Post by Bodo Winter:
Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s talk at this Evolang gave an impressively confident and forceful argument for linguistic nativism. The basic tenets of the Chomskyan view of language evolution were reiterated with some old and some new arguments along the way. Piattelli-Palmarini (P.P.) claimed that (1) language is modular and autonomous from other cognitive systems, (2) syntax dominates other aspects of language such as semantics, and (3) that language has not arisen through natural selection because it is a non-adaptive trait. In line with Chomskyan syntactocentrism, syntax was argued to be the major evolutionary transition in the evolution of language.
Generally, it is a good thing to have strong arguments for a particular position because it spurs discussion and excites new research. However, P.P.’s arguments very much neglected or belittled major empirical advances in evolutionary linguistics and cognitive science. If this new evidence is taken into account, the picture that emerges is very different from what P.P. argued for.