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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
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.
The Villa Serbelloni
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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