April 29, 2006

Can you speak in rhinoceros?

At the end of the LiveScience article on the starling controversy, a perverse piece of reasoning is attributed to Chomsky:

"[...] if someone could show that other animals had the basic property of human language, it would be of very little interest to the biology of language, but would be a puzzle for general biology," Chomsky said. "It's expected that if a species has some ability that has real selectional advantage, it will use it."

The premises seem fair, but Chomsky's conclusions are topsy-turvy.

Suppose someone has shown us "that other animals had the basic property of human language." In fact, let's suppose we actually have Gerald, a truly great ape who I just reported on. Gerald has some ability that allows him to manifest behaviorally "the basic property of human language": indeed, he's commandingly erudite. It seems clear (though this is only implicated by the above quote, not asserted) that Chomsky thinks the relevant ability would have "real selectional advantage," and that we should therefore expect that the ability is used in the wild. So now, what should we infer?

a. Chomsky's addled conclusion: Gerald would show that standard biological theory is wrong, since sometimes complex abilities evolve without leading to performance of any action that would confer selectional advantage.

b. The correct conclusion: Whatever innate cognitive capabilities Gerald has which enable him to process human language, gorillas must use these capabilities to perform tasks in the wild, tasks which confer selectional advantage. Having observed gorillas in the wild, we take it that those tasks are non-linguistic.

If I show you Gerald, you'll choose (b) every time, right? I mean, duh? Is the headline going to run: Gorillas supersmart: have been hiding it?

So Gerald's impressive language abilities would comprise part of the general intelligence that, if in the wild, he would use for dealing with nuts, bananas, and his mother. There would be no paradox for general biology, except to the extent that we would wonder about the conditions needing to obtain before cultural evolution of language might take place. And yes, of course the result would be of  interest to the biology of language! Imagine you're the editor of the journal Language, and a paper reporting that an ape can converse freely in English and Greek comes in the door. The ape is apparently a co-author. Even though you believe every claim made in the paper, you reject it with the comment "Dear Professor Fielding and colleagues, unfortunately we cannot accept your submission to our journal, as the results are of no interest for linguistics." I think not.

Chomsky and his acolytes have long claimed that the ability to process language does not comprise part of the general cognitive abilities of a problem solving animal, but is an entirely disjoint ability dependent on special purpose neural structures. Some of the evidence for this position, e.g. evidence of localization of language processing centers in the brain, is quite compelling. But the hypothetical Gerald would blow all that evidence out of the water.

This week we learned that Starlings have an ability that might loosely be described as linguistic, though you shouldn't expect one to be interviewed on the Tonight Show anytime soon. Here, I must admit I have some sympathy for Chomsky's position. We now know a little more about bird brains, but not much more about human language. Where I disagree with him is in the general principle he invokes, which seems to imply that even animals producing and comprehending grammatically correct English would be of no consequence for linguistics. Such a conclusion would be ludicrous.

By the way, many of you will recognize my title, taken from the song "Talk to the Animals" by Leslie Bricusse. And the immortal answer: "Of courserous, can't you?"

Posted by David Beaver at April 29, 2006 08:50 PM