May 06, 2005

Chomsky testifies in Kansas

In further news from Kansas, the state board of education obtained testimony by deposition in absentia from Noam Chomsky, on the advice of Daniel Dennett:

If Darwin-dreaders want a champion who is himself deeply and influentially enmeshed within science itself, they could not do better than Chomsky. [from Daniel Dennett, "Chomsky Contra Darwin: Four Episodes", in Darwin's Dangerous Idea pp. 384-393]

Some selections from Chomsky's testimony:

It is perfectly safe to attribute this development [of innate language structures] to "natural selection", so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena. [Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind, 1972, p. 97]

In studying the evolution of mind, we cannot guess to what extent there are physically possible alternatives to, say, transformational generative grammar, for an organism meeting certain other physical conditions characteristic of humans. Conceivably, there are none -- or very few -- in which case talk about the evolution of the language capacity is beside the point. [Chomsky 1972 p. 98]

It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected. In the case of such systems as language or wings it is not even easy to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them. A rudimentary wing, for example, is not "useful" for motion but is more of an impediment. [Noam Chomsky Language and Problems of Knowledge: the Managua Lectures 1988 p 167]

It may be that at some remote period a mutation took place that gave rise to the property of discrete infinity, perhaps for reasons that have to do with the biology of cells, to be explained in terms of properties of physical mechanisms, now unknown. . . . Quite possibly other aspects of its evolutionary development again reflect the operation of physical laws applying to a brain of a certain degree of complexity. [Chomsky 1988, p. 170]

[For the commenters at Pharyngula -- this is a joke, OK? Chomsky did not testify in Kansas nor did he submit a deposition. As far as I know, the Kansas state board of education is unaware of his views.]

Chomsky defends himself here, against observations made by John Maynard Smith in a review of Dennett's book.

My own impression is that Chomsky has always been motivated by rationalist epistemology, and has always rejected the idea of Darwinian evolution of mental abilities, which he sees as a sort of genetic empiricism. He simply and consistently dislikes the idea that language might be learned, whether by neurons or by genes. As a result, he prefers to wait for "physical mechanisms, now unknown" at the level of cell biology, or necessarily-emergent properties of complex-enough brains, or some other now-mysterious form of explanation.

I very much doubt that he believes in "intelligent design", but his skepticism about the efficacy of natural selection makes him a natural ally for its partisans, who might well be happy to supplement the biology curriculum with references to "physical mechanisms, now unknown" and to the emergent properties of complex systems. After all, such emergent properties provide a natural programming language for the Divine Watchmaker to use to encode her plans for creation.

And given Chomsky's taste for intellectual provocation, I can imagine him flirting with such an alliance. In the first lecture I ever heard him give, in 1965, he asserted that psychology had in no way improved on Plato's theory that learning is remembering past lives. Hilary Putnam interrupted from the back of the room: "Wait a minute. You're not seriously suggesting that reincarnation is a plausible explanation?" Chomsky held his ground: "Why not? It certainly makes more sense than associative learning does."

Well, OK, it's not very likely that we'll see papers co-authored by Chomsky and Michael Behe, despite the analogy between Behe's notion of irreducible complexity and Chomsky's views on the uselessness of "a rudimentary wing" or an imperfect language. I imagine that C. dislikes creationism as an explanation as much as he dislikes learning (whether Hebbian or Darwinian), and the intelligent-designers are clearly creationists in disguise.

[Update 5/8/2005: Kerim Friedman at Keywords " elaborate[s] upon [what he takes to be] the scientific foundations for Chomsky's skepticism", specifically Gould's idea about spandrels. I certainly agree with Kerim that "skepticism about some of the core assumptions of evolutionary biology ultimately strengthen, rather than weaken, science; as well as Darwin's legacy". However, I wanted to suggest that the foundation of Chomsky's attitude on this subject seems to me to be epistemological rather than biological.

Cosma Shalizi raised by email a question I've always wondered about, namely the connection between Chomsky's anti-Darwinism and that of his co-author Marcel-Paul Schuetzenberger (N. Chomsky and M. P. Schuetzenberger, The Algebraic Theory of Context-Free Languages (Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: North-Holland, 1963, pp. 118-161; M. Schuetzenberger. 1967. "Algorithms and neo-Darwinian theory." In Paul S. Moorhead and Martin M. Kaplan, ed. Mathematical challenges to the neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolution, p. 73. The Wistar Institute Symposium Monograph No. 5.) Cosma pointed out that Schuetzenberger (who outside of this context was an accomplished mathematician) "influenced David Berlinski, and I think Behe and Dembski too, though I'm less sure of that. For Berlinski, see his characteristically idiotic essay "The Deniable Darwin", _Commentary_, vol. 101, no. 6 (June 1996). Dembski quotes a particular argument Schutzenberger gave, for the impossibility of evolving computer programs, in 1966; of course by 1975 John Holland and his group had done enough work on genetic algorithms that Holland could publish a classic book on the subject... "

Schuetzenberger's anti-Darwin arguments have nothing to do with Gould's spandrels, but rather involve calculating the (in S's view vanishingly small) probablity that random processes could result in observed biological complexity. I imagine that Chomsky heard these arguments in the early 1960s, and they probably form part of the history of his opinions about neo-Darwinism.

Cosma also pointed out that the ID people generally hate the idea of self-organization and emergence. This seems to me to be short-sighted on their part, since there is no other naturalistic mechanism available for an intelligent designer to use, even to "program" the genotype-phenotype relationship, much less the observable dynamics of population genetics interacting with the environment. Perhaps the ID-ers are just tripping over that "self-" morpheme, which unnecessarily implies that no one established the initial conditions that led to a particular outcome. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 6, 2005 09:04 AM