Noam Chomsky on Nim Chimpsky and the emergence of language

Originally published at: Noam Chomsky on Nim Chimpsky and the emergence of language | Boing Boing


I was once at a talk where Ray Jackendoff said that Chomsky was a creationist because there isn’t any mechanism that would allow a brain to evolve the ability to “have language” in the Chomskyan “language acquisition device” “parameters setting” kind of sense. Because the underlying structure of language is universal in Chomskyan formal syntax, all of the capacity for producing the morphology of Lakota and the word ordering of Mandarin had to develop in the brain simultaneously. For Chomsky, it isn’t possible that there was ever a time where there were people creating say only two-word “sentences” because the theory of Generative/Universal Grammar/Minimalist Program states that the ability to create such sentences also implies the ability to learn any human language. Thus the conclusions that Chomsky comes up with that language developed spontaneously all at once is driven by the theoretical framework rather than from any actual evidence.


That’s a sensible take, I think. An evolutionary biologist might say that language is such a powerful advantage that it likely evolved multiple times on multiple branches. Thus, any attempt to find a Universal Grammar is ultimately an exercise in retconning. You’re trying to define one system where nature created 20. The outcome is not the mechanism and evolution is not cosmology. You can’t necessarily just look at the data and deduce universal mechanisms therein because evolution is emergently clever.

All the truly great advantages (legs, flight, eyesight, etc) seem to have evolved separately more than once so it stands to reason language would too. It seems Chomsky and the evolutionary biologists agree on one thing- there’s no way evolution would let something that powerful go unused in a species. It’s way too good at optimization for that. Such an idea very much reflects the early paternalism of science.


But then, where are the talking crabs? :wink:


Somewhere in the oeuvre of Burrows I suspect.


Heh; I remember running into someone at a party from some American university, who, when they found out that I was taking a minor in linguistics at the University of Toronto, said scornfully; “Oh, you’re a Transformational Generativist!” (and in true Transformational Generativist form, the underlying meaning is “one of those people”.


In all likelihood it was Buffalo, a very functional linguistics department.


I think you may be right; that rings a bell.


That’s maybe putting it a bit strongly, but there is at least a suspicious Lamarckian odor when he hand-wavingly says that humans evolved a “computational mechanism” for language 100,000 years ago.

It is true that the appearance of language was very sudden on an evolutionary timescale, but he seems to think that is evidence for his case, when it’s actually the opposite. Evolution proceeds in tiny increments, so if humans have a unique Language Organ, then our ancestors 200,000 years ago must have had an extremely similar organ, which was worth having in its own right. (Adaptations don’t evolve on the basis that “this will be useful once our descendants finally get it to work”). It is hard, albeit not impossible, to imagine why we’d evolve 99.99% of the biological capacity for language before getting any of the benefit of being able to use language at all.

For my money, the key is to appreciate that language is not just a feature of humans, it is also an organism in its own right, in the Dawkins sort of sense. So it’s not simply that we evolved cognitive faculties that chimps lack; it’s that we are the species that Language happened to domesticate. When we fail to teach a chimp language, that doesn’t necessarily suggest a profound cognitive difference, any more than dogs are radically different to wolves because only one can be house-trained.


I don’t disagree with your larger point, but I take small issue with this example. As both veterinarians in my immediate family are very tired of explaining to clients, dogs are in fact very definitely not wolves. They are a separate species* with a non-trivial evolutionary gap therefrom. Their brains and biology are materially different than wolves in many ways, which is largely why they are domesticate-able (and wolves are not). Forgive me if I’m throwing a straw man in your direction, but this tripped my alarm set for every time people treat wolves as just “dogs that nobody has been real nice to yet”.

*with the understanding that “species” is actually a really poorly defined word, but you get my point here, I think.


Hoooboy. I could go on for days on this one.

@bobtato - the FoxP2 gene shows up about 150k years ago, and is thought to be the mutation which allows for “language.”

In current [academic] linguistic theory, the Chomskyan UG model is either under attack or dismissed, as his claims for universality fall one by one and he reorganizes his system to account for the failures. This eventually leads to a model too weak to account for much at all. Note that in real life, Linguistics as a field of study is divided into the pre- and post-Chomskyan eras (~1959, and his One Big Idea). Now we’re about 5-10 years into a post-post-Chomskyan world. Dan Everett may be the new hotness in the field.

It is the case that Chomsky is the one linguist who is known for being so, but rather ironically, he is far better known for his political and social action. I say “ironically,” because the central tenet of his argument in that sphere is that people in positions of authority are inherently corrupt, and should not be listened to.

In an anatomical sense, humans are the only primates with a physical vocal apparatus allowing for a variety of sounds which can be organized into languages. Other primates are less susceptible to drowning, which seems to be the evolutionary tradeoff.

A very good and more-or-less accessible to the non-academic rundown of the counter-Chomsky position was presented in a long read in the New Yorker several years back: The Interpreter | The New Yorker

Happy to field questions here: this is my thing.


Steve Pinker may has a bone to pick with you about this assertion. But maybe you are right–Pinker hasn’t really been known as a linguist for 20 years, and even then I think he basically said what Chomsky had said but wrote more clearly.


Pinker actually has a split appointment in both the Psychology and Linguistics departments, curiously enough, so not quite a linguist enough for some linguists. And while he has a pop presence and is camera-knowledgable, he’s not famous for theoretical breakthroughs as is Chomsky. But point taken, and I’d tend to agree.

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I believe documentarian Roger Corman addressed this issue as it pertained to coconut crabs of certain atolls used for atomic testing

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Yeah, I meant that dogs and wolves are different, and it’s not because of some evolved adaptation. If we thought about that difference the way Chomsky seems to think about language, then we’d suppose that one day a wolf gave birth to a litter of golden retrievers with special human-companionship glands. But actually, you can make a dog using only feral wolf phenotypes, which we know because that’s what we did.

Obviously wolves are more suited to domestication than sea cucumbers, just as humans are probably more amenable to language than other species. But wolves didn’t “evolve domestication”, rather, it is something that happened to them, and I would suggest something similar is true of language. It seems likely that many species have the ingredients to use language in their genetic recipes, and if they started using language then they would very rapidly start breeding out the most language-friendly expression of their genome (or culture would start artificially selecting them, if you want to put it that way). If so, then saying “Nim can’t use language, so chimps don’t have that ability” is like saying “this badger shat on my rug, so badgers can’t be domesticated” – the conclusion might be true, but the reasoning isn’t valid.

We’re probably wandering off track with this whole “wolves and dogs” sidebar, but again, this isn’t really true. Wolves did evolve domestication. It started (we believed) by them hanging around our camps because we leave garbage everywhere. The ones who were born gentler and more amenable to people got closer and were rewarded with food. They bred more as a result. This is natural selection at work. Furthermore, wolves had to be genetically predisposed to domestication in the first place. Very very few species are. Again, people tend to think domestication is just “being nice to animals when they’re little”. It isn’t, which is why tigers, chimps, and raccoons all maul their owners sooner or later. They are still wild no matter how nice you are too them. Domesticateability (not a word) is genetic.

The later creation of breeds and all that that we did was obviously “done to them” but domestication was regular old evolution.


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