Monday, February 4, 2008

Language Evolution I: Noam Chomsky's Earlier Theories

Noam Chomsky is known as one of the strongest and most prominent opponents of the idea that Darwinian natural selection alone can account for the evolution of language. As it is with Chomsky, many controversies rank not only about what he actually said, but also about what people thought he said or meant with what he said. But since Chomsky often expressed his skepticism about evolutionary explanations of language, this was taken as unquestionable fact by many linguists. Even if Chomsky didn’t say that much about language evolution, the few things he did say had quite an impact. Here are some quotes illustrating his viewpoint (taken from Language Log:)

"It is perfectly safe to attribute this development [of innate language structures] to "natural selection", so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena." [Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind, 1972, p. 97]
"In studying the evolution of mind, we cannot guess to what extent there are physically possible alternatives to, say, transformational generative grammar, for an organism meeting certain other physical conditions characteristic of humans. Conceivably, there are none -- or very few -- in which case talk about the evolution of the language capacity is beside the point." [Chomsky 1972 p. 98]
"It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected. In the case of such systems as language or wings it is not even easy to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them. A rudimentary wing, for example, is not "useful" for motion but is more of an impediment." [Noam Chomsky Language and Problems of Knowledge: the Managua Lectures 1988 p 167]

Chomsky thinks language should be seen as a “spandrel” of some other structural change. The “answers may well lie not so much in the theory of natural selection as in molecular biology, in the study of what kinds of physical systems can develop under the conditions of life on earth and why, ultimately because of physical principles” (Chomsky 1988: 167). Though he does not deny that evolution played a role in the development of language, he stresses that it possibly emerged only via a small mutation and that ultimately only unknown operations of “physical laws applying to a brain of a certain degree of complexity” could explain the origin of the language faculty and its properties (Chomsky 1988: 170).
The only speculation he expressed before his Science paper with Fitch and Hauser was that

"It may be that at some remote period a mutation took place that gave rise to the property of discrete infinity, perhaps for reasons that have to do with the biology of cells, to be explained in terms of properties of physical mechanisms ,now unknown. [...] At that point evolutionary pressures might have shaped the further development of the capacity, at least in part. Quite possibly other aspects of its evolutionary development again reflect the operation of physical laws applying to a brain of a certain degree of complexity. We simply do not know. (Chomsky 1988: 170)
Perhaps at some time hundreds of thousands of years ago, some small change took place, some mutation took place in the cells of prehuman organisms. And for reasons of physics which are not yet understood, that led to the representation in the mind/brain of the mechanisms of discrete infinity, the basic concept of language and also of the number system. [...] Perhaps that was the origin of human language. "(Chomsky 1988: 183)

With the rise of Chomsky’s Minimalist Program this view became more concrete: if only few principles ultimately comprise Universal Grammar (Pinker/Jackendoff 2005: 219),
“one does not need to advance incremental, adaptationist arguments with intermediate steps to explain much of natural language's specific syntactic design” (Berwick 1998: 322).
Still, without Pinker and Bloom’s seminal article in 1990, on which I will post next, and the work they inspired, linguistics in a Chomskyan vein probably still wouldn’t amount to much more than to some speculations when regarding the question of the evolution of language. As Christine Kenneally (2007) puts it:
“His most damning evaluation of the idea that language was an adaptation was that it was ‘hard to imagine a course of selection that could have resulted in language.
Such was his eminence that when Chomsky said things like it’s ‘hard to imagine,’ it was taken to be a truth about the intractable nature of the problem rather than the limits of imagination. “ (p.39)
However, in 2002 Chomsky, who by now shruggingly admits that he ‘never would have imagined it would go this far“ (Kenneally 2007), presented an updated, drawn up and more elaborate version of this proposal together with Marc Hauser and W. Tecumseh Fitch.

It is interesting in this regard to look at Marc Hauser's reply to the Edge Annual Question - 2008
"What have you changed your mind about?" In it he writes:

"I must admit, however, that in recent years, I have made less use of Darwin’s adaptive logic. It is not because I think that the adaptive program has failed, or that it can’t continue to account for a wide variety of human and animal behavior. But with respect to questions of human and animal mind, and especially some of the unique products of the human mind — language, morality, music, mathematics — I have, well, changed my mind about the power of Darwinian reasoning."
These notions can probably be partly attributed to Hauser's contact with Chomsky's ideas.


Berwick, Robert C. 1998. “Language Evolution and the Minimalist Program: The Origins of Syntax.” In: James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy and Chris Knight (eds.). Approaches to the Evolution of Language. Social and Cognitive Bases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 320-340.

Chomsky, Noam. 1972. Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt.

Chomsky, Noam 1988. Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures. Cambridge, Mass. / London, England: MIT Press (Current Studies in Linguistics Series 16).

Kenneally, Christine. 2007. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. New York: Viking.

Pinker, Steven & Ray Jackendoff 2005. “The Faculty of Language: What’s Special about it?” In: Cognition 95, 201-236

Two other interesting resources about Chomsky’s view on the Relation of language and evolution can are John Maynard Smith’s review of Dan Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” and Chomsky’s reply to it.

1 comment:

Minna said...

Thanks for writing this.