Tag Archives: Bengalese Finch

Domain-General Regions and Domain-Specific Networks

The notion of a domain-specific, language acquisition device is something that still divides linguists. Yet, in an ongoing debate spanning at least several decades, there is still no evidence, at least to my knowledge, for the existence of a Universal Grammar. Although, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the problem was solved many years ago, especially if you were to believe the now  sixteen-year old words of Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (1994):

The extreme specificity of the language system, indeed, is a fact, not just a working hypothesis, even less a heuristically convenient postulation. Doubting that there are language-specific, innate computational capacities today is a bit like being still dubious about the very existence of molecules, in spite of the awesome progress of molecular biology.

Suffice to say, the analogy between applying scepticism of molecules and scepticism of Universal Grammar is a dud, even if it does turn out that the latter does exist. Why? Well, as stated above: we still don’t know if humans have, or for that matter, even require, an innate ability to process certain grammatical principles. The rationale for thinking that we have some innate capacity for acquiring language can be delineated into a twofold argument: first, children seem adept at rapidly learning a language, even though they aren’t exposed to all of the data; and second, cognitive science told us that our brains are massively modular, or at the very least, should entail some aspect that is domain specific to language (see FLB/FLN distinction in Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch, 2002). I think the first point has been done to death on this blog: cultural evolution can provide an alternative explanation as to how children successfully learn language (see here and here and Smith & Kirby, 2008). What I haven’t really spoken about is the mechanism behind our ability to process language, or to put it differently: how are our brains organised to process language?

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Answering Wallace's challenge: Relaxed Selection and Language Evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgHow does natural selection account for language? Darwin wrestled with it, Chomsky sidestepped it, and Pinker claimed to solve it. Discerning the evolution of language is therefore a much sought endeavour, with a vast number of explanations emerging that offer a plethora of choice, but little in the way of consensus. This is hardly new, and at times has seemed completely frivolous and trivial. So much so that in the 19th Century, the Royal Linguistic Society in London actually went as far as to ban any discussion and debate on the origins of language. Put simply: we don’t really know that much. Often quoted in these debates is Alfred Russell Wallace, who, in a letter to Darwin, argued that: “natural selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape whereas he possesses one very little inferior to that of an average member of our learned society”.

This is obviously relevant for those of us studying language evolution. If, as Wallace challenged, natural selection (and more broadly, evolution) is unable to account for our mental capacities and behavioural capabilities, then what is the source behind our propensity for language? Well, I think we’ve come far enough to rule out the spiritual explanations of Wallace (although it still persists on some corners of the web), and whilst I agree that biological natural selection alone is not sufficient to explain language, we can certainly place it in an evolutionary framework.

Such is the position of Prof Terrence Deacon, who, in his current paper for PNAS, eloquently argues for a role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity. He’s been making these noises for a while now, as I previously mentioned here, with him also recognising evolutionary-similar processes in development. However, with the publication of this paper I think it’s about time I disseminated his current ideas in more detail, which, in my humble opinion, offers a more nuanced position than the strict modular adaptationism previously championed by Pinker et al (I say previously, because Pinker also has a paper in this issue, and I’m going to read it before making any claims about his current position on the matter).

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