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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Cedric Boeckx replies to some remarks by Hornstein on Berwick and Chomsky's "Why Only Us"

Norbert Hornstein commented on my "quite negative" review of Berwick and Chomsky's book _Why Only Us_ published in Inference (http://inference-review.com/article/not-only-us). Here is the link to his comments, posted here on the Faculty of Language blog: http://facultyoflanguage.blogspot.com.es/2017/04/inference-to-some-great-provocations.html

I want to begin by thanking him for reading the review and sharing his thoughts. The gist of his remarks is, if I read him right, that he is "not sure" what I find wrong with _Why Only Us_. He concludes by saying that "Why [Boeckx] doesn’t like (or doesn’t appear to like) this kind of story escapes me." I found the paragraphs he devotes to my review extremely useful, as they articulate, with greater clarity than what I could find in _Why Only Us_, some of the intuitions that animate the kind of evolutionary narrative advocated in the book I reviewed: The "All you need is Merge" approach. Hornstein's points give me the opportunity to stress some of the reasons why I think this kind of approach is misguided. This is what I want to express here.

In so far as I can see, Hornstein makes the following claims (which are, indeed, at the heart of _Why Only Us_) [the claims appear in roughly the order found on Hornstein's original post]

1. Hornstein seems to endorse Tattersall's oft-repeated claim, used in Why Only Us, that there is a link between linguistic abilities and the sort of symbolic activities that have been claimed to be specific to humans. This is important because the fossil evidence for these activities is used to date the emergence of the modern linguistic mind; specifically, to argue for a very recent emergence of the modern language faculty. Here is the relevant passage:
"in contrast to CB [Boeckx], IT [Tattersall] thinks it pretty clear that this “symbolic activity” is of “rather recent origin” and that, “as far as can be told, it was only our lineage that achieved symbolic intelligence with all of its (unintended) consequences” (1). If we read “symbolic” here to mean “linguistic” (which I think is a fair reading), it appears that IT is asking for exactly the kind of inquiry that CB thinks misconceived."
Perhaps it is too strong to say that Hornstein endorses it, but clearly he does not buy my skepticism towards this kind of argument, expressed in my review (and backed up with references to works questioning Tattersall that unfortunately Hornstein does not discuss, delegating to Tattersall as the unique expert.)

2. Hornstein grants me "several worthwhile points"; specifically, my claims that "there is more to language evolution than the emergence of the Basic Property (i.e. Merge and discretely infinite hierarchically structured objects) and that there may be more time available for selection to work its magic than is presupposed". Hornstein writes that "many would be happy to agree that though BP is a distinctive property of human language it may not be the only distinctive linguistic property." He continues "CB is right to observe that if there are others (sometimes grouped together as FLW vs FLN) then these need to be biologically fixed and that, to date, MP has had little to say about these. One might go further; to date it is not clear that we have identified many properties of FLW at all. Are there any?" Later on, he writes "CB is quite right that it behooves us to start identifying distinctive linguistic properties beyond the Basic Property and asking how they might have become fixed. And CB is also right that this is a domain in which comparative cognition/biology would be very useful", but stresses that "It is less clear that any of this applies to explaining the evolution of the Basic Property itself."

3. Hornstein seems to think that my problem is that I "think that B[erwick]&C[homsky] are too obsessed with" recursion (or Merge). He goes on: "But this seems to me an odd criticism. Why? Because B&C’s way into the ling-evo issues is exactly the right way to study the evolution of any trait: First identify the trait of interest. Second, explain how it could have emerged.  B&C identify the trait (viz. hierarchical recursion) and explain that it arose via the one time (non-gradual) emergence of a recursive operation like Merge. The problem with lots of evo of lang work is that it fails to take the first step of identifying the trait at issue. ... If one concedes that a basic feature of FL is the Basic Property, then obsessing about how it could have emerged is exactly the right way to proceed"

4. He thinks that my "discussion is off the mark" (specifically, my insistence on descent with modification and bottom-up approaches in the review) because Merge "is not going to be all that amenable to any thing but a “top-down, all-or-nothing” account". "What I mean", Hornstein says, "is that recursion is not something that takes place in steps"; "there is no such thing as “half recursion” and so there will be no very interesting “descent with modification” account of this property. Something special happened in humans. Among other things this led to hierarchical recursion. And this thing, whatever it was, likely came in one fell swoop. This might not be all there is to say about language, but this is one big thing about it and I don’t see why CB is resistant to this point."

5. Hornstein stresses that he "doubt[s] that hierarchical recursion is the whole story (and have even suggested that something other than Merge is the secret sauce that got things going), I do think that it is a big part of it and that downplaying its distinctiveness is not useful." He goes on: we "can agree that evolution involves descent with modification. The question is how big a role to attribute to descent and how much to modification (as well as how much modification is permitted). The MP idea can be seen as saying that much of FL is there before Merge got added. Merge is the “modification” all else the “descent.” "No mystery about the outline of such an analysis, though the details can be very hard to develop"... "it is hard for me to see what would go wrong if one assumed that Merge (like the third color neuron involved in trichromatic vision (thx Bill for this)) is a novel circuit and that FL does what it does by combining the powers of this new operation with those cognitive/computational powers inherited from our ancestors. That would be descent with modification"

6. He sums up: "The view Chomsky (and Berwick and Dawkins and Tattersall) favor is that there is something qualitatively different between language capable brains and ones that are not. This does not mean that they don’t also greatly overlap. It just means that they are not capacity congruent. But if there is a qualitative difference (e.g. a novel kind of circuit) then the emphasis will be on the modifications, not the descent in accounting for the distinctiveness. B&C is happy enough with the idea that FL properties are largely shared with our ancestors. But there is something different, and that difference is a big deal. And we have a pretty good idea about (some of) the fine structure of that difference and that is what Minimalist linguistics should aim to explain"

All of these are interesting points, although I think they miss the target, for reasons worth making explicit (again), if only because that way we can know what is likely to be productive and what is not. After all, I could be wrong, and Hornstein (and Berwick/Chomsky in Why Only Us) could be wrong. I'll tackle Hornstein's points in a somewhat different order from the one he used, but I don't think that doing so introduces any misrepresentation.

Let's begin with points of (apparent) agreement: Hornstein is willing to concede that we need a bit more than Merge, although if I read him well, he is not as clear about it as I would like. Why do I say so? On the one hand, he writes that "many would be happy to agree that though BP is a distinctive property of human language it may not be the only distinctive linguistic property. CB is right to observe that if there are others (sometimes grouped together as FLW vs FLN) then these need to be biologically fixed and that, to date, MP has had little to say about these. One might go further; to date it is not clear that we have identified many properties of FLW at all. Are there any?" On the other hand, he writes  "CB is also right that this is a domain in which comparative cognition/biology would be very useful (and has already been started [FN:There has been quite a lot of interesting comparative work done, most prominently by Berwick, on relating human phonology with bird song").

I won't comment much on the references provided by Hornstein in that footnote, but I must say that I think it reveals too much of a bias towards work done by linguists. In my opinion, the great comparative work that exists has not been done by linguists (in the narrow sense of the term). Hornstein's is not a lovely bias to display in the context of interdisciplinarity (indeed, it's not good to show this bias on a blog that likes to stress so much that people in other disciplines ignores the work of linguists. Don't do unto others ...) In the case of birdsong, this kind of work goes several decades back, and detailed studies like Jarvis 2004(!), or Samuels 2011 (cited in my review) hardly justify the "has already been started" claim about comparative cognition. But let's get to the main point: we can't just ask "are there any? (shared features)" and at the same time cite work that shows that there is a lot of it. But there is something worse, in light of my review: Hornstein seems to have no problem with the usefulness of comparative cognition ("a domain in which comparative cognition/biology would be very useful") so long as it applies to everything except Merge ("there will be no very interesting “descent with modification” account of this property"; "It is less clear that any of this applies to explaining the evolution of the Basic Property itself." "this property is not going to be all that amenable to any thing but a “top-down, all-or-nothing” account") This is one of the issues I intended to bring up in the review, and what I called "exceptional nativism". I'll return to this below, but for now, let me stress that even if Hornstein grants me that there is more than Merge, Merge is still special, in a way that is different from "other distinctive linguistic properties".

It's not the case that I object to _Why Only Us_ because I think Berwick and Chomsky are "too obsessed with Merge". I object to it because I think they obsess about it in the wrong way: they (and Hornstein) are obsessed in making it not only special, but distinct-in-a-way-that-other-distinct-things-are-not: it takes it out of the Darwinian domain of descent with modification.

Hornstein discusses Descent With Modification, but his prose reveals that he and I understand it differently. Indeed, he appears to understand it in a way that I warned against in my review. Here is the key passage: "the MP idea can be seen as saying that much of FL is there before Merge got added. Merge is the “modification” all else the “descent.” " I think this is wrong. It takes the phrase descent with modification pretty much like most linguists understood the FLN/FLB distinction of Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch 2002: there is FLN and there is FLB. There is descent and there is modification. But I don't think this is the core of the Darwinian logic: "Descent with modification" ought to be understood as "modified descent" (tinkering), not as "descent" put side by side with/distinct from modification. Because modification is modification of something shared; it's inextricably linked to descent. Descent with modification is not "this is shared" and "this is different" and when you put these 2 things you get "descent and modification", because the different is to be rooted in the shared. We can't just say Merge is the 'modification' bit unless we say what it is a modification of. (Needless to say, if, as Hornstein writes, we replace Merge by some other "secret sauce that got things going", my point still applies. The problem is with thinking in terms of some secret sauce, unless we break it down in no so secret ingredients, ingredients that can be studied, in isolation, in other species. That's the message in my review.)

The Darwinian logic is basically that the apple can only fall so far from the tree. The apple is not the tree. But it is to be traced back to the tree. As I put it in the review: there's got to be a way from there (them) to here (us). And Merge should not be any exception to this. I'll put it this way: if the way we define Merge makes it look like an exception to this kind of thinking, then we are looking (obsessing?) at Merge in the wrong way. If we find Merge interesting (and I do!), then we've got to find a way (or better, several ways, that we can then test) to make it amenable to "descent with modification"/"Bottom-up (as opposed to all-or-nothing/top-down) approaches. Of course, we could say, well, tough luck: we can't choose what nature gave us. It gave us Merge/recursion, and you can't understand this gradually. It's there or not. It's discontinuous but in a way different from the kind of discontinuity that biologists understand (significantly modified descent). But if we do so, then, tough luck indeed: we are confining Darwin's problem to a mystery. A fact, but a mysterious one ("Innate knowledge is a mystery, though a fact", as McGinn once put it.) It's fine by me, but then I can't understand how people can write about how "All you need is Merge" accounts shedding light on Darwin's problem. They must mean Darwin's mystery. To use Hume's phrase, such accounts restore Merge to that obscurity, in which it ever did and ever will remain”.

Don't get me wrong. It's a perfectly coherent position. Indeed, in a slightly different context, referenced in my review, David Poeppel talks about the "incommensurability problem" of linking mind and brain. Maybe we can't link both, just like we can't understand the evolution of Merge. Note here that I say the evolution of Merge. At times, Hornstein, like Berwick and Chomsky, gives me the impression that he thinks Merge is the solution. But it's the problem. It's that which needs to be explained. And I think that one way to proceed is to understand its neural basis and trace back the evolution of that (that is, engage with Poeppel's granularity mismatch problem, not endorse his incommensurability problem), because perhaps Merge described at the computational level (in Marr's sense) is mysterious from a descent-with-modification perspective, but not so at the algorithmic and implementational levels. And I think  it's the task of linguists too to get down to those levels (jointly with others), as opposed to lecturing to biologists about how Merge is the solution, and it's their problem if they don't get it. (Incidentally, it's a bit ironic that Hornstein praises Lobina's discussion of recursion in his blog post, but does not mention the fact that Lobina took issue with Hornstein's take on recursion in some of his publications.)
Hornstein writes that "The problem with lots of evo of lang work is that it fails to take the first step of identifying the trait at issue". He does not give references, so I cannot judge what he means by "lots". I like to think I read a lot, and my assessment doesn't match Hornstein's at all. I think a lot of work in evo of lang promotes a Darwinian feeling for the phenotype. This is quite different from, say, a Darcy-Thompsonian feeling for the phenotype. I see in lots of evo of lang work a desire to make talk about evo of language amenable to conventional evolutionary discourse. Why Only Us ("this property is not going to be all that amenable to any thing but a “top-down, all-or-nothing” account") is the exact opposite.

Perhaps a bit of an empirical discussion would help (I always find it helpful, but I don't know if Hornstein would agree here). Let's take the example of vocal learning, a key component of our language-faculty-mosaic. Not a cool as Merge for some, but still pretty neat. In fact, the way many talks and papers about vocal learning begin is quite like the way linguists like to talk about Merge. Let me spell this out. It's often pointed out that vocal learning  (the ability to control one's vocal apparatus to reproduce sounds one can hear, typically from con-specifics) is a fairly sparsely distributed trait in the animal kingdom. It may not be as unique as Merge ("Only us"), but it's close: it's "only" for a selected few. (I stress that I am talking about the classic presentation of this trait; ideas of a vocal learning continuum, which I like, would only make the point I am about to make stronger. See work by Petkov and Jarvis on this.) Like Merge, Vocal learning is an all or nothing affair. You have it, or you don't. It looks like an all or nothing thing. But unlike Merge, people have been able to gain insight into its neural structure, and break it down to component pieces. Among these, there is a critical cortico-laryngeal connection that appears to qualify for the "new circuit" that underlies vocal learning (see Fitch's book on evolution of language for references). And people have been able to get down to the molecular details for birds (Erich Jarvis, Constance Scharff, Stephanie White, and many others), bats (Sonja Vernes), and link it to language/speech (Simon Fisher and lots of people working on FOXP2). Erich Jarvis in particular has been able to show that most likely this new circuit has a motor origin, and "proto" aspects of it may be found in non-vocal learning birds (suboscines). All of this is quite rich in terms of insight. And this richness (testability, use of comparative method, etc.) makes the Merge solution to Darwin's problem pale in comparison. It's true, as Hornstein points out,  linguists know a lot about Merge, but they only know it from one perspective (the "Cartesian" perspective, the one that leads to "Why Only Us"), and this may not be the most useful perspective from a Darwinian point of view. The main message of my review  of Why Only Us was that.

Final point, on timing, and Hornstein's appeal to Tattersal's review of the fossil evidence for the emergence of symbolic behavior. No one can know everything (where would one put it?, as they say), but in my experience it's always good to rely on more than one expert (I cite some in the review). My main point about this in the review was not so much to question the dating of said emergence, but rather to ask for an account of how symbolic behavior is linked to linguistic behavior. I can see why it's plausible to think these are linked. But if the argument concerning the timing of the emergence of the language faculty rests on very few things, and it's one of them, we want more than a plausibility argument. (Norbert's blog loves to say "show me the money" when non-generativists make claims about language acquisition based on what strikes them as plausible. I guess, it's only fair to say "show me the money", or else I'll start selling Hornstein bridges.) It's plausible to think "how could they have done it without language". So, symbol, ergo language. But then again, I can't remember how I lived without my iphone. Poverty of Imagination arguments can be very weak. I know of very few attempts to mechanistically link symbolic and linguistic behavior. One attempt, by Juan Uriagereka, was about "knots" and the Chomsky hierarchy. David Lobina showed how this failed in a paper entitled "much ado about knotting". Victor Longa tried to link blombos style marks to crossing dependencies in language, but it's fair to say the argument for crossing dependencies there is nowhere near as neat as what Chomsky did in Syntactic Structures. Apart from that, I am not aware of any explanatory attempt. I once asked Tattersal after a talk he gave, and he told me something that amounted to "ask Chomsky". When I ask linguists, they tell me ask the experts like Tattersall. And so I begin to be suspicious...

But there is something more I could say about the timing issue that came to my mind when reading Hornstein's comments: if Merge is such an all-or-nothing thing, not subject to the logic of descent, then why should we care if it's recent or not? It could have emerged, in one fell swoop, millions of years ago, and remain "unattached" to "speech devices" until recently. And so why do we want to insist about a very recent origin? The timing issue is only very important if issues about gradual evolution matters. But if we stress that gradual evolution is out of the question, then, the timing issue is a red herring. So, why does Hornstein insist on it?

Let me close by thanking Norbert again for his comments. They led to this long post. But they often made me feel like Alice when she tells the Red Queen that one can't believe impossible things. Hornstein, like the Red Queen, disagrees. But it's not Wonderland, it's Darwinland.
  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Inference to some great provocations

David Berlinsky is editing a newish online magazine Inference that articles in which I have mentioned in several previous posts. The latest issue is full of fun for linguists as there are four articles of immediate relevance. Here’s the link for the issue. Let me say a word or two about the pieces.

The first is an essay by Chomsky that goes over familiar ground regarding the distinctive nature of human linguistic capacity. He observes that this observation has a Cartesian pedigree and that language was recognized as distinctive (all and only humans have it) and wondrous (it was free and capable of expressing unboundedly many thoughts) and demanding of some kind of explanation (it really didn’t fit in well with what was understood to be the causal structure of the physical world) as early as it was noticed.

As Chomsky notes, Cartesians had relatively little of substance to say about the underpinnings of this wondrous capacity, mainly because the 17th century lacked the mathematical tools for the project. They had no way of describing how it was possible to “make infinite use of finite means” as von Humboldt put it (2). This changed in the 20th century with Church, Godel, Post and Turing laying the foundations of computation theory. This work “demonstrated how a finite object like the brain could generate an infinite variety of expressions.” And as a result, “[i]t became possible, for the first time, to address part of” the problem that the Cartesians identified (2).

Note the ‘part of’ hedge. As Chomsky emphasizes, the problem the Cartesians identified has two parts. The first, and for them the most important feature, is the distinction between “inclined” vs “impelled” behavior (3). Machines are impelled to act, never “inclined.” Humans, being free agents, are most often “inclined” (though they can be “compelled” as well). Use of language is the poster child for inclined behavior. Cartesians had no good understanding of the mechanics of inclination. As Chomsky observes, more than 300 years later, neither do we. As he puts it, language’s “free creative use remains a mystery,” as does free action in general (e.g. raising one’s hand) (3).

The second part, one that computation theory has given us a modest handle on, is the unbounded nature of the thoughts we can express. This feature very much impressed Galileo and Arnauld & Lancelot and von Humboldt, and it should impress you too! The “infinite variety” of meaningfully distinct expressions characteristic of human language “surpasse[s] all stupendous inventions” (1).  Chomsky has redubbed this feature of language “the Basic Property” (BP). BP refers to a property of the human brain, “the language faculty,” and its capacity to “construct a digitally infinite array of structured expressions” each of which “is semantically interpreted as expressing a thought, and each can be externalized by some sensory modality such as speech” (2).  BP is what GG has been investigating for the last 60 years or so. Quite a lot has been discovered about it (and yes, there is still lots that we don’t know!).

Chomsky emphasizes something that is worth reemphasizing: these facts about language are not news. That humans have linguistic creativity in the two senses above should not really be a matter of dispute. That humans do language like no other animal does should also be uncontroversial. How we do this is a very tough question, only a small part (very small part) of which we have managed to illuminate. It is sad that much debate still circulates around the whether question rather than the how. It is wasted time.

An important theme in Chomsky’s essay turns on how the world looks when we have no idea what’s up. Here is a quote that I believe all good scientifically inclined GGers should have tattooed to themselves (preferably in some discrete place) (3):

When understanding is thin, we expect to see extreme variety and complexity.

Absolutely! Variety and complexity are hallmarks of ignorance. And this is why progress and simplicity go hand in hand. And this is why I have clasped to my heart Dresher’s apposite dictum: There should be only two kinds of papers in linguistics: (i) papers that show that two things that look completely different are roughly the same and (ii) papers that show that two things that are roughly the same are in fact identical. These are the papers that highlight our progressively deeper understanding. Complication is often necessary, but it is progressive just in case it paves the way for greater simplicity.

The unification and simplicity is, thus, a leading indicator of scientific insight. Within linguistics it has a second function. It allows one to start addressing the issue of how FL might have evolved.  Here’s Chomsky:

In the analysis of the Basic Property, we are bound to seek the simplest computational procedure consistent with the data of language. Simplicity is implicit in the basic goals of scientific inquiry. It has long been recognized that only simple theories can attain a rich explanatory depth. “Nature never doth that by many things, which may be done by a few,” Galileo remarked, and this maxim has guided the sciences since their modern origins. It is the task of the scientist to demonstrate this, from the motion of the planets, to an eagle’s flight, to the inner workings of a cell, to the growth of language in the mind of a child. Linguistics seeks the simplest theory for an additional reason: it must face the problem of evolvability. Not a great deal is known about the evolution of modern humans. The few facts that are well established, and others that have recently been coming to light, are rather suggestive. They conform to the conclusion that the language faculty is very simple; it may, perhaps, even be computationally optimal, precisely what is suggested on methodological grounds.

Unless FL is simpler than we have considered it to be up till now (e.g. far simpler than say GBish models make it out to be) then there is little chance that we will be able to explain its etiology. So there are both general methodological grounds for wanting simple theories of FL and linguistic internal reasons for hoping that much of the apparent complexity of FL is just apparent.

Chomsky’s piece proceeds by rehearsing in short form the basic minimalist trope concerning evolvability. First, that we know little about it and that we will likely not know very much about it ever. Second, that FL is a true species property as the Cartesians surmised. Third, that FL has not evolved much since humans separated. Fourth, that FL is a pretty recent biological innovation. The third and fourth points are taken to imply that the Basic Property aspect of FL must be pretty simple in the sense that what we see today pretty well reflects the original evo innovation and so its properties are physically simple in that they have not been shaped by the forces of selection. In other words, what we see in BP is pretty much undistorted by the shaping effects of evolution and so largely reflect the physical constraints that allowed it to emerge.

All of this is by now pretty standard stuff, but Chomsky tells it well here. He goes on to do what any such story requires. He tries to illustrate how a simple system of the kind he envisions will have those features that GG has discovered to be characteristic of FL (e.g. structure dependence, unboundedly many discrete structures capable of supporting semantic interpretation etc.). This second step is what makes MP really interesting. We have a pretty good idea what kinds of things FL concerns itself with. That’s what 60 years of GG research has provided. MP’s goal is to show how to derive these properties from simpler starting points, the simpler the better. The target of explanation (the explanadum) are the “laws” of GB. MP theories are interesting to the degree that they can derive these “laws” from simpler more principled starting points. And, that, Chomsky argues, is what what makes Merge based accounts interesting, they derive features that we have every reason to believe characterize FL.[1]

Two other papers in the issue address these minimalist themes. The first is a review of the recent Berwick & Chomsky (B&C) book Why only us. The second is a review of a book on the origins of symbolic artifacts. Cederic Boeckx (CB) reviews B&C. Ian Tatersall (IT) reviews the second. The reviews are in interesting conflict.

The Boeckx review is quite negative, the heart of the criticism being that asking ‘why only humans have language’ is the wrong question. What makes it wrong? Well, frankly, I am not sure. But I think that the CB review thinks that asking it endorses a form of “exceptional nativism” (7) that fails to recognize “the mosaic character of language,” which, if I get the point, implies eschewing “descent with modification” models of evolution (the gold standard according to CB) in favor of “top-down, all-or-nothing” perspectives that reject comparative cognition models (or any animal models), dismiss cultural transmission as playing any role in explaining “linguistic complexity” and generally take a jaundiced view of any evolutionary accounts of language (7-8). I actually am skeptical regarding any of this.

Before addressing these points, however, it is interesting that IT appears to take the position that CB finds wrong-headed. He thinks that human symbolic capacities are biologically quite distinctive (indeed “unique”) and very much in need of some explanation. Moreover, in contrast to CB, IT thinks it pretty clear that this “symbolic activity” is of “rather recent origin” and that, “as far as can be told, it was only our lineage that achieved symbolic intelligence with all of its (unintended) consequences” (1). If we read “symbolic” here to mean “linguistic” (which I think is a fair reading), it appears that IT is asking for exactly the kind of inquiry that CB thinks misconceived.

That said, let’s return to CB’s worries. The review makes several worthwhile points. IMO, the two most useful are the observation that there is more to language evolution than the emergence of the Basic Property (i.e. Merge and discretely infinite hierarchically structured objects) and that there may be more time available for selection to work its magic than is presupposed.  Let’s consider these points in turn.

I think that many would be happy to agree that though BP is a distinctive property of human language it may not be the only distinctive linguistic property. CB is right to observe that if there are others (sometimes grouped together as FLW vs FLN) then these need to be biologically fixed and that, to date, MP has had little to say about these. One might go further; to date it is not clear that we have identified many properties of FLW at all. Are there any?

One plausible candidate involves those faculties recruited for externalization. It is reasonable to think that once FLN was fixed in the species, that linking its products to the AP interface required some (possibly extensive) distinctive biological retrofitting. Indeed, one might imagine that all of phonology is such a biological kludge and that human phonology has no close biological analogues outside of humans.[2] If this is so, then the question of how much time this retrofitting required and how fast the mechanisms of evolution (e.g. selection) operate is an important one. Indeed, if there was special retrofitting for FLW linguistic properties then these must have all taken place before the time that humans went their separate ways for precisely the reasons that Chomsky likes to (rightly) emphasize: not only can any human acquire the recursive properties of any G, s/he can also acquire the FLW properties of any G (e.g. any phonology, morphology, metrical system etc.).[3] If acquiring any of these requires a special distinctive biology, then this must have been fixed before we went our separate ways or we would expect, contrary to apparent fact, that e.g. some “accents” would be inaccessible to some kids. CB is quite right that it behooves us to start identifying distinctive linguistic properties beyond the Basic Property and asking how they might have become fixed. And CB is also right that this is a domain in which comparative cognition/biology would be very useful (and has already been started (see note 2). It is less clear that any of this applies to explaining the evolution of the Basic Property itself.

If this is right, it is hard for me to understand CB’s criticism of B&C’s identification of hierarchical recursion as a very central distinctive feature of FL and asking how it could have emerged.  CB seems to accept this point at times (“such a property unquestionably exists” (3)) but thinks that B&C are too obsessed with it. But this seems to me an odd criticism. Why? Because B&C’s way into the ling-evo issues is exactly the right way to study the evolution of any trait: First identify the trait of interest. Second, explain how it could have emerged.  B&C identify the trait (viz. hierarchical recursion) and explain that it arose via the one time (non-gradual) emergence of a recursive operation like Merge. The problem with lots of evo of lang work is that it fails to take the first step of identifying the trait at issue. But absent this any further evolutionary speculation is idle. If one concedes that a basic feature of FL is the Basic Property, then obsessing about how it could have emerged is exactly the right way to proceed.

Furthermore, and here I think that CB’s discussion is off the mark, it seems pretty clear that this property is not going to be all that amenable to any thing but a “top-down, all-or-nothing” account. What I mean is that recursion is not something that takes place in steps, a point that Dawkins made succinctly in support of Chomsky’s proposal (see here). As he notes, there is no such thing as “half recursion” and so there will be no very interesting “descent with modification” account of this property. Something special happened in humans. Among other things this led to hierarchical recursion. And this thing, whatever it was, likely came in one fell swoop. This might not be all there is to say about language, but this is one big thing about it and I don’t see why CB is resistant to this point. Or, put another way, even if CB is right about many other features of language being distinctive and amenable to more conventional evo analysis, it does not gainsay the fact that the Basic Property is not one of these.

There is actually a more exorbitant possibility that perhaps CB is reacting to. As the review notes (7): “Language is special, but not all that special; all creatures have special abilities.” I don’t want to over-read this, but one way of taking it is that different “abilities” supervene on common capacities. This amounts to a warning not to confuse apparent expressions of capacities for fundamental differences in capacities. This is a version of the standard continuity thesis (that Lenneberg, among others, argued is very misleading (i.e. false) wrt language). On this view, there is nothing much different in the capacities of the “language ready” brain from the “language capable” brain. They are the same thing. In effect, we need add nothing to an ape brain to get ours, though some reorganization might be required (i.e no new circuits). I personally don’t think this is so. Why? For the traditional reasons that Chomsky and IT note, namely that nothing else looks like it does language like we do, even remotely. And though I doubt that hierarchical recursion is the whole story (and have even suggested that something other than Merge is the secret sauce that got things going), I do think that it is a big part of it and that downplaying its distinctiveness is not useful.

Let me put this another way. All can agree that evolution involves descent with modification. The question is how big a role to attribute to descent and how much to modification (as well as how much modification is permitted). The MP idea can be seen as saying that much of FL is there before Merge got added. Merge is the “modification” all else the “descent.” There will fe features of FL continuous with what came before and some not continuous. No mystery about the outline of such an analysis, though the details can be very hard to develop. At any rate, it is hard for me to see what would go wrong if one assumed that Merge (like the third color neuron involved in trichromatic vision (thx Bill for this)) is a novel circuit and that FL does what it does by combining the powers of this new operation with those cognitive/computational powers inherited from our ancestors. That would be descent with modification. And, so far as I can tell, that is what a standard MP story like that in B&C aims to deliver. Why CB doesn’t like (or doesn’t appear to like) this kind of story escapes me.

Observe that how one falls on the distinctiveness of BC issue relates to what one thinks of the short time span observation (i.e. language is of recent vintage so there is little time for natural selection or descent with modification to work its magic). The view Chomsky (and Berwick and Dawkins and Tatersall) favor is that there is something qualitatively different between language capable brains and ones that are not. This does not mean that they don’t also greatly overlap. It just means that they are not capacity congruent. But if there is a qualitative difference (e.g. a novel kind of circuit) then the emphasis will be on the modifications, not the descent in accounting for the distinctiveness. B&C is happy enough with the idea that FL properties are largely shared with our ancestors. But there is something different, and that difference is a big deal. And we have a pretty good idea about (some of) the fine structure of that difference and that is what Minimalist linguistics should aim to explain.[4] Indeed, I have argued and would continue to argue that the name of the Minimalist game is to explain these very properties in a simple way. But I’ve said that already here, so I won’t belabor the point (though I encourage you to do so).

A few more random remarks and I am done. The IT piece provides a quick overview of how distinctive human symbolic (linguistic?) capacities are. In IT’s view, very. In IT’s view, the difference also emerged very recently, and understanding that is critical to understanding modern humans. And he is not alone. The reviewee Genevieve von Petziger appears to take a similar view, dating the start of the modern human mind to about 80kya (2). All this fits in with the dates that Chomsky generally assumes. It is nice to see that (some) people expert in this area find these datings and the idea that the capacity of interest is unique to us credible. Of course, to the degree that this dating is credible and to the degree that this is not a long time for evolution to exercise its powers the harder the evolutionary problem becomes. And, of course, that’s what makes the problem interesting. At any rate, what the IT review makes clear is that the way Chomsky has framed the problem is not without reasonable expert support. Whether this view is correct, is, of course, an empirical matter (and hence beyond my domain to competently judge).

Ok, let me mention two more intellectual confections of interest and we are done. I will be short.

The first is a review of Wolfe’s book by David Lobina and Mark Brenchley. It is really good and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I urge you in particular to read the discussion on recursion as self-reference vs self-embedding and the very enlightening discussion of how Post’s original formalism (might have) led to some confusion on these issues. I particularly liked the discussion of how Merge de-confuses them, in effect by dumping the string based conception of recursion that Post’s formalism used (and which invited a view of recursion as self-embedding) and implementing the recursive idea more cleanly in a Merge like system in which linguistic structures are directly embedded in one another without transiting through strings at all. This cleanly distinguishes the (misleading) idea that the recursion lies with embedding clauses within clauses from the more fundamental idea that recursion requires some kind of inductive self-reference. Like I said, the discussion is terrific and very useful.

And now for desert: read David Adger’s fun review of Arrival. I confess that I did not really like the movie that much, but after reading David’s review, I intend to re-see it with a more open mind.

That’s it. Take a look at the issue of Inference. It’s nice to see serious linguistic issues intelligently discussed in a non-specialist’s venue. It can be done and done well. We need more of it.




[1] Chomsky also mentions that how lexical items have very distinctive properties and that we understand very little about them. This ahs become a standard trope in his essays, and a welcome one. It seems that lexical items are unlike animal signs in that the latter are really “referential” in ways that the former are not. The how and whys behind this, however, is completely opaque.
[2] There has been quite a lot of interesting comparative work done, most prominently by Berwick, on relating human phonology with bird song. See here and here for some discussion and links.
[3] There is another possibility: once FLN is in place there is only one way to retrofit all the components of FLW. If so, then there is no selection going on here and so the fact that all those endowed with FLNs share common FLWs would not require a common ancestor for the FLWs. Though I know nothing about these things, this option strikes me as far-fetched. If it is, then the logic that Chomsky has deployed for arguing that FLN was in place before humans went their separate ways would hold for FLW as well.
[4] CB makes a claim that is often mooted in discussions about biology. It is Dobzhansky’s dictum that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. I think that this is overstated. Lots of biology “makes sense” without worrying about origin. We can understand how hearts work or eyes see or vocal tracts produce sounds without knowing anything at all about how they emerged. This is not to diss the inquiry: we all want to know how things came to be what they are. But the idea that natural selection is the only thing that makes sense of what we see is often overblown, especially so when Dobzhansky quotes are marshaled. For some interesting discussion of this see this.

An upcoming conference of some importance

Angel Gallego and Dennis Ott are running a kind of Athens II on the future of GG (I assume that syntax is the main focus, but I could be wrong). Here is the website. Unlike Athens which aimed to get graybeards talking about the state of play, this conference is aimed at the up and comers. I hope that they have better success than we did. I think Athens did a credible job at identifying where we have come from and what we have (sorta) accomplished. However, I do not think that a clear future direction emerged and, IMO, the confab left me with the impression that the field takes theoretical syntax as something very much to be avoided. My lasting impression is that the consensus view was that Minimalism has largely been a failure and that any work that does not resemble what we have always done is not really worth doing. In short, I found the whole thing, in retrospect, quite disheartening.

But, forget the once bitten twice shy thing. Gallego and Ott are going to give it another try, this time with people with more skin in the game; namely younger up and comers.  This is a great idea and I hope they fare better than we did. Here is the "manifesto."

For the last sixty years, Generative Grammar (GG) has been the dominant approach in the formal study of human language within the cognitive sciences. Building on classical ideas developed in a new context, GG provided the basis for a new wave of investigations that gave rise to significant theoretical and empirical discoveries, establishing a fertile ground for synergies with other disciplines.
This workshop extends an invitation, especially -- but not exclusively -- to young researchers to pause and reflect on the current state of the field.
  • Have the recent developments yielded a corresponding increase in the explanatory depth of the theory? 
  • Has cross-fertilization with other theories beneffited the research?
  • Where have we made real progress and what questions should most urgently be addressed?

The workshop will be structured around the contributions of a number of invited participants who will submit a position paper ahead of time and give short informal talks, which will serve to kickstart open discussion.

Students of all levels as well as professional linguists of any persuasion are encouraged to actively participate in the event, either in person or by using other modes of communication.
Based on these and other questions of this general kind, our goal is to assess where we are headed, why there, and what the best way is of getting there (or nearby).

Note that all are invited and also note that I am willing to bet that Barcelona in June is quite delightful. So the venue should be conducive to real interesting discussion. If I get hold of the position papers I will link to them here at FoL. So go, argue and let's make progress.







Monday, April 10, 2017

Is the examined academic life worth it?

Every year grad departments select an incoming class, funding agencies decide on who is going to get how much and journals decide who is going to get published. Each of these decision involves a scare resource issue: a (usually small) finite number of positions, a (usually much too small) finite number of dollars and a (usually small) finite number of pages.[1] The decisions amount to how to allocate these scare resources. The reason the resources are scarce is that there are often more applicants/submissions than there are places to allocate. But the real reason resources are scarce is that quality alone, at least evident quality, does not suffice to perfectly fit the applicants/submissions to the allocations available. In other words, there are many ways to allocate the money to high quality applicants/submissions, at least prima facie.  And that’s the problem.

How do academics solve this problem? In general we do this by applying every more refined (i.e. recondite?) markers of quality to winnow out the really truly deserving from the merely truly deserving from the merely deserving. It is well known that even blunt methods suffice to lop off the clearly undeserving from the rest. In other words, academics embrace the conceit that if we try hard enough we can find the very very very…very best, and can thus optimize our choices; the decision procedure being a simple easily defensible one: select the most deserving and allocate to them the scarce resources. So, every year departments (including mine, of course) select the very very…very best of the applicant pool, funding agencies fund the very very very…very best proposals and journals publish the very very very…very best papers. Those readers that find that the last sentence rings true, please follow me as I have bridge for sale for you to look at.

Ok, everyone knows that the above story is more than a tad tendentious. We all recognize that our powers of discernment, even if applied with the utmost seriousness (which is seldom the case), are loaded with piles of false positives and negatives. We know this, but as an institution we also believe that overall looking for the best and rewarding it is the superior strategy. But is it? Here is a recent piece that questions this in interesting ways and suggests an alternative.

Before getting into the nub of the proposal, here are some points that the piece makes that (largely, though not perfectly) fit with my experience (see some comments below). The author Shahar Avin (SA), only discusses research funding, but I would add that the same holds for journal pages, and grad slots.

1.     Currently, “the monetary cut-off point still tends to be way above the quality cut-off point.”
2.     “…expert reviewers spend a lot of time allocating grant money by trying to identify the best work. But the truth is that they’re not very good at it, and that the process is a huge waste of time.”
3.     Peer review, rather than adding information, often adds “another layer of irrationality” to the decision process.
4.     The application process asks that you to be more sure of where you are going and how you will get there than it is rational to expect someone who is aiming at original research to be.
5.     Our capacities to identify those novel ideas most likely to succeed is much more limited than we believe.
6.     The belief that we can make this kind of rational decision “demand[s] excessive amounts of information from applicants, and waste a colossal amount of their time.”
7.     For some areas, we can even quantify how time consuming this is. SA cites a study in Nature which calculates that “[i]n Australia, during a recent annual funding round for medical research, scientists spent the equivalent of 400 years writing applications that were eventually rejected.” That’s a lot of effort.
8.     “…‘expert reviewers’ are not fungible commodities. One reviewer is not the same as another, and their judgements tend to be highly personal. Of the nearly 3,000 medical research proposals submitted for public funding in Australia in 2009, nearly half would have received the opposite decision if the review panel had been different…”
9.     “…the process isn’t just ineffective – it’s systematically biased. There’s evidence that women and minorities have lower chances of securing grants than people who are male or white, respectively.”
10.  Unorthodox proposals are at a disadvantage in the current funding structures.

As I said, most of these observations seem right to me. Points 1/2 perfectly fits my little world. In my experience the quality of the typical applicant pool, after the first triage, leaves many excellent candidates to fill too few spots. I would also add that choosing the best among the crop of very good is not something that I have found academics are good at.  Certainly much of what comes to be recognized as the best fails to find much support much of the time. And this is especially so if the work is original or the applicant has an unusual pedigree.

Let me expand on this for a moment in the context of grad admissions. In assessing applicants we are going, reasonably enough, on track record (what else is there). But, I have found that what makes you a good undergrad is not necessarily what makes you a good grad student, nor is what makes you a good grad student necessarily what makes you a fecund researcher. Undergrads are, rightly, much more coddled. They are assessed by how well they solve problems that have answers in the back of the book (or, now, online). Grad students are largely assessed on how well they solve problems without available answers, as are researchers. But, in addition, the latter are judged by how well they find new problems and generate novel research. The best are those whose work create enlightenment that generates puzzlement and so underwrites many years of further work.  In my experience, the qualities that allow success in any one of these endeavors does not reliably signal success in any of the others. So, even if we are conscientious in reviewing the available material, it is not clear what we are looking for. And, I should add, an hour or two interview, does not, in my experience, add much useful information. Luckily, how well we decide does not really matter as in a large number of cases any selection will be ok. We don’t need to find the best of the bunch because even the “worst” of the “best” is very good.

Another reaction: I was surprised at how wasteful the process can be! See point 7 above. 400 years is a long time, even if there are collateral benefits of writing a grant that does not get funded or applying to schools that don’t accept you or writing papers that never see the light of day. And I would question how large these collateral benefits actually are. The claims that there are benefits of doing the work even if it is unrewarded often strike me as self-serving (often touted by those at the top of the food chain). I can see the benefits of thinking through what one is working on as a valuable exercise. What I am less convinced of is doing this in a grant application format or a grad student admissions form is a good way of thinking things through. Maybe it is. But it is not obvious to me that it is clearly a superior way of doing this useful activity. And if it is not very useful, then it is questionable given that it clearly is very time consuming.

I have made noises echoing point 4 on FoL many times. I think that this is especially true for “theoretical” work where laying out the timeline of research is a silly exercise. If a problem is really good, then how you plan to solve it is not terribly apparent. The best you can do is motivate a conjecture, and funding agencies (or at least the NSF) finds this very insufficient. I suspect that this is so beyond theory. In my experience, grants seldom fund the research proposed. Rather a grant submission often presents finished research which if funded is ready to go “public” and the generated new grant is used to fund novel research that is as yet indeterminate (and only lightly described in the proposal). Ok, maybe I am being too cynical here. But I don’t think I am being way too cynical. At any rate, SA seems to agree.

Last point wrt 8/9 and then the “solution.” I also agree that the current process is unstable in that choose your reviewers and things will change dramatically. This suggests that if there really are objective bases of quality that could be used to rank alternatives then this factor is epistemologically elusive, at least over a large domain. Moreover, this elusiveness allows for systematic bias to creep in part because the process is believed to squeeze the bias out by focusing on “quality” alone.  Sadly, we all know how this works. The point AH makes is that it might be working more effectively in a context in which we are aiming to choose the best.[2]

Ok, the solution:

“Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to many of these problems. We should tell the experts to stop trying to pick the best research. Instead, they should focus on filtering out the worst ideas, and admit the rest to a lottery. That way, we can make do with shorter proposals, because the decision to accept or reject a ticket to a random draw requires less information – and highly specific proposals are unrealistic anyway. So instead of asking reviewers to make unreasonable predictions, they can turn their minds to weeding out cranks and frauds. Bias will still occur in the filtering stage, of course, but many more proposals will make it through to a lottery, which is inherently unbiased.”

I confess to finding this idea appealing. I believe that weeding out the clearly undeserving is a lot easier than identifying the best. So, I believe, a lottery among the triaged could save lots of time and effort. It might also, as AH notes, eliminate some bias, against unconventional ways of thinking, biases of various sorts and allow some things outside the prevailing fashion (though not too far out, I suspect).

But I think that there is a possible second very salutary effect of adopting a lottery system. It might force academics to acquire a bit more modesty. Academics are natural meritocrats. We reward the rewarded and denigrate the failures. We tend to downplay how much luck plays in the process of “success.” One nice feature of a lottery system is that it will make weaken this fantasy by making crystal clear that luck plays a non-negligible role. It does this by institutionalizing luck as an overt feature of the process. This might also have the beneficial side benefit of forcing administrators to consider more refined ways of measuring academic quality than just counting entries on a CV (weighted by venue quality). No more just listing publications in “major” journals or “large” grants funded. Maybe some thought will need to go into the process. Ok, I admit that there are problems with this too. But right now the mechanization of the whole acadmic evaluation process has, I believe, gotten out of hand and some push back is required. This could help by, as AH says, making it official, that the whole process is (in large part) a lottery anyhow. So not only might recognizing this and institutionalizing it, make “the whole process… cheaper, fairer and more efficient.” It might also help to make it more honest, with the attendant benefits that honesty often promotes.



[1] In the case of journal space, web publishing offers a plausible solution to the “too few pages” problem. However, one benefit of the page limits is that it helps manage information overload for the reader. If page numbers expand then the selection of “quality”/”relevance” will be off loaded to the reader. Right now many rely on editors and journals to cull the good stuff. It is unclear that it works well, but managing the tidle wave of material out there is an important problem.
[2] I don’t know if the review process in linguistics leads to obvious bias, but I would not be surprised if it did. I just don’t know. Anyone with info to share is invited to do so.