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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Jed Harris

Two points:

First, Chomsky's basic position is just a restatement of the old "what good is half an eye?" argument. Less than full structural recursive merging would be useless. As always when you see this sort of claim you should be try to quickly think of counter-examples, they usually aren't hard to find.

Second, I do think that getting some sort of recursive merging into cognitive evolution is probably a key step that put us on the slippery slope to full language. But in fact it is very easy to make small changes in a complex system that make it recursive (in a finite, sloppy way, of course). For example, being able to process the efferent copy of vocal gestures as though it was auditory input would give us this sort of messy recursion, and just the sort of thing that could come about through exaptation of existing mechanisms.

Underlying all of this is Chomsky's continued commitment to a perfect "language machine" in people's heads. By now that is somewhat sad.


I have not read much of Chomsky's, but what little I have convinces me of how anemic a thinker he can be. Certainly their is more to the brain than merely our thoughts. And the thoughts we do have are not so easily separated from the myriad of motivations and impulses, both ancient and novel, that lay behind the want to speak in the first place. The role of the emotions has much to do with the thoughts we construct, a phenomenon we can actually see and hear recapitulated though the speech process itself. Its no wonder then, that after listening to Chomsky speak,
he takes the position that he does.

yair shimron

Bickerton called Chomsky's thoughts about language evolution abracadabra. No abiliti of any animal can be achieved if not practised very much. Chomsky's suggestions are no more than abracadabra.


I hope you will carry on with the inquiry you have started and not be influenced too greatly by the Chomsky paper. I trust that Chomsky understands a great deal about linguistics, about philosophy, about logic and the like. I also have the feeling that he understands very little about evolution, genetics, communication in the broader sense that just language, neurobiology, computational methods other than sequential ones and the like. My rule of thumb is that if an argument appears logically sound but if the conclusion is rationally unacceptable then the axioms have to be questioned.
Chomsky seems to start with a dividing gulf between humans and other animals (or as he puts it just ‘animals’, implying that humans are not animals). Further he believes that language is a uniquely human thing by definition and therefore cannot have a continuum with animal communication – there must be some gulf large enough to be comfortable with the gulf between humans and other animals. So he makes sure the evolution of our communication cannot be traced back to the dawn of life (let alone the dawn of apes), as for instance our sight or our locomotion would be. If it must be confined to a minor, little change in one, alone individual in the relatively recent past; than perhaps instead God just waved a wand.
He seems to want to keep, by some means or other, as much as he can of a mind-body split by a back door. This takes up a good deal of space in the article. He can than go ahead treating language as some sort of logic-game rather than a part, large part, of a biological function, communication. We can then talk about meaning without context. The whole study can then be clean and unsullied by actual biology: bio-linguistics with a lot of linguistics and very little bio.
BLOGGER: I see that Chomsky is taking a lot of hits on this post and I urge anyone able to defend him to please do so.

Richard W. Symonds

I wrote this only last Saturday : "The Babel Theory of Language", with no idea of Chomsky's piece, or your blog....weird or what ??!!

Richard W. Symonds


The problem with the sentence: 'John is to angry to eat', and 'John is to angry to invite' is that the syntax of the sentence is formed before the sign 'invite' was conceived. In order to 'invite' someone you must invite him somewhere (at some place) that is yours. The concept of property must be signified and be part of social system and language discourse in order for the verb/word 'invite' to have meaning. I believe that a basic form of language (or prelangue) is formed before the concept of property.
BLOGGER: I thought this was an interesting comment, but I do not believe that invitations require a concept of property. I'm invited all the time to go places not owned by the inviter, and there are also invitations to join activities or keep company.


I think you are not quite right and you should still studying the matter.


If y'all are going to shoot down the presented theory in the arrogant way you have then at least offer an explanation alongside.

JanetK: the language divide between humans and animals is obviously monumental. Anyone wanting to arrive at significant conclusions regarding linguistics would be fooling in my opinion not to differentiate between human and animal language first. Moreover, language might not necessarily be thought of as a 'continuum' but rather of hierarchical nature.


Reply to essay poster (interesting read by the way!):

I wouldn't say language gains meaning by reorganizing symbols, as reorganizing symbols is language itself. Having said that, and having read your post, I get the impression that Chomsky's ideas are an attempt to a step forward from Wittgenstein's "meaning is use". I think he is trying to explain WHY meaning is use, which for me points to his ideas about 'internal language' and the innate capacity for humans to learn language.

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