If some fetuses make choices, logically they have language

Given that some microorganisms make choices, if therefore some fetuses make choices (probably after some stage of development) (Do some fetuses make choices? (as accessed Oct. 28, 2017)), and since an organism (such as you, me, a microorganism, or a fetus) that can make choices (if it can) must have a label for every choice, as in “chair or table”, “this or that”, “um or uh”, “yes or no”, “something or nothing”, “some or none”, or point a finger to the left or point the finger to the right, a choice-making organism even though not born already has inside it at least two ways, broadly defined, of identifying its choices.

Such a way of distinguishing one choice from another is a label. That label is a name. Although no one needs any name until it needs to distinguish two choices by having at least two names (an example occurs in computer science, where we had logic until fuzzy logic was developed, so that we needed a name for logic other than fuzzy logic, which we then named crisp logic, and there are probably similar examples for birds when it was found that some ate valuable crops and others didn’t and could be humanly responded to differently, and at one time some Europeans used the same name for what later were known as giraffes and elephants), once it has two useful names, it has a vocabulary. With a vocabulary and using the vocabulary, it has a rudimentary language or protolanguage and a protolanguage is nonetheless a language, so it has a language.

That a vocabulary exists and the fetus can make choices using the vocabulary means a protosyntax exists. It’s likely only a protosyntax because more may not be necessary to the fetus (e.g., I don’t know if past and future are of enough concern to a fetus to cause language to develop to handle them) and because the baby will have a neural framework for adult grammar. By one estimate some years ago, about 25 switches have to be set as the child learns the first post-birth language, one switch being the order of subject, verb, and object in a basic sentence (in Japanese, the verb comes last). It would seem likely that this set of switches has to be left unset by the fetal language. Perhaps two sets of switches serially exist, much as two sets of teeth serially develop, but if not then perhaps the fetal syntax is kept so simple that it will not interfere with the more sophisticated syntax that will come later.

While the fetus does not need the language to communicate with anyone else, that is not the only use of language. One person may use language to write a shopping list for later. One may talk to oneself, intending privacy, with no intent to preserve over time, and thereby is still using language.

Language need not be only for humans. Ethologists have established that several species of nonhuman use languages of their own. Bees, for example, have a language in the form of dance, by which they inform other bees of the whereabouts of food. I don’t know of any organisms that have been proven not to have language except presumably for organisms that do not make choices.

Therefore, if some fetuses make choices, those fetuses have language. Different fetuses may have different languages; or maybe they’re the same language. I estimated approximately, I think, 37 words in such a language, including nouns (like for some body parts) and verbs (like for eating and kicking). This is not likely to be English or spoken and probably not vocalized even in a simplified way. It’s likely mainly mental, and only internal to the fetus. While some parents make efforts to speak to a fetus, it’s unknown if the fetus makes any connection between what it hears and its internal language. Possibly, the fetal brain recognizes that some (not all) of what it hears is language and that the fetus’s own language is language and therefore that there’s a relationship; that would be useful to the fetus’s and baby’s future development.

After birth, the baby likely retains the internal language and likely adds to it because new choices are available and of interest, but also increasingly copes with realizing how parents use a language, too, only a different one. The baby’s internal language and the parents’ external language heard by the baby almost certainly have correspondences. If there’s any translation between the two languages, and there probably is an attempt eventually, it’s by the baby alone, and with difficulty, and it may fail completely.

The child gradually learns to understand the parents’ language and to speak it and, with understanding it, stores it. Linguists generally understand the sequence of steps in how language develops in children, but, as of some years ago, there was an exception, approximately a three-month period in which a child’s language ability explodes but for which linguists did not understand the steps in the growth. If that’s still the case, I propose a hypothesis: that the baby is finally rejecting the fetal language it realizes has not been useful in a long time and likely will never be useful, and does so before parents or linguists can perceive or study it, and by rejecting its memory of fetal language the child can, with less conflict, embrace content of the parents’ language.

We as adults do something similar. Sometimes, we acquire a replacement for something we have, but the old item still seems to have potential value not met by the new item, so we keep the old item for a while, until we establish to our satisfaction that it is no longer useful enough to keep. The baby or toddler may be doing the same with fetal language.

Is my logic wrong? I don’t know if fetuses making choices has been empirically demonstrated yet, I don’t know of any physical evidence directly of fetal language, and I don’t even know how an investigator could search for that evidence, but is this hypothesis contradicted by any evidence or logic?

Huh? You think microorganisms mentally label things? They don’t have brains.

Language is a social construct. No one “has” language until they are exposed to language socially. Just like babies don’t see until they are exposed to light, even though the capacity for sight is there.

This seems like a completely baseless, unfounded assertion.

Language is a highly symbolic communication construct, it is not necessary for thought, decision-making, or choice, as is clearly evident by the numerous creatures that think and make decisions and choices without language. A person raised in complete linguistic isolation (think Helen Keller) would still make choices.


I may be referencing “language” more abstractly than most people would. Helen Keller had language; her companion used fingers on a throat to communicate.

The social construct can come later in the development of language. If two people who do not understand each other’s language land on an island and must locally strive to survive, one possibility is that, e.g., one (being from London) will form a cup with hands, fill the hands with a brook’s contents, say “water”, and drink it, while the other will do the same except (being from Paris) will say “eau”. Or, e.g., one will find coconuts at one end of the island and bop the other in the nose, thereby communicating that said other should stay away, and the latter will then quickly snatch two of the coconuts and drink their contents while staring at the bopper, the snatcher thereby communicating that the bopper is not the only party who intends to survive. In both cases, the social development of their languages, while social qualities are present, is less sophisticated than that of Virginia Woolf’s. If going to earlier stages in linguistic development shows the presence of less culture (culture being ‘learning from other organisms’) in a language, that raises the possibility of going back early enough to where there is language without culture. For example, the first animal (probably human or protohuman) to speak had no one to learn speech from, yet spoke.

That human natural language is organized into nouns and verbs is partly because our genes (or something biologically related to genes and not cultural) dictate that the brain will have separate areas for those two word collections. As far as I know, the learning of how to structure sentences for communicating with other people comes well after birth and may take something like a year to learn; sentence norms and most of our specific vocabularies are socially constructed. Bees have a language of dance but I have no idea whether bees distinguish between nouns (e.g., places) and verbs (e.g., flying); perhaps they structure language differently, especially given that they communicate by dancing. Language may not need any particular structure to be language. Natural language, for instance, is different from computer language (only the latter usually has a maximum of one meaning per expression), but both are language. Language may simply be the means by which communication occurs, although also used for expression without communication.

In a scientific experiment, a scientist raised rats on a diet that included two kinds of cheese a rat liked. Then the scientist poisoned one kind of cheese to make the rat sick. The rat, after the sickness, stopped eating that kind of cheese. Then the rat had a baby rat (pup). Then, it taught the pup not to eat that kind of cheese. Apparently, rats do this by getting the pup to eat a tiny bit of it and then somehow signalling to the pup not to eat that kind again. In another experiment, one that found that baby rats can be tickled into laughing (in a way), the experimenter found that the baby rat would pull the experimenter’s hand in, apparently hoping for more tickling. The communication worked; more tickling ensued.

A fetus may not be communicating through language with the mother, in that its concerns may not be within the realm of what a fetus can choose. I don’t know if it chooses to demand an antibody from the mother (it can make that demand during breastfeeding but I don’t know if that’s by its choice). I don’t know if anything it chooses while being a fetus has to do with expressing to its mother; if kicking is a choice, it may not be asking a simpler form of “may I kick now?”, as it may be using language only for itself (e.g., the basic sentiment in “I’m tired of kicking” that leads it to stop).

If a microorganism that can make choices does not have a brain, then choosing is a process that would not require a brain, and, in that case, language may therefore exist inside the microorganism without a brain; likewise for fetuses, if they make choices, too, or perhaps the fetus doesn’t make choices until it has a brain and thus the brain can be where it stores labels it might need later.

The instant an organism has a choice, it must have a means to identify those choices. In order to choose whether to approach or to avoid some object, it must have some way to distinguish between “approach” and “avoid”. Given that it is choosing, how would the choice manifest itself in the sequence of zero or more procedural steps after recognizing a situation warranting approaching or avoiding and before commencing its approach or avoidance? Can there be just zero steps in there? The instant of choice itself is a step, the equivalent of “I shall approach” or “I shall avoid”. I think even that step has to be broken down into constituent steps, one being the applying of a label. If so, it has to have two (or more) labels. That would be a language. Or is there an alternative explanation? We have data in need of a theory.

How do you hypothesize the step/s for a choice between recognizing a situation warranting that a choice be made and executing that choice?

I was referring to the pre-Annie Sullivan days, before she had any shared symbols to connect with reality in social interactions.

Cognitive psychologists do not believe language is necessary for thought. It is called unsymbolized thought for adults or preverbal thought in child language acquisition. The idea that concepts are acquired by babies before the language to describe them is (I think) pretty standard now.

[quote=“Nick, post:3, topic:36981”]If two people who do not understand each other’s language land on an island and must locally strive to survive,

But both of these people have been socialized into whatever language they speak prior to their unfortunate island stranding mishap. It’s not their personal language. There is no such thing.

I don’t think this is possible by any normal definition of language or culture. Culture precedes language developmentally. Animal behaviorists claim some great apes have culture. Here is an interesting article looking at the differences between ape and human culture in terms of metarepresentations of knowledge. Babies internalize cultural values about what counts as kind or mean long before they are verbal, and abstract words like “kind” or “mean” are acquired later than concrete words.

Language did not evolve because a cave man woke up one day and started giving things grunted names and then started holding lessons for his neighbors. Language is a social construct, it undoubtedly emerged in community from a less complex semiotic system. Other social animals communicate symbolically; dolphins, whales, apes, even bees are examples. If you google John Maynard-Smith, you find lots of info on animal semiotics. One big idea is that the ability to send signals and the ability to receive signals and alter behavior because of it is something that co-evolves in a population.

Actually, there are well-established parameters that distinguish language from other animal semiotic systems.

As a linguist, this makes no sense to me.


Not just babies, but older children, as well. Here’s an interesting study on the development of representations as children learn about balancing. Essentially, children of 4 or 5 can balance different kinds of beams on a fulcrum without any conscious understanding of how it is done. This is “implicit” knowledge. They lack any kind of “theory” of how it works, even though they can successfully perform the task. According to the author, a “full conceptual understanding” can only be said to have developed when the child not only performs successfully, but is able to verbalize their understanding. Interesting stuff.


I think fetuses and microorganisms can be said to make choices in the analogous sense that home thermostats do.

The term, ‘language’, makes as much sense in this case as ascribing the term to the responses of PID controllers.


There is “quorum sensing” in bacteria, but it’s hardly a choice. No bacterium sits there thinking, “Wait…wait…wait…OKAY GUYS, LET’S GO FOR IT!



Your hypothetical fetus seems to be a lot smarter than a newborn baby.

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Quoting myself. Pitiful.

In any case, this has implications not only for pedagogy (listen up, homeschoolers), but also for many testing methods used on children. Essentially, just because a child can choose the “right” answer does not automatically mean they understand the concept or have mastered the skill. They need to be able to explain “why” in their own words. Often, the best way to learn a concept is having to teach it to someone else.

Do the inert gases choose to remain celibate? Does carbon choose to be a tramp?


Okay, I’m overincluding in language what others put only into some biocommunication systems but not into language as Mandler means, e.g., Korean (http://www.bryanburnham.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Mandler-2004-Thought-before-language.pdf). In Spelke’s (Which comes first, language or thought? – Harvard Gazette) work, the babies had (and babies generally have) communication systems; e.g., they communicated boredom, meaning that they expressed it and the investigators understood it as boredom and acted accordingly. Language has one definition that says “[a] non-verbal method of expression or communication” (Oxford Languages | The Home of Language Data (sense 1.1)); but if linguists now use another word for that sense, that’s fine; we can use another term. Replacing the term need not invalidate the basic point I make above.

But not every biocommunication system is capable enough for choice-makers, because not all biocommunication has to accommodate choice, so it may be that a biocommunication system that does not accommodate choice does not accommodate labelling. If you stub your toe and a nerve notifies your brain, labelling may be absent in that nerve. It may merely signal or not. If there’s a word for a biocommunication system that has less capacity than language has but is still capacious enough to include some way of signifying ‘this’ rather than ‘that’, i.e., labelling, maybe someone will post it (my brief Googling didn’t find it). Meanwhile, I’ll call it “[a] biocommunication system that includes labelling”.

A biocommunication system that includes labelling necessarily exists once choice exists and may exist earlier. It may continue to exist even if choice is later lost. But, once choosing is something the fetus does, the fetus must have a biocommunication system that includes some method of labelling. Otherwise, it cannot choose. Thus, the fetus has to possess an adequate (and nonminimal) system of biocommunication and has to use it in order to choose.

The first human (or other animal) to speak did not lack an ability to communicate before speaking; I didn’t say it/she/he did and I agree with you on that. And neither did the first speaker also invent the first labels or organize classes to teach them. I agree with you on that, too. But whoever spoke first had no speech (specifically speech) as a model. Indeed, considered locally, several speakers may each have been first in their communities, if each had no knowledge of any others speaking. But speech is not a prerequisite for symbols or labels. I think we agree on that, too.

Personal language exists: idiolect. It is usually close to a dialect, but it is still unique to an individual, and in the island case above, the idiolects would be linguistically unusually far from each other. We usually don’t explicitly study someone’s idiolect, but that’s because it’s usually too difficult (thus expensive) when idiolects in a dialect community or even in a language standard community are likely close enough to ease people’s cooperation. However, the islanders would study each other’s idiolect enough to build a shared language, a pidgin, and only then would personal language start to fade (and nearly disappear over generations), as a creole forms. The book Twice as Less gives examples of survivals from supposedly-forgotten languages. Idiolects are rarely challenged in full and so can stay solidly anchored in us.

Helen Keller before Annie Sullivan showed up had symbols, just fewer of them and they likely were less efficient. If you choke on food and need help getting it out of your windpipe, the standard way to let other people know so someone can help you (probably chosen as common even without standardization) is for you to grab your own throat. That requires context for clarity but, with that context, grabbing your throat is a symbol (see, e.g., Choking: First aid - Mayo Clinic). Symbols requiring context is probably the norm; they’re still symbols.

Adults, too, report experiencing something for which they have no words, especially when they remember an experience for which words have later come into their vocabularies. I used to have an occurrence that I counted as amusing, unimportant, and infrequent and that I didn’t tell anyone about; only later did I find out that it’s called “heartburn” or “acid reflux” (and may need medical attention). But even without those labels I recognized such an occurrence, remembered earlier ones, noted the similarity, and classified them together, even if my rubric was only some version of “that warmth”. “That warmth” is a label and preverbal babies would have labelling, too. Adults often talk of not having a word for something and at least imply that they can’t communicate what that something is, but they don’t necessarily lack at least an internal symbol for it. If Hurlburt is right about thoughts without symbols (Thinking Without Words | Psychology Today), then something more abstract than symbols describes what is being experienced by the person in question, and we just need a term for it. Hurlburt wrote, “[a]n unsymbolized thought is specific: you’re wondering what Feature 5 is.” But then the symbol is ‘the whatchamacallit that Feature 5 is’. If you have 5 objects including A, B, C, and D, thus implying a 5th object without a letter, that’s a label implied by the process of elimination (something dogs can perform) for the 5th and you explicitly label it as, e.g., the 5th object or the unlettered object even if you know no words as such. If by convention we shouldn’t call it a symbol, fine, provided we can call it something, because it exists, it’s important, and it functions kind of like a symbol, so we need to call it something. Do you know what we would call it? Note that Hurlburt acknowledges that “many (perhaps most) psychologists . . . believe that unsymbolized thinking is impossible.” Thus, either he’s right and many or most psychologists are wrong or he’ll turn out to be wrong and others right. So, maybe, until a convention changes, we should still call it a symbol.

A man asked me what to call his girlfriend (I think that was the relationship). She didn’t like “lady” and he didn’t like “woman” (too matronly). I suggested he use a paragraph and say what he thought. Then she’d know what he thought. If we require one word per purpose, we would never have enough words; often we need strings of words. Claiming we don’t have a word for something is often premised on needing just a single word for a meaning. If you smell a flower with a unique scent, you may still have a way of referring to it, e.g., “the aroma from the red-edged blue flower on the other side of the rocky little hill”. You can tell someone about it and they can go find the flower in an hour or so and experience the same aroma, even if you liked it and they don’t.

Thinking may well come before words, although not before some way to refer to what is being thought about. We typically develop words because we need them, so the need typically comes before a word, but that doesn’t mean it comes before a way of referring to it (e.g., “the mystery I’m trying to understand now” or “the mystery I was struggling with yesterday”).

Culture develops along two continua: in the society (large or small and of humans or of other organisms) and in the individual. People have had culture for millions of years and, at the same time, babies acquire culture (and the fetus likely acquires it, too, at least in later stages). It’s like car drivers entering a controlled-entrance highway and picking up speed in order to join existing traffic. But, while acquisition of culture in a baby or fetus would precede acquisition of an adult language (which is experienced in the womb but likely without morphemic meanings), I’m not sure acquisition of culture precedes an intrafetal communication system, since culture implies choice and choice must have labels. Example: Saying to a one-year-old in the kitchen: “No, you may not have the knife.” The child infers the possibility of having the knife, if not already conceived of; thus the child knows of a choice between having (forbidden) and not having (approved) with respect to the knife. I suppose it might be possible to acquire a little culture without choice, but I’m trying to come up with an example of that; I haven’t yet; and I don’t think anyone can acquire very much culture without choice. They may not be able to exercise the choice (a knife could be beyond a child’s reach) but choice would exist.

Many kinds of animals have culture. Ethologists have established that. Whether the animals know they do seems unknown (Gruber et al. found no evidence of that metaknowledge (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4319388/)) but lack of knowledge of culture as a category of knowledge doesn’t prevent having culture. Likewise, I think fetuses and babies likely can have culture without knowing they do. But babies, at least, may know they know knowledge-unit X because parents told them.

The Edwards article (Psychologists say babies know right from wrong even at six months) talks of the possibility of morality being “hard-wired”. If it is, that part of morality is outside of culture and irrelevant here unless choice is also hard-wired. If contradictory demands are hard-wired into an organism which is forced to choose, since it would seem that an internal contradiction without a means of choice by which to resolve it would be evolutionarily harmful over time, therefore the pre-choice-means contradiction would usually evolve out of existence in a species that survives many generations. Thus, we can assume that a normal specimen of a normal species does not have hard-wired contradictions in it. Contradictions in culture, however, are likely near the beginning of the acquisition of culture, at least as soon as choice can be exercised on any matter.

On your response to my comment that “language may therefore exist inside the microorganism without a brain; likewise for fetuses, if they make choices, too, or perhaps the fetus doesn’t make choices until it has a brain and thus the brain can be where it stores labels it might need later”, your response being “[a]s a linguist, this makes no sense to me”: I don’t know when the fetus starts making choices (if it does); perhaps that does not begin until it has a brain. However, while we consider a brain as conceptually separate from the rest of an organism, a useful concept, but if some microorganisms make choices while not having brains, then they have some means for storing the list of choices and deciding to choose, perhaps doing so in a part of the microorganism that we don’t call a brain but that serves a purpose close enough to that of a brain in other organisms.

By the way, the process that I propose that consists of, in the toddler, discarding fetal language in favor of adult language, if this occurs, is, for vocabulary, relexification.

Maynard Smith’s view agrees on there being a communication system but I don’t know how early in an organism’s life he would have said there is one.

That transmission, reception, and acting on what is received co-evolve in biocommunication makes sense. I don’t disagree.

(All URLs were as accessed 10-29-17. I didn’t go through most of the comments in the Hurlburt thread or similarly supplementary public comments on any other pages.)

@gbrooks9: No, I assume the neonate is smarter than the fetus. E.g., if the fetus has 37 labels, the neonate has at least as many. Birth is probably disturbing and distracting to a neonate and so intelligence and knowledge may be less evident until the stress and experiential novelty are past, but that may be moot if we don’t have the means to test intelligence and knowledge both shortly before and shortly after birth across a sample population. Babies don’t talk and so it’s taking a while for scientists to accumulate evidence of babies’ intelligence and knowledge (even if parents sometimes wonder what’s taking the scientists so long to catch up to what parents often already know). My point regarding other uses of a communication system is that the fetus need not have a communication system solely to communicate with someone else, just as adults can have other uses for language.

@Argon and @beaglelady: On whether some microorganisms make choices: I addressed that in my opening post with a link to a thread that cited a source that appears to be authoritative on point. If that was refuted by a scientist, I’m unaware of that; please let us know if it has been. Inanimate objects are not microorganisms.

@beaglelady: Responding in reverse order: Elements are not microorganisms and I don’t argue that a less complex system is a more complex one.


I really don’t get the point of even researching this matter. Most scientists don’t even believe a fetus has any meaningful tools of communication other than kicking and spinning about.

What do you think can be proved along these lines?

And your basic premise, helpfully provided in the header: “…if some festuses make choices, logically they have language…”, any number of epistomeligiests - experts in Epistemology (the nature of how we know things, and anything) - - are very unlikely to agree with you.


But give a couple of them a call and see what they think…

But you are ignoring the fact that you do not need to label anything in order to respond to stimuli. When microorganisms “choose” to pursue a smaller microorganism for lunch, that is not indicative of volition as much as it is a stimulus response. I still am totally unconvinced that “choice” as you are defining it actually involves “labeling” linguistic or otherwise.

Why would we assume that the less complex semiotic systems did not involve speech communication? Apes communicate a lot vocally, but it isn’t language. The evolution of language no doubt happened on a continuum in a community from proto-language to full-fledged language so that there would be no way you could pinpoint the individual who was first to “use language.” Generations before would have been using a very similar communication form. Just like you can’t pinpoint the first French speaker. French diverged from Latin over centuries and within a population.

Idiolects are personal modifications of a community language. My idiolect of English is still English. No one has their own totally persoanl language that they did not learn and adapt from others. Yes, if two people from two different languages are forced to communicate, something new will emerge. But the product will not be something that originated with those two individuals, it will have originated from the two communities of which they are representatives.

How so? How would they label without words? Are you confusing “label” and “symbol” with “concept”?

Okay, yes, I think “concept” is the word you are looking for.

Actually, that is the whole argument: We do think before having words to refer to what we are thinking. Derrida was wrong.

How in the world can a fetus acquire culture with no socialized beings to interact with in utero?

Culture is by definition social. Fetuses are not social. Plus, much of culture is internalized at the subconscious level, not explicitly taught as “knowledge” at all. We are not even aware of most of our culturally conditioned assumptions or reactions.

Maybe you could explain what in your mind is the difference between a stimulus response and a choice. I assume choice involves volition and volition requires a brain. I do not assume or understand what reason there is to assume that exercising volition requires labels or language.

So, I looked up some stuff on volition and some people say that only self-conscious beings can exercise volition, so it is something pf a higher order than mere choice.

If a fetus has signifiers (akin to labels, infra), that’s interesting for probably a variety of reasons (@gbrooks9). We can explore new possibilities even before we know how we’d use the results; that’s been done with math (e.g., n-dimensional spatial geometry where n>3 was not found to be useful for a hundred years after discovery) and there’s no reason we can’t do it in other fields. One reason for interest is that it could explain a toddler’s sudden burst of capability in adult-taught natural language.

If most scientists are counting kicking and spinning as the only “meaningful tools of communication”, perhaps they’re counting only the large-scale methods of how a fetus communicates with its mother (and I didn’t know they were established as methods of fetal communication, although that’s plausible). This topic is hardly talking about that channel. Instead, we’re talking about intrafetal communication for the purpose of exercising (or merely having) choice. Should intrafetal communication become external to the fetus, that’s also interesting.

Whether epistemologists disagree is interesting but not dispositive; it’s rather off-point. I think science is generally more useful to this subject than is philosophy. These are questions of linguistics and biology and thus linguists and biologists, respectively, are more relevant.

Responding to stimuli (@Christy) is not necessarily a matter of choice. Responding to a stimulus could be automatic and constrained to only one response, thus lacking choice. Responding to a stimulus that is not constrained to one response could rely on random or cycling-through-list selection of a response and perhaps those occur before choice develops as a method of response. Consider an adult being hungry (the stimulus of hunger): eating spinach or candy but without choice, i.e., randomly or cycling-through-list (cycling-through-list would force alternating between the two responses ad infinitum at each point of hunger), would often result in eating what is at the moment nutritionally useless or useless as entertainment, whereas choice is good for health or entertainment. Given that science now agrees that some microorganisms exercise choice and yet don’t have brains (at least as organs we humans can distinguish) and presumably don’t have self-consciousness (granted you’re no longer assuming that self-consciousness is necessary to choice), choice must not require a brain or self-consciousness but requires only that the microorganisms have the biological capacity that can do what a brain does and what self-consciousness might do (if anything) with respect to choice. That some microorganisms exercise choice is known; how they do it is less so or is totally unknown, so far. Perhaps investigators will look into it; but that possibility doesn’t change what is known to date.

This topic is premised on choice, not mere response. I came across some articles in JStor a few years ago to the effect that choice was being exercised by some microorganisms. We’ve known for many years about microorganisms responding to stimuli. I think choice has been only recently recognized. It appears now to be scientifically established that some microorganisms exercise choice.

That some microorganisms exercise choice does not mean that all microorganisms do so. Therefore, we do not know if all larger organisms exercise choice. Some do; larger organisms include humans. But we don’t scientifically know if all larger organisms exercise choice. So we don’t know if fetuses do.

In a fetus or elsewhere, if choice exists, some way of signifying each choice must exist. A choice being a potential signified (a “concept”, in semiotics, is apparently ‘the signified’ (Definitions of Semiotic Terms), so a concept is what is chosen and not how it’s referred to, i.e., a concept is a potential signified), per semiotics the signified must immediately have a signifier. Semiotics gives the signifier as “symbol” although I don’t entirely like it, since common English speakers often see a symbol without knowing what a particular symbol means, whereas “label” and “sign” are usually concretely tied to what they represent, but the word “label” is too narrowly defined (Oxford Languages | The Home of Language Data) and “sign” is anything meaningful and thus too-widely defined (Definitions of Semiotic Terms). That leaves “symbol” (Oxford Languages | The Home of Language Data (noun, sense 2 (“[a] thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract”, especially if we can ignore materiality, and ignoring it is supported at Definitions of Semiotic Terms))), so I’ll use that. Therefore, if choice exists, the chooser must have symbols for all of the concepts or choices. Therefore, the chooser must have a communication system that includes symbols. Therefore, if a fetus makes choices, the fetus must have a communication system that includes symbols.

For each signified, that there must be a signifier permits no delay to intervene. By definition, without a signifier a potential signified cannot be a signified. The instant a choice exists, symbols must exist, at least one per what can be chosen between, instantly by logic. Without a signifier, there cannot exist the corresponding signified.

I’m not construing the logic merely from the syntax (-er and -ed). Whatever we call signifier and signified, the logic applies. And not only is the immediacy required by logic, it’s pragmatic. If you have no way to refer to a choice, no symbol, no label, no vague sense of something there, no memory on the tip of your tongue, no handle of any kind, you can’t exercise that choice. If you’re starving and nearly dead while blind in a rocky valley without insects, animals, or wind and no one tells you that there’s food on top of three rocks a mile from you in different directions and you only have energy left to crawl one mile before you eat or die, unless you accidentally discover the food there may as well not be any food anywhere; and that’s despite your knowing that food is a thing.

If you know a way to have a signified without a signifier even noninfinitesmally briefly, please offer it.

You’re right on speech developing gradually, so we probably couldn’t clearly demarcate between a first speaker and predecessors, but that doesn’t change that communication could occur before speech, as I noted (“[t]he first human (or other animal) to speak did not lack an ability to communicate before speaking”).

Less-complex semiotic systems may well have used speech and I didn’t say they didn’t. I said “speech is not a prerequisite for symbols or labels”, not that speech couldn’t be used for symbols or labels of any level of complexity from the simplest to as complex as is now expressed through speech. Yes, on French from earlier or English from proto-Germanic and so on for both back to proto-Indo-European and maybe back to proto-Nostratic; but that gradualism, too, is not a concern. I’m happy to refer to what I was calling language by some other term that refers to a biocommunication system that fits the need, in this case a capacity for symbols.

Whether a pidgin originates from prior linguistic communities rather than from the individuals present in the new linguistic community or the other way around is a difference of perspective. Each perspective has something to contribute to an analysis of a pidgin. Likewise, in the U.S., the Republican party is principally either Trump or the voters registered as Republicans; if someone has to choose between them, that’s a perspective difference. Historians tend to focus on a leader and political scientists on a community or movement (e.g., if Martin Luther King Jr. had died at age 12 by recklessly diving off a beach pier during shark season, the civil rights movement would have centered on another leader with different aspects but a similar degree of success); both disciplines can contribute to our knowledge; likewise on who underlies a pidgin’s formation.

You wrote, “[n]o one has their own totally persoanl [personal] language that they did not learn and adapt from others.” If you’re writing of language as you have been rather than as I originally did, I mostly agree, the exception being for the part of natural language that is biologically determined (see the work of Noam Chomsky et al.) If you’re writing of language as I originally did, then where the fetus gets its language (what I now call a biocommunication system that includes symbols) is anyone’s guess, and I’d say it’s probably very strongly shaped by the fetus’s biology, although it may include random inputs from its environment as well. I have no idea what symbols it possesses, only that the symbols exist intrafetally (if there) and their meanings, and, without forms for the symbols, I didn’t try speculating on where the forms came from.

The fetus can acquire culture from its mother and perhaps from other people because, for example, the mother speaks and other people might speak loudly enough to be heard by the fetus in the womb. The mother spending most of a pregnancy lying relatively still or working out and playing championship tennis probably is a cultural influence on her fetus. Those are social interactions. How much culture is thus acquired is unknown but it’s not zero. I think scientists have decades ago agreed on fetuses acquiring culture. (I don’t recall if fetal twins teach each other culture.) How much culture is subconscious doesn’t matter to whether it’s learned, retained, and taught, only to how it’s learned, retained, and taught.

I can update my original proposition, replacing “label” with “symbol” and replacing “language” with “biocommunication system that includes symbols”.

(All URLs were as accessed early on 10-31-17.)

What choices do you envision a fetus having in utero, and why would the fact that they choose be significant? I’m really struggling to see why this question matters.

Again, I think you’re overloading the term “making choices”, or perhaps conflating different meanings about what it is to “make a choice”. Bacteria do make ‘choices’ much in the way a home heating system makes a choice about when to turn on. Detection mechanisms are physically networked to integrative mechanisms which in turn are linked to systems that alter responses. Inanimate objects perhaps aren’t micro-organisms, but micro-organisms are composed of inanimate objects. The physico-chemical interactions that comprise the sensing and regulatory responses in bacteria are not ‘special’ nor do they posses some ‘special life characteristics’ because they happen to occur within a living organisms. The paper you referenced specifically describes researchers dissect sensing systems and understanding how the individual components interact to generate the responses observed. It’s highly reductionistic and at no point do the researchers think the responses involve vitalistic or deliberative components comparable to the way humans and some animals ‘think’. I studied similar systems in metabolic regulation through grad school and my post-doc’ing years. “Choice” is a colloquialism in this description, not a scientifically or philosophically consistent term.

Here’s a paper the provides a mathematically detailed example of how the components of a bacterial chemotaxis system interact to sense changes in chemical attractants and repellents and direct the motion of the swimming bacteria either towards or away from stimuli:
Robust perfect adaptation in bacterial chemotaxis through integral feedback control, Yi, T-M; Huang, Y; Simon, MI; Doyle, J. PNAS 97.9.4649 (2000-Feb-07)

Given that the individual components and interactions between the chemotaxis system components are well characterized, capable of being mathematically modeled using parameters determined via direct measurement, and that this work yields predictive models of how the components work together in the cell, I think it’s hard to make a case that the bacteria ‘chooses’ where to swim. This system is characterized to the molecular level. There is no ‘choice’ in the sense of volitional components. Through modelling, they liken the system function to that of classic control theory, familiar to most engineers. There are factory control systems comprised of more components and interactions. Again we need to be careful to not conflate the colloquial with a philosophically or scientifically consistent description. Regardless, for one to claim that bacterial make choices, I think it would be inconsistent to suggest that heating and other mechanical feedback systems don’t. These systems can be similar in scale and complexity – They aren’t altogether different kinds.

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But that has to do with communication, not thought. Concepts can exist mentally before they have words attached to them, before they can be communicated to others.

Chomsky does not say that any actual language is hardwired into the brain, just principles and perameters of the LAD. And lots of linguists think a lot of generative grammar is deficient for failing to acknowledge the huge role pragmatics plays in human communication. See functional grammar.

This is all pure, untestable speculation though. Again, what it the point? What does it buy you?

I don’t think they really count. The mother is not responding to the baby.

Since a plant’s roots grow toward gravity (positive geotropism) and its shoots grow away from gravity (negative geotropism), I guess we can claim that plants make choices also.

Though TULIPS are predestined to follow their predetermined directions of growth, and have no free will in the matter.