books, and paper and such to keep track.

  10. #10 LauraJMixon
    July 31, 2007

    Also, technology is a pyramidal structure — certain forms of tech require a minimum population base to sustain it. Resource extraction, for instance, is quite energy- and labor-intensive.

  11. #11 JoeBlu
    July 31, 2007

    Markk — It doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to preserve things with writing in clay as a stopgap measure. Instructions and knowledge passed would be neccessarily cruder, but certainly some knowledge could be passed on.

  12. #12 Kapitano
    July 31, 2007

    The shipwrecked babies would, as they grew up, have to work together to build things, plan things and make tools.

    Everything from arranging distribution of food and coming up with a system to discourage bahavior damaging to the community, to developing a medical science to treat injury and illness, and perhaps even some kind of religion.

    All this requires communication, so some kind of language is inevitable.

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    July 31, 2007

    Just to clear things up:

    We’re talking about *two* separate questions here.

    1. Would babies stranded on an island re-create a human language?

    2. Would a group of ordinary adults (or alternately, hand-picked experts) stranded on a vacant earth be able to re-create human civilization?

    Clearly the babies would have a much harder time trying to duplicate modern civilization, since they would have no knowledge of it.

  14. #14 wilson
    July 31, 2007

    I am sure humans are born with powerful language development reflexes. This story is not proof but is clear evidence of a powerful dynamic. I had two siblings who were twins 8 years my junior. The nearest sibling to them was 2 years older. My father a psychologist, identified a rudimentary language that lasted for about 2 years (from about 2 to four) which they spoke when they were alone or engaged in play together regardless of the presence of others. He kept a journal of the words he managed to identify which we unfortunately as we moved from place to place.

    I would be interested in other reports of twins developing language. A comparison of the such proto languages would be very interesting

  15. #15 wilson
    July 31, 2007

    I recall a study done about 10 years ago of a group of neglected deaf children in an orphanage who developed a completely new and quite complex sign language. Can anyone provide further information or a link?

  16. #16 Dave Munger
    July 31, 2007

    Here’s a link to more information about Nicaraguan sign language, from the Bolles article I linked above.

  17. #17 Chris Green
    July 31, 2007

    Dave Munger (#8) says:

    “Assuming our group is living in a good site (fertile ground near water and good hunting), basic survival needs should be met within a few years at most. Then they could focus on building for the future.”

    I think he should read Jared Diamond’s _Guns, Germs, & Steel_. It takes VERY special conditions for ANY society to get much beyond the level of bare subsistance. Most of the plants and animals available in any one place do not have the required qualities for a local human population to begin specializing in tasks not immediately related to food production and other esential survival skills.

    Also, I don’t think 50 people would survive long. The first epidemic would wipe most of them out, and leave the few remaining people vulnerable to bad weather and predators.

  18. #18 Spaulding
    July 31, 2007

    As #10 pointed out, many modern technologies rely on massive systems that would not be replicated on small scales: factories, power grids, broadcasting networks, satellites, mining, international shipping, etc. The 50 adults would not have the advantages of bulk scale.

    On the other hand, they wouldn’t have the disadvantages of bulk scale, so there wouldn’t be and advantage for them to limit population growth or pollution at such a small scale.

    I don’t think they’d replicate modern technology, but I think they’d skip many millennia ahead of the Stone Age. Even if they had to rely on oral tradition to pass knowledge to future generations, they could found their civilization with lots of important, easy-to-pass-on knowledge: scientific method, atomic theory, germ theory, evolution, constitutional government, human rights, individualism, hygene, etc. With this foundation, future generations would be able to expand their capabilities with the accelerated pace that we’ve seen in the last two centuries.

    What other simple, fundamental ideas belong in this list?

  19. #19 Eric
    July 31, 2007

    JoeBlu: Yeah, the Tasmania story is fascinating. Without modern technology, Tasmania can only support about 10,000 people. And historically, that proved too small a population to maintain even stone-age hunting and fishing technologies.

    If I could have only two technologies to rebuild modern civilization, they would be the Gutenberg press and cheap paper. That gets you the ability to publish books and journals, and from there, you can rebuild everything else in several hundred years. Before the Gutenberg press, a book might cost US$25,000 in inflation-adjusted terms.

    If I could also have a shelf of books, including a text on practical metallurgy, the Feynman lectures, an introduction to chemistry, a calculus textbook, and so, then it would be even easier.

    I’m still not sure about the 50-person population, though. Even the most hospitable environments on earth require 20 hours per week per person to gather food. Once you add in the child-rearing, you’d be lucky to have 10 left people to handle everything from academia to engineering. And given the Tasmanian example, well, it doesn’t look promising.

  20. #20 Brian Kim
    July 31, 2007

    While the philosophical question of 50 babies being able to eventually recreate a human language is intriguing, the realistical point is they wouldn’t be able to survive on their own long enough to make it a valid question. Have any of the respondants ever actually looked after a baby for even just ONE day? They need constant looking after in order to survive! They can’t feed themselves, they can’t defend themselves against any type of predator, much less do anything to be able to protect themselves against the natural elements. Sorry to be so pragmatic, but if you’re going to delve into these types of questions, at least give a scenario where there’s some semblance of reality.

  21. #21 Matt
    July 31, 2007

    What would compel the 50 people to re-create our current society? What benefit arises from duplicating the internet, mass transit, long-distance calls, pump-driven espresso machines, etc.? By necessity “the 50” would re-create that which improves their chances of survival. And maybe a coconut radio and Playstation.
    As for the Galapagos babies, does the language sometimes shared by twins count, or is it absolutely tainted by the language spoken around them? Did the child raised by wolves introduce language concepts to the wolves they didn’t previously have? Or have unexpected language capabilities? Personally, I think the babies would have baby wars and eventually the survivors would learn to fashion sea-worthy vessels from sea turtle shells and launch their mighty armada against Ecuador.


  22. #22 llewelly
    July 31, 2007

    I have to agree with Brian Kim. Babies try to put everything in their mouths. Some of these things are not safe. They will crawl off edges and injure themselves in falls. In fact – by the time a child has any chance of surviving alone in the wild for more than 10 days, that child has already learned how to talk.

  23. #23 Spaulding
    July 31, 2007

    Brian, you’re clearly overlooking babies’ lightning reflexes, razor-sharp claws, durable carapaces, potent neurotoxin stingers, chromatophoric adaptive camouflage, and maximum flight speed in excess of 50mph.

    Those babies would absolutely DEVASTATE the island without the subduing effect of modern educational systems.

  24. #24 Viscount
    July 31, 2007

    I’m no geneticist, but I would think there would be some interesting genetic drift effects going on with a founding population of only 50. It seems like there would be a profound loss of variation, which can’t be good – the Amish have somewhat serious health issues from inbreeding, and they had something like 200 people to begin with.

  25. #25 Adi Smith
    July 31, 2007

    This thought experiment is unnecessary.

    Essentially, the same thing has already happened with a bunch of deaf children from Nicaragua. There is a sufficiently insightful Wikipedia article about this phenomena (including a bunch or references:

    “Nicaraguan Sign Language (or ISN, Idioma de Se├▒as de Nicaragua or Idioma de Signos Nicarag├╝ense) represents the formation of a new language without an adult community of fluent native “speakers”, which is otherwise quite unusual. Normal creoles develop from the pidgin mixture of two (or more) distinct communities of fluent speakers, but this language developed from a group of young people with only non-conventional home sign systems and gesture.”

    In short a group of children spontaneously created their own fully fledged (sign) language after being deprived of any real linguistic input.

    What is more interesting is that subsequent generations of deaf children ‘created’ even more linguistically complex extensions to the basic sign developed by the initial generations.

  26. #26 David Group
    August 1, 2007

    This posting reminded me of the original Tarzan novel. While it didn’t seem far-fetched to me that a child could develop language on its own, I could never quite accept the fact that a child could figure out how to read, or correlate written language with verbal, without outside help.

  27. #27 wilsonz
    August 2, 2007

    After reading all of our posts i am convinced 50 adults stuck on a web-island will lose the plot.

  28. #28 Mohit
    August 3, 2007

    While I agree that children need constant care and looking after for their survival, at the same time I am also intrigued by how Early Man would have survived in its infancy!! And if it can survive, group of 50 children definitely can with all of their growling. And what would be most interesting to see how would they socialise amongst themselves whether by using any sign language or any new language they may develop. But then again, whether they all be equally acquainted with that language over time or not. It may also happen that some rebellious group of babies create their own language as they found the other one a bit hard to understand. And, equally what can happen is that there are some babies who are introvert by their genes and do not socialise at all by themselves. It leaves a lot to think of how will they will be dealing with different stimuli which require interation….

    Actually I think they would rather become too close to each other as there will be no parents for them and they will rather be brought up by each other……..that leaves a lot to discuss……whether they will be giving names to their relationships or not and….
    And seriously I found the idea of leaving those babies with some intellectual books would be too hard on them………because they would be rather too busy in figuring out how to survive this turmoil they are left in, and understanding each other, and understanding environment, understanding what to eat – what not to eat, and how to deal with all hue and cry happening out there, and dealing with their everyday problems of food, shelter, accidents, anger, and understanding what life is and why it is like the way it is…

  29. #29 Estu
    August 3, 2007

    i don’t really understand how do you mean by

    “It’s a fascinating dilemma–are we all born with language “inside” of us; will it emerge without the social guidance of parents and other language speakers”

    I recall a very unfortunate girl used for experience on this matter years ago. (it is also unfortunate that i forgot the details; it’s in regular introduction to linguistics books, though).
    She was kept in a room untill near puberty; and of course, she ended up mute.. no single intelligible word acquired without the help from other speakers.

    One thing i believe in: babies have slots of patterns of a language, choices of slots; but they need inputs to confirm which slots are compatible.

  30. #30 Caledonian
    August 5, 2007

    Fifty human beings are unlikely to possess the necessary genetic diversity to establish a stable breeding pool. The level of technological development such a group of people could establish in their lifetimes doesn’t mean much if their offspring perish after a few generations.

  31. #31 ~Jo
    August 6, 2007

    I think a certain point is being missed; in most circumstances, people will adapt only as far as immediately needed in order to survive comfortably. The ‘push’ factors, such as weather or natural phenomena, population growth and especially war, are what tend to influence technological change. If this group of 50 were living in a reasonably fertile area which had the resources to support them and the next few generations, even if they had the knowledge to recreate today’s society, it would be counter-productive for them to even try. Why waste energy tring to create objects that aren’t presently needed, when low-tech solutions work sufficiently well?

    The band of 50 average individuals would settle for low-tech solutions, and likely exist somewhere between the technological bases of the Stone and Bronze Ages.

  32. #32 Alex
    August 13, 2007

    this question reminds me of the book Galapagos by kurt vonnegut

  33. #33 Bert
    August 19, 2007

    I can only presume that you don’t have a technical background because there is no way that a group of 50 people can. I’m a patent agent by profession, and I don’t think that the number of people who contribute to the increase of technical knowledge is too far from 2%, at best. But even if all 50 people are technically inclined, then you they have a billion problems to solve. Here’s just one: Suppose they’d like to have a metal tool. They’d have to find ore (very hard), they’d have to reduce the ore (depening on the type of metal hard to very hard) and would then need to process it to the quality and shape needed to do the job.

    If that doesn’t convince you, set yourself a modest task: Make a sheet of paper that can be printed on by your printer. Use only things you can find in nature, no tools (except if you make them based on what you find). You have a big advantage over any engineer. You already know that paper can exist, and can be printed on. Heck, I don’t mind if you look on Google how it is made. I can assure you: Your paper sheet will look very bad and may well jam your printer.

    No tribe in, say Irian Jaya ever lifted itself out of the stone age. And look how much effort it takes thousands of engineers it takes to make the next generation of computers a mere 20% faster. Remember the early ink-jet printers and how many years it took to let them put out the decent prints they can produce now?

    I hope you do now, that everything you see around you, from the humble paper cup to the coffee in it has been the result of the efforts of very, very many people, who were only a fraction of the people they lived amongst.


  34. #34 Colli
    September 23, 2008

    I find it interesting that so many individuals make reference to mining and metallurgy – this assumes that there are indeed metal ores to be mined and worked. If survival is the primaty goal (a given in the scenario described), basic tools made from the most easily accessable materials would have to be developed and perfected first. Wood, bone, and stone would almost certainly make-up the progression and would probably remain in use far beyond just a few generations. Food, clothing, and shelter would be the priorities du jour for many generations. Why would anyone believe that a re-development of the human race would take place any faster or take a different direction than that which predated us?
    We have studied many civilizations from the past and many civilizations from diverse environments. Environment dictates priorities and resources. In any of the infant civilizations we have studied, progress came very slowly. If survival was anything other than the top priority, the infant civilization was short lived.

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