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Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Yesterday afternoon, I wrote a brief message linking to a video of a lengthy lecture given by Noam Chomsky in Paris four years ago.  In this extended post, I am going to lay out what I understood to be the core of Noam’s remarks.  Why on earth am I doing this?  The answer is this:  What I care most about in the world is deep, clear ideas, elegantly expounded so that one can see and appreciate their power, simplicity, and beauty.  Chomsky’s life work in the field of Linguistics has all of these qualities.  As I listened to him, I could see, through his words, the power, the elegant simplicity, of his theories, and so I want to try to share with you what I heard.

Now, let us be clear.  I know next to nothing about Linguistics.  I am a complete novice on the subject.  I may very well get something wrong, and I will surely fail to capture the complexity of Noam’s thought.  But it is beautiful, in much the same way that the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason is beautiful, in the way that great mathematics is beautiful. 

Chris writes, “In 2003 Charlie Rose asked Chomsky "if this was your last day on earth, would you like what is mentioned about you to focus on your political works or linguistic contributions".  Chomsky, shrugging and laughing said "to tell you the truth I honestly don't care".  I can easily believe that Noam said that, and indeed meant it.  This post is in no way an attempt to prioritize his Linguistic theories over his political commentary.  It is simply an appreciation, an homage, to the beauty of his ideas.

Chomsky’s theories overturned several widely held assumptions about the origins of language, about language acquisition, and about the purpose of language.  As I see it, his analyses rest on three very simple but powerful observations.  First, grammatical sentences are potentially infinite, or at least unbounded, in length.  There is no limit to how long a sentence can be.  [At a minimum, one can, by simple concatenation, extend a sentence indefinitely by adding “and” followed by another phrase.]   It follows from this that the ability to form infinitely long grammatical sentences could not have developed little by little, through extension of already existing well-formed sentences.  Thus, it could not be that first human beings acquired the ability to form simple sentences.  Then, through experience or genetic mutation, they acquired the ability to form somewhat longer sentences.  And so forth until finally they had mastered the ability to form sentences of unlimited length.  It follows from this, in contradiction to very widely held views, that human language ability is not a progressive enlargement of animal communication capacities.

Think about that for a moment.  We are all familiar with the ability of animals to communicate:  bees doing their tail-wagging “dance” to report on the location of pollen, whales and elephants “talking” over long distances at low frequencies, hunting packs of dogs or prides of lions communicating as they quite intelligently pursue prey [as I have seen them do on safari].  The paleontological record shows that early hominids had the ability to make simple stone tools as long as a million years ago, an ability obviously transmitted from generation to generation by some sort of communication.  What more natural than to see human language as a slow evolution from these behavioral skills?  But Chomsky’s point, made several times in the lecture, is that this must be wrong, because no extension or evolution of these animal behaviors could lead to the capacity for infinitely long strings of symbols.  All the available archaeological evidence suggests that language was actually created, invented, or developed no more than 100,000 years ago, probably in pretty much its present form.

Chomsky’s second observation, famously deployed in his classic critique of the behavioral theory of language acquisition advanced by B. F. Skinner, is that it is impossible to explain a child’s language acquisition purely as a response to external stimuli.  This is true for three reasons.  First, if we take seriously Skinner’s notion of stimulus and response, there are simply not enough stimuli [in the form of uttered speech] in the life experience of a little baby to account for the acquisition of language at the age of one or two.  Second, no amount of stimulus in the form of speech in the vicinity of the baby can explain the child’s eventual development of the ability to form new sentences that he or she has not heard before, and perhaps could not have heard before.  Third, the actual sensory environment of the child is what Chomsky, quoting William James, calls in the lecture a “buzzing, blooming confusion,” and it is simply impossible on Skinnerian terms to explain how babies unerringly pick out of that auditory chaos the instances of language whose presence Skinner supposed serve as the stimuli in a stimulus/response behavioral event.

Chomsky’s third observation – with which I was not already familiar and which struck me as extraordinarily powerful – is that if we take from the theory of evolution the basic insight that the human capacity for language must be grounded in some genetic mutation, then it is obvious that this mutation occurred in the genome of a single individual, who was thereby equipped with the capacity for language acquisition and use.  But in order for this mutation to survive, it must have conferred some competitive advantage to the individual.  And since he or she would be the only human being in the world with the capacity for language, the fundamental adaptive advantage of the mutation must have derived from the new ability to think, NOT from an improved ability to communicate!!  BECAUSE WITH WHOM WOULD HE OR SHE COMMUNICATE?

Chomsky now assumes [taking his guidance from Galileo, rather elegantly] that the mutation giving rise to the capacity for language must have been very simple.  He suggests in the lecture that the most elementary, primitive innovation conferred by the mutation was the ability to take two elements and form from them a simple unordered set.  He names this operation “merge,” and with considerable formal flair, he proceeds to show how the operation of merge can, recursively, give rise to sentences of any desired length and syntactic complexity.

Well, there is vastly more in the lecture, which in turn was only a cursory overview of a lifework.  But perhaps this is enough to indicate something of its elegance and beauty.

Noam is a classy dude.


s. wallerstein said...

I know nothing about linguistics, but when I listen to his talks on politics, Chomsky impresses me as the most brilliant mind I've ever come into contact with.

He's slowed down a bit with age (although his mind is still impressively sharp and his memory beats my computer). However, if you go back and watch his interview in Youtube with William Buckley (from 1969), Chomsky's mind can best be described as a deadly weapon.

To be clear, I've read books by minds as sharp as Chomsky's, but I've never had the privilege of listening to them and watching them as I can Chomsky's on YouTube.

I'm glad he's on our side, although maybe a mind as brilliant as Chomsky's could only be on our side.

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
I take it Point Three has to follow from Point One, and cannot stand alone? The idea of "a mutation" giving rise to something as complex as thought, or even communication, seems somewhat absurd...? A mutation might change the color of my eyes, but to give me an entirely new mode of being, something more than "a" mutation must take place, no?

But if that is absurd, then couldn't all the properties for language have been evolving (as spandrils/non-advantageous surviving properties), but only began operating all at once?

Again, at the moment the theory sounds almost too contra evolution to be believed. If I said "a mutation" gave rise to a heart, no one would believe me. How could "a mutation" then give rise to a linguistic structure granting humans complex thought?

Daniel said...

Undisputed brilliance aside, it seems to me Chomsky is likely wrong, at least in some fashion, on this point. Jesse Prinz has a nice chapter on the problems with (and alternative to) Chomskian nativism in his book "Beyond Human Nature".

But without getting bogged down in the details, and to reprise Chris' point, the idea of a capacity for language emerging spontaneously and adaptively out of a single mutation in a single individual strikes me as preposterous, for several reasons. One (again, as Chris pointed out), no one in evolutionary biology or psychology talks about single mutations driving large scale behaviors. Certain nefarious single mutations might be able to severely impair proper functioning of some cognitive or physical trait, but that's about as direct a line as you get from genes to function, I think. All the other paths are far more circuitous, to my understanding.

Two, mainstream accounts of the evolution of language from anthropology and primatology emphasize the primacy of the social functions of language. I'm thinking in particular of Robin Dunbar's work in "Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language". Dunbar contends that language likely functioned among our early ancestors as a kind of extended grooming. Grooming in primates having the function of removing parasites, of course, but also and especially of nurturing social ties. Based on public conversations analyzed (at cafes and the like), Dunbar contends that the bulk of ordinary human conversation in everyday life revolves around gossip (who's doing what) and reputation management (do you know how awesome and funny i am?). So that at least seems to be in keeping with what our primate cousins are up to, and not a completely novel capacity in its inception (though we've admittedly taken language in novel directions).

That's probably enough for now.

s. wallerstein said...

I guess for language to be the creation of a single individual you'd have to imagine a super creative genius, a combination of Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven, Plato, Marx, Einstein and Wittgenstein, with an IQ of, say, 250. You could imagine that in prehistoric, prelinguistic societies, creative genius develops more freely than it does today because there are fewer repressing factors: no school, no media, no Facebook, fewer or simpler social codes, etc.

mesnenor said...

Chomsky is not claiming that language was the creation of a single individual, but that the capacity for language first arose in a single individual. Language arose in the communities of those descendants of that first Good Mutant who shared in their illustrious ancestor's language-capacity and developed the communications patterns that it made possible.

Daniel said...

"You could imagine that in prehistoric, prelinguistic societies, creative genius develops more freely than it does today because there are fewer repressing factors: no school, no media, no Facebook, fewer or simpler social codes, etc." -- so our ancestors were noble savages?

"... the capacity for language first arose in a single individual." -- Right, which presumes that 'the capacity for language' is a single thing, acquired in a quantum leap tied to some genetic mutation or other. I find this evolutionarily implausible (not impossible) and prefer simpler explanatory alternatives left unexplored by Chomsky (all ably outlined by Prinz in the book cited above).

Chris said...

W and M, I understand your points but I think they are incorrect, and mistake readings of my point.
I was not suggesting language was the creation of an individual, since in order to create something, someone needs a creative faculty. We do not create hearts, we evolve them. We do not FIRST build ships, we evolve the capacity for creative work, and then exercise it in ship building. So no, I was not arguing someone could create language, and to think someone could a priori or ad hoc 'create language' only begs the question, how does this person here have that capacity that those animals there lack? Presumable evolution played a role. Okay, so we are back to the evolution question. Can a language faculty evolve from 'a mutation'? That's HYPER dubious as Daniel points out. If you think a heart, a lung, an eye, an entire frontal lobe, or a sex organ, cannot evolve from 'a mutation', then I think we need to agree that 'a language faculty' could not either.

So Wallerstein, of course every once in a while a genius like Shakespeare (or Delillo anyone?) comes along and creatively twists language in a fantastic manner of unprecedented greatness, but in order for that person to do so, they must first have a language faculty. Just as in order to have an excellent cardio vascular system from fastidious exercise, I first need a cardio vascular system...

Chris said...

On a related but slightly separate note, Daniel, I find basically any and all attempts to tell an evolutionary story as to how/why language evolved as essentially mythical at best, and dangerously conservative at worst. I'm a total layman in the field, but given my other considered philosophical positions, at the moment I would think 1) Chomsky would be wrong to say language came from "a mutation", and 2) anyone giving a just so story as to how/why it came along is offering unsubstantial conjecture.

Daniel said...

Chris - I'd be interested to hear more about why you think this about language (as opposed to any other aspect or trait of the human animal).

I mean, I'm not a biologist or a psychologist. My dissertation was in moral psychology, so I read a lot of evo psych, but that's about it.

But Richard Alexander's book "The Biology of Moral Systems" (which lays out the theory of indirect reciprocity very clearly--basically the game theoretical account for how selflessness or 'altruism' could evolve in species that are capable of mentally tracking reputations) in conjunction with Robin Dunbar's work on gossip and reputation management (mentioned above) lays out pretty compellingly what the *outlines* of an evolutionary account of language must be.

I agree that the details (as with most such stories) are (and probably must be) extrapolated--so it's a 'just so' story of sorts. As Phillip Kitcher argues in "The Ethical Project" however, outlining a *possible* evolutionary path from point A to point B is already a substantial accomplishment, even if it involves some conjecture.

Chris said...

It's not JUST linguistic, I take it to be the case that most evolutionary psychology is at most mythological and at worst extremely conservative.

They are all just-so stories, incapable of actual reproduced testing, are mostly all non-falsifiable, and often extract back into our human history traits and tendencies which are historically contingent (what Marx rightly called ideology). E.g., do humans have an innate tendency to truck and barter? Do humans have an innate tendency towards racism? Do humans have an innate tendency towards patriarchy? Who the hell knows or can know, the subjects you would need to test (humans) are always already cultered, and the conditions for reproducing such evolutionary events are quite literally impossible to reproduce.

Chris said...

p.s. I used to reach Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, and Ridley voraciously as a younger man. Glad those days are behind me...

Daniel said...

It seems this thread is long dead and buried. At the risk of zombifying it...

"Most evolutionary psychology"--I don't know that I have an adequate read on 'the field' as a whole. I mean, one could say "most of psychology" suffers from a replication crisis. There are important methodological issues to work through, to be sure. And some of the myth-making is transparently ideological.

But if you're committed to an evolutionary picture of the human person, the fundamentals are sound. What are the fundamentals of evolutionary psychology? Well, according to me, the theories of kin selection (WD Hamilton), reciprocal altruism (Trivers, Axelrod), indirect reciprocity (Alexander), and some of the resulting discussions (including, yes, by Dawkins, Pinker, Hrdy and others). Even evopsych 'critic' Philip Kitcher relies heavily on their work in his empirically grounded account in 'The Ethical Project'.

As I'm working through Jesse Prinz's "Beyond Human Nature" (which can be read as a critique of certain versions of evopsych), I'm gaining a new appreciation for some of the overstatements of 'innate'-talk in evopsych.

But I'm concerned about the cavalier dismissal of evolutionary psychology as some sort of fad or something. If psychology is important and Darwin was right (I take both to be uncontroversial), then the broad project of evolutionary psychology (viz. understanding how our fundamental desires and drives, as well as our cultural malleability, have been molded or left alone by evolutionary pressures) is well worth pursuing, it seems to me.

You know, in addition to the rest of science, social theory, economics, anthropology, etc. etc. etc.

So much to learn, so little time.