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

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9780262032735: Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain
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A neuroscientist and a linguist show how evolution could have given rise to structured language.

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.

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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 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.

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