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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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Thanks for bringing this paper to my attention. It's good to see D'Arcy Thompson and Turing mentioned, but the absence of Christine Kenneally's book does seem strange.

I wonder if our understanding of language evolution would be much different (and if so, how), had the subject not been academically anathema for several decades.

J. Goard

Not only Kenneally is overlooked, but also Tomasello, Bates, MacWhinney, Bybee, Nick Ellis, Kirby, or basically anyone who has a good story for how general principles of learning and transmission might explain linguistic structure. They are pretending that their rivals don't exist, and yet pose the very questions (in the manner of a wish list) that these people address.

It’s notable that they use the terms “recursion” and “merge”, which grow out of and largely assume a Minimalist conception of syntax, and then charge psychology with explaining these phenomena. I find it more appropriate to use well-established psychological terms and then charge our own field (linguistics) with detailing their role in language acquisition and use.

Many important terms are notably absent. Probably the biggest example is“chunking”, which goes back to Miller (1956) and has been used extensively for half a century in research on motor learning, short and long-term memory, and special kinds of expertise such as chess or playing quarterback, as well as pedagogical applications. Other key terms are “schema”, “transfer (of learning)”, “analogy”, and “automatization” or “entrenchment”.

Where in this paper are the empirically established principles about how we know and learn, which provide a bridge from brain evolution to linguistic explanation? There is a lot of hand-waving, but few details or citations. Section 5, which focusses on Lennenberg (1967), claims that “very young children ‘learn’ basic properties of their language much faster than unguided learning models could predict,” but does not see fit to mention a vast literature on which principles are known to guide learning in diverse domains. Unguided learning versus scare-quoting “learn” is obviously a false dichotomy.

The authors do not seem to care about the cognitive psychology of learning very much, making huge leaps from evolutionary biology to the “language phenotype”, from hormones to language acquisition, from brain lateralization to the lexical/grammatical distinction, without the appropriate intermediary concepts. Reading the paper, I imagined a biologist who wonders how subatomic physics might produce an “elan vital”, without giving much thought to the details of organic chemistry.

The absence of key terms in the psychology of learning seems to be one reflection of a strange orientation in generative linguistics toward psychology in general. To me, as a linguist and proponent of a “usage-based” model of grammar, what psychology reveals about such phenomena as human attention and memory, motor planning, sensory discrimination, STM and LTM encoding and retrieval (with the roles of frequency and recency), social transmission, copying fidelity, and transfer, provide a framework of proven mechanisms in terms of which my job is to devise explanations of specific linguistic phenomena. To the authors, they have found something amazing about language which they characterize in quasi-psychological terms (“recursion”, “merge”, “computational constraints”), and are now setting psychology on a grand adventure to identify and characterize it. Thus, instead of constraining the higher field (linguistics) in terms of the foundational field (psychology), the authors are dictating what foundations need to be found.

Sometimes this kind of orientation works, as when the study of inheritance and natural selection charged biochemistry with finding the replicator molecule. But does linguistics have the explanatory power of Darwin and Mendel, to issue such a challenge? Generative grammarians seem to answer “yes”, but I have yet to see anything in language that would move me from a default “no”.
BLOGGER: I think this is an excellent comment and want to add only that generative grammarians are not alone in thinking paying attention only to their field. Although they are perhaps the most arragant about it.

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