Friday, October 23, 2015

Chomsky's dumb evolutionary conjecture

So, once again Chomsky’s naivety (nay, ignorance) has been revealed for all the world to see. Just imagine thinking that one could isolate a single factor as key to language facility, restrict it to but a single species and proclaim that it just popped into existence acting as a gateway innovation resulting in complex patterns of cognition and behavior all without the shaping effects of natural selection. Imagine it! The stupidity of endorsing the discredited  hopeful monster” point of view of language! How naïve! How uninformed! How irresponsible.

But wait. It seems that Chomsky is not the only naïf endorsing such views. It seems that he now has a fellow traveller (no doubt another one of his duped accolytes), a certain guy called Richard Dawkins. Some of you might have heard about him. He has apparently done some work on evolutionary theory (here). Almost certainly not in the same league as those evolutionary luminaries like Hurford, or Lieberman, or Pinker or Jackendoff, or Tomasello, but, I have been told, Dawkins is at least in the first tier of the second rank. Sort of like Francois Jacob, another biologist who has views not unlike Chomsky’s (see here). At any rate, Dawkins has recently come out and endorsed Chomsky’s evolutionary scenario, zeroing in on recursion as the key innovation behind the human leap into language (and subsequently culture) and arguing that this step had to be taken in one bound as there are no conceptually coherent scenario where smaller steps take you to unbounded recursion. Let me elaborate.

Recently, Bob Berwick told me he was reading the second installment of Dawkin’s autobiography (here). In it Dawkins discusses the evolution of language and Chomsky’s musings on the topic. I asked him for the page references so that I could share them with you. Here are some relevant quotes (with some comments).

As I mentioned on page 290, the main qualitative feature that separates human language from all other animal communication is syntax: hierarchical embedment of relative clauses, prepositional clauses etc. The software trick that makes this possible, at least in computer languages and presumably in human language too, is the recursive subroutine.

It looks as though the human brain must possess something equivalent to recursive subroutines, and it’s not totally implausible that such a faculty might have come about in a single mutation, which we should probably call a macro-mutation. (382)

Note the parts that I bolded. Dawkins’s accepts that the key linguistic innovation is recursion, in fact, hierarchical recursion. Moreover, it is not implausible to think that this recursive capacity arose in on go. Why does Dawkin’s think that this is “not implausible”? Here’s what he says:

The reason I am prepared to contemplate macro-mutation in this case is a logical one. Just as you can’t have half a segment, there are no intermediates between a recursive and a non-recursive subroutine. Computer languages either allow recursion or they don’t. There’s no such thing as half-recursion. It’s an all or nothing software trick. And once that trick has been implemented, hierarchically embedded syntax immediately becomes possible and capable of generating indefinitely extended sentences. The macro-mutation seems complex and ‘747-ish’ but it really isn’t. It’s a simple addition – a ‘stretched DC-8 mutation’ – to the software, which abruptly generates huge, runaway complexity as an emergent property. ‘Emergent’: important word, that. (383)

Again, note the bit in bold. This is an important point and, if correctly understood, it undercuts the relevance of those studies that take the existence of finite frames as important linguistic precursors of our kind of competence. So, many have pointed to proposed earlier stages of simple syntactic combination (e.g. NVN structures) as key evolutionary precursors of our full blown recursive mechanisms. Dawkins is pointing out the logical fallacy of this suggestion. There are no steps towards recursion. You either have it or you don’t. Thus, whether or not earlier “finite” stages existed cannot possibly explain how the recursive system arose. There is an unbridgeable logical gap between the two. And that’s an important point for it invalidates virtually all research trying to show that human language is just a simple quantitative extension of our ancestors capacities.

Dawkins continues the above quote with the following, where he asks whether the communicative function of language was a plausible driving force for spreading the novel language change:

If a mutant human was born, suddenly capable of true hierarchical syntax, you might well ask who she could talk to. Wouldn’t she have been awfully lonely? If the hypothetical ‘recursion gene’ was dominant, this would mean that our first mutant individual would express it and so would 50 per cent of her offspring. Was there a First Linguistic Family? Is it significant that Fox P2 actually does happen to be a genetic dominant? On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine how, even if a parent and half her children did share the software apparatus for syntax, they could immediately start using it to communicate. (383)

Like Chomsky, Dawkins does not see how the communicative function of language was a plausible force. He does not speculate, as Chomsky and Jacob have, that the capacity for recursion enhanced cognition in the lucky individual even if there was no plausible communicative benefit. However, just like Chomsky, he does not see how communicative benefits could play any useful role.

Dawkins ends with the following accreditation:

Noam Chomsky is the genius mainly responsible for our understanding of hierarchically nested grammar, as well as other linguistic principles. He believes that human children, unlike the young of any other species, are born with a genetically implanted language-learning apparatus in the brain. The child learns the particular language of her tribe or nation, of course, but it is easy for her to do so because she is simply fleshing out what her brain already ‘knows’ about language, using her inherited language machine.

But Chomsky’s hereditarian position in this one instance makes sense and, more to the point, interesting sense. The origin of language may represent a rare example of the ‘hopeful monster’ theory of evolution. (383-4)

Note one last time the bold stuff. Dawkins finds nothing evolutionarily suspect about Chomsky’s hypothesis. Indeed, it makes “interesting sense.” Might we say that it is a bold conjecture?

Does Dawkin’s endorsement show that Chomsky’s evolutionary conjecture is right? NO!! But Hopefully it will put to rest the idea that it’s some crackpot out in left field idea that anybody who knew anything about evolution would immediately see was ridiculous. It’s not and never has been. Maybe our local evolutionary mavens can stop suggesting otherwise. Or, more modestly, if what Chomsky believes is considered reasonable by Dawkins and Jacob (among other biologists I am quite sure) then maybe that is sufficient to indicate that it is not biologically suspect on its face. In fact, one might go further and note that it is the right kind of proposal; one that isolates a simple property that should it have arisen could be expected to have far reaching evolutionary consequences. So, Chomsky’s proposal might be wrong, but it is a contender, indeed an “interesting” one. And as the movie notes, all anybody really wants is to be a contender.


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  2. 0_o


    This is the same person who tweeted this and this!?!!?

    1. You know about consistency and hobgoblins, right? Hmm.

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