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Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain

by William H. Calvin

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Over the last four decades, most of the significant contributions to the study of language origins and evolution have come from outside the field of linguistics, which has been dominated by theories of transformational-generative grammar. As articulated by Noam Chomsky, these theories generally agree that the ability to learn and use language is innate and specific to humans; they mostly sidestep the issue of how this ability came to be, preferring to treat it as a given of the human mind.

But, neurophysiologist William Calvin and linguist Derek Bickerton observe in this lively book, language is probably not a deus ex machina invention "tacked onto an ape brain." Instead, it evolved, along with the brain, to accommodate an ever more complex social calculus. The authors suggest that this evolution had two major phases. The first ushered in "protolanguage," individual words with only a rudimentary syntax, while the second brought forth a more complicated syntax that allowed the conception and utterance of antitruths, conditionals, and outright falsehoods. Bickerton writes that "it's words, not sentences, that dramatically distinguish our species from others," while Calvin takes a more pointed interest in neural adaptations that allowed for "structured language"--that is, long statements with embedded clauses and phrases. Their account of human language's origins and development does not reject Chomskyan views of language out of hand, as so many scholars have tried to do. Instead, it attempts to forge a reconciliation of notions of innate structure with those of natural selection.

That's a tall order, and, although their book advances some controversial ideas about the relative importance of social intelligence in language formation, Calvin and Bickerton make a fine and comprehensible effort in its pages. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly
Eminent linguist Noam Chomsky says (and most linguists accept) that humans are hardwired for speech: as Calvin and Bickerton have it, "Language is a biologically-determined, species-specific, genetically-transmitted capacity," a capacity people have and chipmunks don't. "The next step is for someone to try and find out exactly how it evolved." The authors propose to do just that in this speculative and quite stimulating, if occasionally rambling, volume. Aiming both to explain and to link brain science, linguistics and evolutionary theory, Calvin (The Cerebral Code), who teaches psychiatry at the University of Washington, and Bickerton (Language and Species), a professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii, have written not a straightforward exposition but a simulated exchange of letters, "set" in an Italian villa. "Bill" writes to "Derek" with a theory or a question, and "Derek" writes back with an example or an answer (and a remark on the scenery). The informal tone helps the authors present material that can get quite convoluted. They write of neurons and the "circuits" or "neural committees" they form; of parts of the brain, such as the arcuate fasciculus; of debates among Darwinians over adaptation, "exaptation," altruism and "group selection." They discuss apes' social groups and emotions (which "do not differ substantially from ours"); protolanguage (what current apes and ancient hominids speak), which has signs and meanings but no real syntax; and finally reach their own theory, in which changes in hominids' neural storage capacity interact with Darwinian social demands to push protolanguage over the top, giving the first human beings the special, evolved ability to formulate, exchange and understand sentences as complex as the one you've just read. 50 illustrations. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist
Noam Chomsky's theory of syntax as an innate mental capacity has long presented a challenge to Darwin's heirs: How could natural selection have endowed the human brain with the power to construct complex grammatical structures? Advancing their arguments in a collaborative dialogue, Calvin and Bickerton explain how language could have emerged as a secondary benefit of adaptations that originally helped early hominids to do other things, such as throw objects accurately and share food socially. This theory will require neo-Darwinians to discard old views about animal cries as the precursors to words, but it combines the strengths of two very different approaches to language in ways that enable us to interpret data in new ways. We can, for instance, now see how a child's leap from nongrammatical strings of words to sophisticated clauses may reflect the evolutionary path of the entire species. Inevitably, parts of the new synthesis rest upon speculations. But these speculations reflect a theoretical daring that defies ideological rigidity and invites cross-disciplinary debate. Bryce Christensen

"This book is witty, opinionated and deeply clever, a wonderful introduction to one of the most controversial issues in the study of mind."
-- The New York Times Book Review

"Lingua ex Machina is the result of a fascinating and unlikely collaboration between two highly original thinkers--a linguist and a theoretical neurophysiologist--who have spent their careers considering the evolution of the human mind from these very different perspectives. The result is something halfway between a synthesis and a dialogue, that leads the reader on a challenging ride through some of the most interesting and controversial topics in the science of mind.
-- Terrence W. Deacon, Boston University

back cover endorsement
How does language arise, in the species and in the individual, from other capacities? How did the right neurobiology evolve? How, in children, do linguistic systems form? Why do they take so long? In Lingua ex machina, Calvin and Bickerton, in a refreshing spirit of courage and wonder, advance directly and insightfully into the amazing details of the hardest questions. Mark Turner, University of Maryland, and author of "The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language."

Book Description
A machine for language? Certainly, say the neurophysiologists, busy studying the language specializations of the human brain and trying to identify their evolutionary antecedents. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky talk about machinelike "modules" in the brain for syntax, arguing that language is more an instinct (a complex behavior triggered by simple environmental stimuli) than an acquired skill like riding a bicycle.

But structured language presents the same evolutionary problems as feathered forelimbs for flight: you need a lot of specializations to fly even a little bit. How do you get them, if evolution has no foresight and the intermediate stages do not have intermediate payoffs? Some say that the Darwinian scheme for gradual species self-improvement cannot explain our most valued human capability, the one that sets us so far above the apes, language itself.

William Calvin and Derek Bickerton suggest that other evolutionary developments, not directly related to language, allowed language to evolve in a way that eventually promoted a Chomskian syntax. They compare these intermediate behaviors to the curb-cuts originally intended for wheelchair users. Their usefulness was soon discovered by users of strollers, shopping carts, rollerblades, and so on. The authors argue that reciprocal altruism and ballistic movement planning were "curb-cuts" that indirectly promoted the formation of structured language. Written in the form of a dialogue set in Bellagio, Italy, Lingua ex Machina presents an engaging challenge to those who view the human capacity for language as a winner-take-all war between Chomsky and Darwin.

Book Info
Univ. of Washington. Offers three ways of getting from ape behaviors to syntax. Focuses on the transition from simple word association in short sentences to longer recursively structured sentences. For neurophysiologists. Hardcover edition listed in approval week 2000-16.

From the Inside Flap
Chomskys Universal Grammar, the intellectual spectator sport of the last four decades, implies an innate brain circuitry for syntax. That opens up an evolutionary can of worms, suggesting a large step up to human-level language abilities one without the useful-in-themselves intermediate steps usually associated with Darwinian gradualism. That macromutations were suggested is only one example of the deus ex machina quality of most attempts to explain the origins of language.

A proper lingua ex machina would be a language machine capable of nesting phrases and clauses inside one another, complete with evolutionary pedigree. Such circuitry for structured thought might also facilitate creative shaping up of quality (figuring out what to do with the leftovers in the refrigerator), contingency planning, procedural games, logic, and even music. And enhancing structured thought might give intelligence a big boost. Solve the cerebral circuitry for syntax, and you might solve them all.

The authors offer three ways for getting from ape behaviors to syntax. They focus on the transition from simple word association in short sentences (protolanguage) to longer recursively structured sentences (requiring syntax). They are after invention via sidesteps (Darwinian conversions of function), not straight-line gradual improvements. "We hope to see the brain finally getting its act together because of one important improvement that, together with whats already in place, confers an emergent property, syntax. The committee can finally do something that all the separate parts couldnt. It might be like adding a capstone to an arch, which permits the other stones to support themselves without scaffolding as a committee, they can defy gravity. Our task as scientists is, in part, to imagine the scaffolding that could have initially put such a stable structure in place."

Two of their pre-syntax candidates, carryover from reciprocal altruisms cognitive categories and ballistic movements planning circuits, are compatible with slow language improvement over a few million years. Their third, corticocortical coherence, should have a threshold. Once crossed, structured thought and talk would have become far more fluent and thus a capstone candidate for what triggered the flowering of art and technology seen late in hominid evolution, after brain size itself had stopped growing.

About the Author
William H. Calvin is Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. His books include The Cerebral Code (MIT Press, 1996). Derek Bickerton is Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus, at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. He is the author of Roots of Language, Language and Species, and Language and Human Behavior.

Excerpted from Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky With the Human Brain by William H. Calvin, Derek Bickerton. Copyright © 2000. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved
Chapter 1

The Villa Serbelloni

Bellagio, Italy


People at dinner last night kept asking me what Chomsky's innate grammar is all about. Where is this language macromutation in the brain, and all that?

Wrong question, of course, but it's a sure sign they've gotten used to the amazing view of Lake Como from the terrace where we eat at the Villa Serbelloni, on a long table with several dozen interesting people. You'll see when you arrive. If there's a clear evening before I get back from Milan, remember to watch for the last of the sunset over the Dolomites.

Provided, of course, the other "residents" give you a chance. Several confessed to reading up on our subject, in anticipation of our arrival for a month of writing about the brain and language. It forcefully reminded me that Chomsky's innateness has been the intellectual spectator sport of the last four decades. I tried to explain to them that some gene-specified aspect was unsurprising to a biologist -- that you and I hoped to flesh it out with appropriate anthropology and neuroscience in a way that Chomsky wasn't particularly interested in doing, and to provide some evolutionary proposals that wouldn't rely on macromutations and the like.

I also tried to explain your notion of protolanguage put forth in "Language and Species," with a good supply of words but with sentence length limited to only a few words by the lack of structural elements such as phrases and clauses. Protolanguage has no way of saying who did what to whom, not without an enormous effort. I emphasized that there was a large gulf between protolanguage and our full-fledged syntax without any obvious intermediate states, quite a jump from my pidgin Italian to being able to nest four verbs in saying, "I think I saw him leave to go home."

It's going to be challenging for us to try and describe how the gulf was first bridged by evolutionary processes. I hope we can avoid the deus ex machina quality of some of the previous attempts to explain the origins of language ability, the ones that finally seize upon a slender, unsupported reed as the way out of the muddied morass-- the equivalent of that "god machine" the ancient Greek playwrights wheeled in to solve thorny plot problems. Yet it is a language machine we're searching for, one capable of those elaborate maneuvers seen in language with syntax (you don't have to think about it; indeed, you can't turn language recognition off), but conforming to some design constraints imposed by the neurobiology (what it's possible to do with mere neural circuits) and the evolutionary history (up from apelike communication and mental powers in only five million years, each stage bootstrapping the next).

But, in a broader view, language is just our best example of the whole range of higher intellectual functions. Our "lingua ex machina" probably needs to be able to handle creative shaping up of quality (for instance, figuring out what to do with the leftovers in the refrigerator), long-range planning, procedural games, and even music. Solve the structural basis for one, and you might solve them all.

I think that the linguists' conceit, that syntax is what thought is all about (and that without syntax, you couldn't think with any depth or originality), reflects a useful strategy for brain researchers, simply because syntax provides a lot of useful constraints on theorizing. But other parts of higher intellectual function might be even more useful in that regard. Want to lay any bets that we would discover more about higher intellectual function via studying music in the brain? Yes, music seems likely to be a spare-time use of the neural machinery evolved for thought and language -- but we might be able to separate the issues of vocabulary and structuring better in music, where you have structure without predication, as the Israeli musicologist Ruth Katz reminded me at dinner! What's unmusical in any culture might tell us what the neurons can't do.

Intelligence (in our sense of versatility in dealing with novel situations) is a particularly intriguing part of the puzzle of higher intellectual functions. But as Ernst Mayr once said, most species are not intelligent, which suggests "that high intelligence is not at all favored by natural selection" -- or that it's very hard to achieve. So our look at bootstrapping syntax also needs to keep in mind this more general problem of finding indirect ways of achieving intelligence. What gives rise to syntax might also give intelligence a big boost.

Evolution, after all, is full of sidesteps, such as those conversions of function that Darwin identified. Wheelchair considerations may be what "paid for" all of those curb cuts on every corner, but most of their subsequent use involves wheeled suitcases, baby carriages, grocery carts, skateboards, bicycles, and other uses that would never have paid for it. Some of the underpinnings of language may be secondary uses as well, so we need to watch for free "curb cuts" affecting syntax.

See you soon.



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