On August 19, 2005, the journal Cognition posted on line a 19,000-word article by Tecumseh Fitch, Marc Hauser and Noam Chomsky, entitled "The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications" (free version here), referencing an additional 6,000-word appendix "The Minimalist Program". This is the third turn in a (so far) four-turn, three-year debate with Steve Pinker and Ray Jackendoff.
Chris at Mixing Memory has posted on FHC 2005, asking especially for help in decoding Chomsky's Minimalist appendix. I'll limit myself to observing that it's entirely "inside baseball": seven pages of text that mention no linguistic facts and no specific languages, nor any simulations, formulae, or empirical generalizations. Aside from a very general and abstract account of Chomsky's view of the goals of his research, the only topic is who said what when, sometimes with a very abstract explanation of why. It's an odd document -- I can't think of anything at all comparable from a major figure in a scientific or scholarly field, except perhaps some controversies over precedence (which is not an issue here). I agree with the judgment of Jacques Mehler, the editor of Cognition, who asked for it to be cut; and it seems to me that it's a distraction for outsiders (including most of the normal readership of Cognition) to try to understand it.
However, the larger discussion of language evolution has many points of general interest, which we've touched on in this blog from time to time, and will again. So as a public service, here's a quick overview, with links, of the Chomsky/Fitch/Hauser vs. Jackendoff/Pinker story so far:
Step 1 (HCF, 2002): Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and Tecumseh Fitch wrote an article in Science entitled "The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?" (Vol 298, Issue 5598, 1569-157 , 22 November 2002). A free version is available here.
Step 2 (PJ, 2004): Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff responded with an article in Cognition entitled "The faculty of language: what's special about it?" (Volume 95, Issue 2 , March 2005, Pages 201-236 -- free version here).
Step 3 (FHC, 2005) Fitch, Hauser and Chomsky have responded, with an article due out in Cognition entitled "The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications" (free version here). The abstract refers to an "online appendix" where "we detail the deep inaccuracies in their characterization of [the Minimalist Program]". The appendix does not seem to be linked anywhere in the online paper, but it is on line here, with the authors ordered as "N. Chomsky, M.D. Hauser and W.T. Fitch", entitled "Appendix. The Minimalist Program."
Step 4 (JP, 2005): Jackendoff and Pinker will respond to the response, in an article entitled "The Nature of the Language Faculty and its Implications for Evolution of Language" (listed as "in press" at Cognition, but not yet available on line -- free version of 3/25/2005 here).
If you want a quick overview of what the conversation is about, without reading all 57,440 words so far expended by all sides, here are the abstracts, again with links to the full versions:
Step 1 (2002): Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and Tecumseh Fitch wrote an article in Science entitled "The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?" (Vol 298, Issue 5598, 1569-157 , 22 November 2002). A free version is available here. The abstract:
We argue that an understanding of the faculty of language requires substantial interdisciplinary cooperation. We suggest how current developments in linguistics can be profitably wedded to work in evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience. We submit that a distinction should be made between the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB) and in the narrow sense (FLN). FLB includes a sensory-motor system, a conceptual-intentional system, and the computational mechanisms for recursion, providing the capacity to generate an infinite range of expressions from a finite set of elements. We hypothesize that FLN only includes recursion and is the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language. We further argue that FLN may have evolved for reasons other than language, hence comparative studies might look for evidence of such computations outside of the domain of communication (for example, number, navigation, and social relations).
Step 2 (2004): Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff responded with an article in Cognition entitled "The faculty of language: what's special about it?" (Volume 95, Issue 2 , March 2005, Pages 201-236 -- free version here). The abstract:
We examine the question of which aspects of language are uniquely human and uniquely linguistic in light of recent suggestions by Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch that the only such aspect is syntactic recursion, the rest of language being either specific to humans but not to language (e.g. words and concepts) or not specific to humans (e.g. speech perception). We find the hypothesis problematic. It ignores the many aspects of grammar that are not recursive, such as phonology, morphology, case, agreement, and many properties of words. It is inconsistent with the anatomy and neural control of the human vocal tract. And it is weakened by experiments suggesting that speech perception cannot be reduced to primate audition, that word learning cannot be reduced to fact learning, and that at least one gene involved in speech and language was evolutionarily selected in the human lineage but is not specific to recursion. The recursion-only claim, we suggest, is motivated by Chomsky's recent approach to syntax, the Minimalist Program, which de-emphasizes the same aspects of language. The approach, however, is sufficiently problematic that it cannot be used to support claims about evolution. We contest related arguments that language is not an adaptation, namely that it is “perfect,” non-redundant, unusable in any partial form, and badly designed for communication. The hypothesis that language is a complex adaptation for communication which evolved piecemeal avoids all these problems.
Step 3 (2005) Fitch, Hauser and Chomsky have responded, with an article due out in Cognition entitled "The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications" (free version here). The abstract:
In this response to Pinker and Jackendoff's critique, we extend our previous framework for discussion of language evolution, clarifying certain distinctions and elaborating on a number of points. In the first half of the paper, we reiterate that profitable research into the biology and evolution of language requires fractionation of “language” into component mechanisms and interfaces, a non-trivial endeavor whose results are unlikely to map onto traditional disciplinary boundaries. Our terminological distinction between FLN and FLB is intended to help clarify misunderstandings and aid interdisciplinary rapprochement. By blurring this distinction, Pinker and Jackendoff mischaracterize our hypothesis 3 which concerns only FLN, not “language” as a whole. Many of their arguments and examples are thus irrelevant to this hypothesis. Their critique of the minimalist program is for the most part equally irrelevant, because very few of the arguments in our original paper were tied to this program; in an online appendix we detail the deep inaccuracies in their characterization of this program. Concerning evolution, we believe that Pinker and Jackendoff's emphasis on the past adaptive history of the language faculty is misplaced. Such questions are unlikely to be resolved empirically due to a lack of relevant data, and invite speculation rather than research. Preoccupation with the issue has retarded progress in the field by diverting research away from empirical questions, many of which can be addressed with comparative data. Moreover, offering an adaptive hypothesis as an alternative to our hypothesis concerning mechanisms is a logical error, as questions of function are independent of those concerning mechanism. The second half of our paper consists of a detailed response to the specific data discussed by Pinker and Jackendoff. Although many of their examples are irrelevant to our original paper and arguments, we find several areas of substantive disagreement that could be resolved by future empirical research. We conclude that progress in understanding the evolution of language will require much more empirical research, grounded in modern comparative biology, more interdisciplinary collaboration, and much less of the adaptive storytelling and phylogenetic speculation that has traditionally characterized the field.
Step 4 (JP, 2005): Jackendoff and Pinker will respond to the response, in an article entitled "The Nature of the Language Faculty and its Implications for Evolution of Language" (listed as "in press" at Cognition, but not yet available on line -- free version of 3/25/2005 here). The abstract:
Posted by Mark Liberman at August 25, 2005 10:04 AM
In a continuation of the conversation with Fitch, Chomsky, and Hauser on the evolution of language, we examine their defense of the claim that the uniquely human, language-specific part of the language faculty (the “narrow language faculty”) consists only of recursion, and that this part cannot be considered an adaptation to communication. We argue that their characterization of the narrow language faculty is problematic for many reasons, including its dichotomization of cognitive capacities into those that are utterly unique and those that are identical to nonlinguistic or nonhuman capacities, omitting capacities that may have been substantially modified during human evolution. We also question their dichotomy of the current utility versus original function of a trait, which omits traits that are adaptations for current use, and their dichotomy of humans and animals, which conflates similarity due to common function and similarity due to inheritance from a recent common ancestor. We show that recursion, though absent from other animals’ communications systems, is found in visual cognition, hence cannot be the sole evolutionary development that granted language to humans. Finally, we note that despite Fitch et al.’s denial, their view of language evolution is tied to Chomsky’s conception of language itself, which identifies combinatorial productivity with a core of “narrow syntax.” An alternative conception, in which combinatoriality is spread across words and constructions, has both empirical advantages and greater evolutionary plausibility.