Is this what the generation after Kanzi are going to be like?
Archive for July, 2007
For those of you still struggling with the parts of the brain…
Deacon and Nativism
Clearly Deacon is arguing something far more subtle than innate grammar. He begins by following the standard UG criticism – that children don’t deduce rules of grammar from nothing, they are in fact embedded in a powerful learning structure. But he goes further to argue that learning also isn’t sufficient to explain the pace and effectiveness with which children aquire language.
The nativist mistake is to attribute language learning competence to internal sources just because learning externally from adults doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation. The Skinnerian learning mistake is to assume that all external information must be passed from the minds of adults in the form of learning. Deacon believes there is an alternative explanation, that information is carried in language itself. Language is adapted to people, and is not just an abstract and unforgiving code. Therefore a child wouldn’t have to learn language by trial and error if they didn’t possess UG. If they were tuned towards language their exploration of the novel linguistic structure would be itself be structured and relevant.
“Children’s minds need not innately embody language structures, if languages embody the predisposition of children’s minds” (p109)
Deacon is interested with the interplay between the brain and language in our evolutionary pathway. The key break that he makes with the nativist tradition is that he includes the development of language in the developmental process of the brain, rather than seeing it as a later adaptation. Through this, language is afforded a evolutionary equivalence with brain development that the nativist tradition has always rejected. The other key point he makes is his assertion that it is our capacity for symbolic representation that distinguishes us from other animals, not our capacity for recursive grammar.
So lets begin by looking at Deacon’s take on the semiotics of language. He begins by arguing that there is something special about symbolic language that animals cannot produce. In Deacon’s argument, language is not something that needs to be seen as a higher replacement for all other systems of communication, rather it evolved alongside and in conjunction with these other forms. However there is something in this niche that is different. Most animals can be taught to use arbitrary signs but there is “something more” that humans do with signs which “constitutes our symbolic competence” (p68).
Over the next few weeks I’m going to be trying to rip apart Deacon‘s The Symbolic Species chapter by chapter. I’m going to be doing this because Deacon is one of the most prominent voices in the language evolution debate but having read the book once I’m still not entirely clear on the individual stands of his argument. He incites grumbles from my professors and seems the only major voice who seems content that he has solved the major steps of the problem. For these reasons I think it would be productive to try and rip him apart chapter by chapter and see what he has come up with. Be warned, my gut feeling is one of agreement, but part of me is deeply cynical.
I love it when someone wades into an academic debate and just starts flinging muck around, particularly when the muck is high quality and inclined to stick. I’ve been reading up on Buller’s critique of evolutionary psychology recently and it strikes me that he makes some good points. However, his criticisms are limited by his tendency to lump all recent evolutionary psychology together, even though he claims its a selective critique. The man really sticks the boot into evolutionary psychology.