Sunday, August 12, 2007

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

This review is from the New York Times Book Review. The First Word sounds like a book I will have to get. I have long been interested in the origins of language, from Chomsky's dismissal of ever being able to know how language developed because it is hard-wired into our brains, to some of the theorists who suggest language skills developed in the same region of the brain responsible for throwing a spear at an animal or gesturing with with hands.

From what I can tell in this review, Christine Kenneally seems to look at the current state of language studies in a fairly comprehensive way.

In this field, physical evidence is scarce — language, except in its written form, leaves no trace — and scholarly clout depends on a capacity for ingenious inference and supposition. Christine Kenneally, a linguistics Ph.D. turned journalist, shrewdly begins “The First Word,” her account of this new science, with candid portraits of several of its most influential figures. Appropriately, the first chapter is devoted to Noam Chomsky, whose ideas have dominated linguistics since the late 1950s, and who, as Kenneally reports, has been hailed as a genius on a par with Einstein and disparaged as the leader of a “cult” with “evil side effects.”

According to Chomsky, humans are born with the principles of grammar hard-wired in their brains, enabling them, from an early age and without formal instruction, to construct an infinite variety of sentences from a finite number of words. Moreover, Chomsky has suggested, language is a peculiarly human phenomenon, a trait so remarkable that evolutionary theory is virtually helpless to explain it. “It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected,” he wrote in 1988. “In the case of such systems as language ... it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them.” Chomsky’s impatience with the question of language’s origins effectively squelched inquiry into the subject for decades. (In a sense, Kenneally notes, such considerations had been taboo for much longer: although Darwin noted similarities between human speech and sounds made by monkeys and birds, and speculated that language “has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps,” by the mid-1870s the linguistic societies of Paris and London had formally banned all discussion of evolution.)

Lately, however, Chomsky’s grip on the field has loosened, thanks to half a dozen or so determined upstarts, among them his former student Philip Lieberman, who has mined the human brain for evidence that language evolved from organs, like the basal ganglia, that we share with many other species; the primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught a bonobo named Kanzi the comprehension skills of a toddler; and the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, an early champion of the notion that Chomskyan theory is compatible with Darwinian axioms.

In 1989, Pinker and a graduate student named Paul Bloom wrote a paper in which they argued that “language is no different from other complex abilities, such as echolocation or stereopsis,” and that “the only way to explain the origin of such abilities is through the theory of natural selection.” Just as the eye — an organ of breathtaking complexity and specialization — evolved incrementally through the combined effects of random mutations and natural selection over millions of years, so, too, Pinker and Bloom insisted, did language. The authors were invited to present their paper at M.I.T., where Pinker was then a professor, and they learned that Chomsky had agreed to serve as a commentator. Kenneally quotes Bloom on his reaction to this news: “I was absolutely terrified. ... Chomsky is utterly merciless in debate.”

In the end, Chomsky failed to show (apparently he had back trouble), and Pinker and Bloom went on to publish their paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a leading scientific journal, where it appeared along with comments from 31 scientists, including one who titled his endorsement “Liberation!” “From that point on,” Kenneally writes, “more and more researchers felt that studying the origin and evolution of language was a legitimate academic inquiry.”

Liberation has frequently taken a creative form. Lieberman compared the language and motor skills of Parkinson’s patients with those of climbers on Mount Everest. Both groups suffered damage to their basal ganglia: in the first case because of disease, in the second because of oxygen deprivation. Lieberman discovered that the higher the climbers went, the more difficulty they had forming speech — a complicated motor skill — and understanding sentences.One climber displayed such alarming deficits that Lieberman’s research team, which was monitoring the man by radio link, urged him to descend. He refused and several days later fell to his death. It turned out that the man had failed to properly attach his safety harness. The conclusion Lieberman drew from his study — that the basal ganglia, which in animals regulate motor skills, are also crucial for controlling human speech and thought — suggests how such an accident might have occurred. As Kenneally puts it: “It appears that the lack of oxygen supply to the basal ganglia affected the climber’s ability to follow the basic sequence of clipping and unclipping.”

Read the whole review.

No comments: