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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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First, I'd like to say that it has been a pleasure to find and read this blog, especially with the liveblogging of the conference. Thanks for doing it!

I just wanted to make the note, as you I'm sure know, that those adherents of generative grammar that you list mostly disagree with Chomsky's theories. Jackendoff, for example, has proposed a very different grammatical paradigm with a balance between syntax and semantics which has allowed him to address evolutionary perspectives. He and Chomksy have fairly publicly debated on the topic.

So, "generative grammar" is not necessarily the same as "Chomsky's generative grammar" (i.e. Minimalism). The latter is to be rejected, while the former may still have potential in it yet.

(Full disclosure: I am Jackendoff's grad student)
BLOGGER: It is true that there are different generative grammers, Somewhere on my blog is a discussion of the Jackendoff system, but in this case those differences may not matter as the more general rejection of the generative paradigm:

brian bayly

That is a great report and analysis of Evolang! --- and provocative. Trying to be brief makes the following seem harsh. Please mentally flesh out a longer, more tentative version.

In “Some Say versus Others Say” EBB writes:
“Humans are unique, not just in having language, but in living in a world of digital symbols (i.e. something is A or not A) and the real question is how we came to be analog creatures who live in an artificial world of digital symbols . . .
. . . Knight and Powers are insisting that digital things are human artifacts and cannot have a place in the …world of brute facts.”

When a person sees a tree some neurons in her brain go through a dance. When she sees a second tree, again some neurons dance, including many of the same neurons and pulses as before (So far we remain close to the world of brute facts).
But the person’s brain may extract the common features of the two dances; some neurons may go through a third dance that represents the common features and lets go of or loses the accidental differences. By such a process the person forms an abstract concept (though not yet a symbol). The abstract concept is a human artifice. The person has created a category, and a third plant she sees either adds to the category or belongs outside it (“A or not A”).

How did we come to live in an artificial world … ? By categorizing.

Why are human systems of categories so elaborate compared with an ape’s? Because we get pleasure from categorizing. For pleasure we invent categories, many of which later turn out to have utility.

Now look for syntax: suppose a person observes someone walking, someone running, someone eating nuts and someone picking fruit. A person who gets pleasure from categorizing may put the first two together in one group and the latter two together in a second group --- thus laying groundwork for distinguishing transitive from intransitive verbs. Words arise through categorizing items and relations, and syntax arises through categorizing events. Apes do enough categorizing to get by. It is the uniquely human feature pleasure-from-categorizing that makes human culture more complicated, including human language.

To recognize the extensive consequences of pleasure from categorizing is not quite a new paradigm. But it is a step toward a fresh picture of where language came from, why we have it and apes don’t. It would be a step forward if pleasure from categorizing were given more attention. Perhaps readers of this blog will lead the way.

“… chimps mostly don’t WANT to name things just for the sake of it” – Jean Aitchison

“… (other animals) never extract characters for the mere fun of the thing, as men do.”
- William James.

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