Monday, August 28, 2006

From today's Times   posted by DavidB @ 8/28/2006 12:01:00 PM

Today's science column by Anjana Ahuja in the London Times, available online here, has a couple of stories.

First, she describes a new book by linguist Charles Yang about the acquisition of language. Yang apparently argues that babies are born with an extensive set of innate grammatical capacities - sufficient to cover all the world's languages - most of which are then discarded or suppressed as the baby learns the specific grammar of its own 'mother tongue'. It's difficult to tell just from this description how Yang's theory differs from those of Chomsky or Pinker, but it sounds like he hypothesises a much richer innate repertoire of grammar than they do. I have no idea how this stands up to the evidence, but I can't help thinking it sounds very inefficient in evolutionary terms. Wouldn't one expect a relatively simple and general language capacity to evolve first, and then specific languages to evolve (culturally) to be consistent with the general innate capacity? Whereas Yang seems to envisage an elaborate evolved capacity, much of which is never used in any single culture. But the book sounds like one to add to the reading list - eventually!

The second report is about the Hobbit controversy. The point to note is that there is a further paper forthcoming in the Journal of Human Evolution, which defends the Hobbit as a distinct species. No doubt Dienekes, John Hawks and others will comment in due course.

Nothing much to do with genes, but while looking up the online edition of the Times to find Ahuja's article I came across the following 'breaking news' item, here, the text of a remarkable letter by the Austrian girl who was kidnapped and held captive in a basement for 8 years. If it is really all her own work, it shows an astonishing intelligence and maturity in the circumstances.