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February 26, 2005

Carl on language

Carl Zimmer discusses the evolution (or lack of) language. Carl focuses on two papers acting as counterpoints, one by Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky and Tecumseh Fitch, which argues for a "recursion only" model of human language, while a rejoinder from Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff put flesh upon a thorough adaptationist narrative centered on a specific "language organ." You can read the full text of the Chomsky et al. paper here, just page down.

I have little to add at this point (Carl promises a sequel, so I will add an update on this post), aside from the fact that I find Chomsky and company's hypothesis miraculous. With Jerry Fodor they seem to have faith in serendipity. This does not imply that one needs to accept Pinker's thesis about a highly specific language organ or the paradigm of massive modularity-we need to lay down the foundations a bit more via neurobiology before we are sure that the houses that congitive science constructs are not blown away. As I have pointed out before, there are plenty of ideas about language out there, in fact, if you go into any old coffee shop I would be willing to bet you money that you could come out with a few "theories" after an hour or two.

Related: The children of Universal Grammar. Additionally, some scientists like Terrence Deacon reject Pinker's focus on a specific language organ and modularity. Deacon sees language as an emergent cultural property of human symbolic capacity, but he would agree with Pinker about the importance of evolution and adaptation and likely reject excessive minimalism in the Chomsky mode (a fair portion of Deacon's book is spent rebutting Chomsky's arguments about universal grammar).

Posted by razib at 12:19 AM