One of the world’s leading defenders and exponents of what Adam Smith referred to as “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind” has an interesting little review of the latest scientific work of one of that maxim’s leading critics, Noam Chomsky.
I speak of course of The Economist and its review of Chomsky and Berwick’s “Why Only Us,” which focuses on the minimalist programme in linguistics and what that might tell us about the evolution of language.
Chomsky has always held that questions regarding the evolution of language should be put off until we get a better handle on what language is; we can’t account for the evolution of something whose essence we are ignorant of, an important point to remember when one comes across this or that evolutionary theory of morality.
Chomsky argues that the minimalist programme now is starting to reveal the essential core feature of language, enabling us to start in earnest upon an evolutionary theory.
The review, I feel, misses the mark.
It states of Chomsky and Berwick’s position on evolution
The emergence of a single mutation that gives such a big advantage is derided by biologists as a “hopeful monster” theory; most evolution is gradual, operating on many genes, not one
But that is the very challenge of accounting for the evolution of language for it is precisely a singularity, to borrow an expression from the biologist de Duve, in the history of life. No prior analogue appears at all in the history of life. Any evolutionary account of language must start from the singular fact that its evolution was not gradual.
Anyways, many biologists do not subscribe to the view that most evolution is gradual. Quite a few evolutionary biologists subscribe to the punctuated equilibria of Jay Gould and Elderidge.
Whatever one may feel of Chomsky and Berwick’s account surely their desire to provide an evolutionary account that is singular, implicit in the title of the book, rather than gradualist is correct. The emphasis upon parsimony that undergirds the Chomsky and Berwick account is also, I think, correct.
The last line in the review is interesting, as it exposes the current of interpretation underpinning the text.
Linguistics is now divided into a Chomskyan camp, a large number of critics and many more still for whom the founder of the modern discipline is simply irrelevant. He is unlikely to end up like Freud, a marginal figure in modern psychology whose lasting influence has been on the humanities. Mr Chomsky’s career is more likely to end up like Einstein’s—at least in the sense that his best and most influential work came early on
Chomsky, like Einstein before him, is a misguided, perhaps tragic, old figure whiling away largely ignored on the search for a parsimonious “unified field theory” that promises to furnish us with a “theory of everything.” All the while the young’uns are pushing the frontier of knowledge with exciting, more empirically grounded work.
One can’t help but feel that there is a certain “linguistics wars” interpretation at play here. Of this Chomsky said it well better than I
Attempts to provide psychosocial Foucaultian accounts of what happens in science may or may not have some interest (in my opinion, they are of little interest), but they have to be done seriously and accurately. Otherwise we have something on the level of gossip columns
To provide some of my own errant speculation. Consider the passage on merge (for more detailed popular accounts see Chomsky’s “What Kind of Creatures Are We?” and Baker’s “Atoms of Language”)
Merge simply says that two mental objects can be merged into a bigger one, and mental operations can be performed on that as if it were a single one. The can be merged with cat to give a noun phrase, which other grammar rules can operate on as if it were a bare noun like water. So can the and hat. Once there, you can further merge, making the cat in the hat. The cat in the hat can be merged with a verb phrase to create a new object, a sentence: The cat in the hat came back. And that sentence can be merged into bigger sentences: You think the cat in the hat came back. And so on
Merge presupposes, as a computational procedure, it seems to me, the prior existence of concepts. Merge then, one might speculate, gave us the ability to form holistic conceptual schemes about the world even though our data of the world, or our stimulus, is so improvised or that our theories be so under determined by them.
There lies the, cognitive, key to science?