Thursday, February 14, 2008

Language Evolution IV: HCF + PJ + FHC + JP =/= ♥

As could be expected, the framework established by HCF led to much criticism from proponents of what HCF called hypothesis 2. Thus, in 2005, Pinker and Jackendoff (PJ) responded to HCF by asking:
“The faculty of language: what’s special about it?”
The controversy led to further discussion in the same year when Fitch, Hauser and Chomsky (FHC) defended their viewpoint in
“The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications”
and Jackendoff and Pinker renewed their disagreement debating
“The nature of the language faculty and its implications for the evolution of language“.
PJ’s first critique mainly focuses on the “recursion-only claim” of HCF, because they feel that there is more that is special to language. Furthermore, they question that recursion evolved as an exaptation (Pinker/Jackendoff 2005: 205). They especially defend the “Speech is Special” (SiS) hypothesis posed by Alvin Liberman and others, which was rejected by HFC (Pinker/Jackendoff 2005: 206), because it seems that the speech perception system and vocal production in humans have been specially adapted for language (Pinker/Jackendoff 2005: 206-209), and not for vocal imitation or size exaggeration as HCF suggested (Pinker/Jackendoff 2005: 209f.). They also assess that

"words, as shared, organized linkages of phonological, conceptual, and grammatical structures, are a distinctive language-specific part of human knowledge” (Pinker/Jackendoff 2005: 215).
They also question the usefulness of the FLB/FLN distinction in general and criticize HCF/FHC’s blurring of the difference between homology and analogy. (Jackendoff/Pinker 2005: 214-216) Further, they cite genetic evidence as an argument against the recursion-only claim, namely that the FOXP2-gene, though present for example in mice, chimpanzees, and humans has been positively selected in the human lineage, and is critical for
"articulation, production, comprehension, and judgments in a variety of domains of grammar, together with difficulties in producing sequences of orofacial movements”
and not only for recursion (Pinker/Jackendoff 2005: 218).
Finally, they criticize Chomsky’s Minimalist Program (MP) as a rationale of HCF’s research program, which they find problematic because of the massive counterevidence against it. In their opinion, the adaptationist view of language seems much more plausible (Pinker/Jackendoff 2005: 231).

In their reply, FHC emphasize their independence of the MP (Fitch/Hauser/Chomsky 2005: 183), and stress that
"most of the data PJ discuss concern mechanisms that are part of FLB by definition, because related mechanisms exist in other species and/or other cognitive domains”
(Fitch/Hauser/Chomsky 2005: 204), which in their view clearly is an adaptation shaped by natural selection (Fitch/Hauser/Chomsky 2005: 189). They further argue that, though welcoming demonstrations
"that other mechanisms should be added to FLN” (Fitch/Hauser/Chomsky 2005: 204),
SiS would not present a testable, strong hypothesis and thus could be accepted as given (Fitch/Hauser/Chomsky 2005: 219).
Citing the phoneme discrimination abilities by macaques and other evidence as arguments against SiS (Fitch/Hauser/ Chomsky 2005: 195), they conclude that their
“hypothesis 3 is not only plausible, but that no data refuting it currently exist” (Fitch/Hauser/Chomsky 2005: 205).
FHC also introduce the current utility/functional origins dichotomy, on which I elaborated in chapter 3, and argue that
“from an empirical perspective, there are not and probably never will be data capable of discriminating among the many plausible speculations that have been offered about the original function(s) of language.”
Thus, Pinker and Jackendoff’s framing of questions about language evolution would be of little scientific value (Fitch/Hauser/Chomsky 2005: 185f.) JP contradict this statement. In their view, current adaptation, „what the trait was selected for in the species being considered”, poses one of the biologically most interesting questions about a trait and can be addressed empirically by reverse-engineering or functional analysis, which is able to “shed light on its likely evolutionary history.” (Jackendoff/Pinker 2005: 212-214).

The debate regarding recursion heated up once again when Gentner et al. (2006) claimed to have found recursion-abilities in starlings, and Perruchet & Rey criticized Fitch and Hauser’s original experiment that established the inability of monekys to master “phrase structure grammars” (Fitch & Hauser 2004). Regarding the ability of recursion in starlings, these two posts are especially interesting. First this one by Mark Liberman, and the other, where David Beaver regards the recursion-abilities of starlings which in the respect of center-embedded grammars actually seem to be better than ours, and comes to the ironical conclusion that
“we have firm and amazing evidence for a biologically unique language module. The trouble is, starlings have it, and we don't.”
Other excellent post from the Language Log about HCF's claims can be found here, here, here, here, and here.


Hauser, Marc D., Noam Chomsky and W. Tecumseh Fitch 2002. “The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?” In: Science 298, 1569-1579.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh and Marc. D Hauser. 2004. “Computational Constraints on Syntactic Processing in a Nonhuman Primate” In: Science 303: 377-380

Fitch, W. Tecumseh, Marc D. Hauser and Noam Chomsky 2005. “The Evolution of the Language Faculty: Clarifications and Implications.” In: Cognition 97, 179-210.

Jackendoff, Ray & Steven Pinker 2005. “The Nature of the Language Faculty and its Implications for Evolution of Language (Reply to Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky).” In: Cognition 97, 211-225.

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


Valerie said...


Just found your blog online, and it looks really interesting! It seems you're doing a lot of work reading all these papers (next to your own study). I am studying Linguistics in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and well, my main interest is language evolution ;) (So, a combination of linguistics with neuroscience, cognition, biology in general..).

I am leaving this post here since I could find a message-device, and am currently busy writing a paper on the evolution of recursion/Merge. I am first looking at Merge/recursion in linguistic theory, then in neurocognition, and then try to combine it for a theory on (a part of) language evolution.

I'm not sure why I am telling you all this, but I thought it was really nice to see other people being so enthusiastic about it, too! I still have to read the Nietzsche-post, but that also looks really interesting. I guess I just wanted to say you can expect me to pop up here more regularly, to try to give ..intelligent comments on your posts :P

Keep up the good work!


Michael Pleyer said...

Hey Valerie,

Thanks for taking such an interest in my blog. The Intersection of Linguistics, Neurosciences, Cognition and Biology is definitely one of the most fascinating topics out there at the moment, especially when it is applied, together with ,say, comparative psychology, to the evolution of human minds. The evolution of Merge seems to be a quite ambitious topic. I didn't know that there is sufficient evidence on the neural bases of Merge (especially if we take the fact that I really wouldn't know how to distinguish say linguistic recursion/Merge from the Cognitive Linguistics/Jackendoffian Concept of Unification or the cognitive principle of unbounded merge. But I have way too little knowledge about absolutely all fields including a Neuro-Prefix.
To be honest, I do not read all the papers I am citing here, but try to extract the most important information by reading abstract and part of the introduction, and then scan the article. I do not know if there is a "right" way to gather information from papers, but it's still very time consuming, which is why I have a hard time posting anything at the moment.
I am really looking forward for someone actually showing signs of reading (even commenting!) my blog. wohooo!^^

My main interest at the moment lies in the evolution of cognitive perspective and its relation to language evolution, but my speculations are at the moment rather arcane I'm afraid.

I'd be very interested in your paper once you get to finish it. I'd be very grateful if you could mail it to me.
you can reach me under
mpleyer at ix dot urz dot uni-heidelberg dot de
Thanks again for the interest (and have mercy on my posts ;) )


Valerie said...

I'll be merciful :P
I don't know the whole lot either, of course, so.. ;)

As for the paper, yes, it is quite ambituous, and yes you're right, people have been unable to find the neural correlate for (unbounded) Merge. However, we can find _some_ things, so we can freely speculate ^__^ I have good hopes. (Today I finished the syntactic part on Merge, so now the real fun can begin).

What is your background in Linguistics, anyway? Familiar with the Minimalist Program, for instance?


P.S. Will send paper ;)

Michael Pleyer said...

Well, my background in linguistics, can probably be described best by just summing up by the courses I attended ;)
Introduction to English Linguistics
Introduction to German Linguistics
A course on the beginning of Generative Grammar based on Chomsky's 1957 syntactic structure
A course on the current state of GG. based on Radford et al's 1999 Linguistics, An Introduction.
A course on Language Acquisition based on Charles Yang's rather weak book "The infinitive gift"
But given that my memory is practically non-existent when it comes to learning terminology and stuff, I basically forgot everything and have a hard time to draw an tree more complex than "John Hit the Ball"^^
Right now im attending a course on minimalist syntax based on "Core Syntax" (2003) by David Adger, so I'm kind of familiar with the MP, but I really have problems in grasping the intricacies when it comes to a litlle more complex structures. Anyways, I'm much more interested in the philosophical questions regarding innattenes, domain-specifity and evolution and are more concerned with the cognitive foundations/ psychological level than with the formal level, probably simply because I'm too dumb to understand the formal level.
I think, Heidelberg isn't such a good climate for linguistics in a formal or generative vein, given that at the English Department, there is only on Generativist Teacher, and in the German Department no one is interested in GG at all. Most linguistics teachers in Heidelberg are, I think, more interested in Sociolinguistics, Discourse Analysis, Corpus Linguistics, Pragmatics, lexicology, and functional approaches.

What is your background, then?

Valerie said...

Ahh.. I see.
Well, don't despair, it is rather hard to keep up with all that syntax stuff (to say put it rather bluntly). I've followed syntax courses for about three years now, and I keep on forgetting stuff as well. I've done several courses on the P&P- and Gov.&Bind.-model, and several on the Minimalist Program (using Hornstein et al's book 'Understanding Minimalism'). I would like to read Adger's book! In fact, I tried to get it from the library last week, but someone borrowed it before me. Is it any good then?

Yeah, basically I've done 3 years bachelor, combining linguistics (mostly syntax, but also other fields), Russian and Italian (both plus culture/history lectures), philosophy and some literature courses. Now I am doing the two-year research master Linguistics, with two majors, namely in syntax and neurocognition (great fcking combination if you ask me :P Though I would've liked to add some semantics..but no time. :)). Utrecht really is a great environment for linguistics, and even more so for (generative) grammar. In fact, they almost push you into that direction here :P Fine by me ;)

But yeah, now I really want to move a bit more to neurocognition, especially because I like the research on neuroscience, cognition, biology, psychology, philosophy etc. comes together. Hence, language evolution :D I think you understand me completely ;)

Oh, if you ever have any questions or anything, just let me know, kay? :D Don't know if I can be of any help, but you never know.. :)

Next year I will have to write my thesis, and I am wondering if I could do something with all these fields/language evolution.. I'll have to see. Oh, and also I will have to do an internship somewhere, and I would like to go to a place with a language evolution research group. Do you have any suggestions? I can only come up with Edinburgh.. (Hurford(?), Parker, ..).

See ya,