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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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well done: it is antithetical to the research process to think ANY theory is done, finished and complete, unless the ability to ask questions and wonder if things can be different suddenly disappears.


My personal reading of Chomsky is exactly the oppposite of the popular opinion.

His reason for assuming the Giant leap forward instead of a multi-stage story is very explicit (even in your quotes) - simplest story wins. It is absolutely clear in his writings that he has an "apathy" not antipathy towards gradualist stories - and his reasons are clear.

His claims about UG and evolution are severely misunderstood. And the claim that there has been some radical change in his views on evolution and UG with the publication of HCF just hasn't read the primary Chomsky literature carefully. This is a false view that is rampant in the secondary/tertiary literature on Chomsky.

To be constructive: "The Generative Enterprise Revisted" is a book that compiles Chomsky interviews from the 70's. What is most important is that his views are substantially unchanged in all respects, at least to my eye.

More than anything else, he appears to be open-minded and is committed to the (rationalist) scientific method.

Chomsky is difficult to understand and very easy to misunderstand. So, you might ask how is it that I claim to understand him - I guess, I have read a tonne of his original writings before reading the secondary literature - and could never understand some of the claims being made there. My own opinion aligns perfectly with that of Fitch (but this is based on my own readings).

I realise there are a lot of people who say a lot of things about C. - in the end the secondary sources mean nothing, cos I do research too, and I know how quotes get recycled in the marketplace.

There is a genuine lesson to learn here: primary sources are primary sources. Secondary sources invariably add their own spin to the original. And if the original is dense (but, coherent) - trust the "translators" to misunderstand it cos they are too lazy to unpack the content.

I apologise for the "rant" - I have seen the misunderstanding of Chomsky's views so many times in the blogs online that I guess I am at a point wondering if anyone has actually bothered to read his work carefully.
BLOGGER: I didn't take this comment to be a rant, more of a rebuttal. Although I agree that Chomsky always argues for what he considers the simplest explanation, we can differ on the nature of simplicity. The critical feature of Chomsky's argument, as I said above, and is very clear from his quotations, is his dislike of natural selection as an explanation for the origin of language. If you can cite me some Chomsky passages where he speaks well of natural selection as an explanation for language, I will be most grateful.


In an 1995/1996 exchange with John Maynard Smith in the New York Review of Books Chomsky elaborates on what he meant by the 1988 passage that you cite, although, as always, he doesn't do a very good job at making himself much clearer.
According to Chomsky, the 1988 passage indicates that considering

1) the process of exaptation, in which “organs develop to serve one purpose, and, when they have reached a certain form in the evolutionary process, became available for different purposes, at which point the processes of natural selection may refine them further for these purposes.” (Chomsky 1988)
2)the space of physical possibilities
3)and specific contingencies

may help to overcome the apparent difficulty “even to imagine a course of evolution that might have given rise to [language or wings].” (Chomsky 1988)

Anyway, what John Maynard Smith replies to Chomsky's elaboration is this: "I am delighted that Professor Chomsky agrees that the origin of language, like that of other complex organs, must ultimately be explained in Darwinian terms, as the result of natural selection. If I have misinterpreted his earlier writings on this topic, I am sorry, although in self-defense I must add that the remark of his that I quoted does not readily bear the interpretation he now places on it."
BLOGGER: Thanks for the quotation and the link, although I don't see how a person who says he believes in natural selection can, a decade later, still be talking about a great leap forward.



the great leap forward for Chomsky is clearly the evolution of "a discrete infinity" system (DIS). Unlike the other adaptations which could be exaptations of previously existing functions, the idea of discrete infinity is otherwise unknown in the animal cognition literature (this is the claim).

Chomsky himself acknowledges that the number system appears to be a discrete infinity system (has done so at least since his earliest dicussion of the issues in the mid '70's) - however, there is no sense in which (at least that's the claim) this would be an advantage for the species if this were the first change (I mean DIS for the number system).

Instead the proposal as I understand it is, previous functions are exapted/changed/modified, and then crucially at some point the cognitive system got a system to derive "discrete infinity" (which could not have been an exaptation as no other cognitive function has similar correlates otherwise).

And in turn, the discrete infinity system (for him, recursion) allowed the infinitude of linguistic expressions of language, and could be extended to a limitless number system.

By saying the DIS developed/adapted (thru random variation/drift...- some freak way) for language first you can claim the adaptation had an advantage in increasing cognitive power (thru linguistic means).

I hope I am making myself clear. I am reasonable sure it (the DIS) is called a "great leap forward" - though it is only one "part" of language - because nothing like it can be seen in the animal kingdom (again, this is a claim subject to empirical evaluation).


OK. "thru random variation/drift...- some freak way" - this was me showing my ignorance. lol :).

But, hopefully, the idea is clear in theory at least.

Karthik Durvasula


I have returned after a long time to give you an important quote - cos I suddenly remembered it :).

One of the passages you mentioned was from Chomsky 1988; it in fact proposes exactly what you ask for - a sort of adaptationist story of the language faculty.

Here is the link to the google reader and the relevant pages are 167-170. Your quote is on pg. 167, but taken in context, it has a very different effect from what it has when it stands by itself.

I repeat, Chomsky's views on the evolutionary story ARE NOT that it is impossible to account for it in evolutionary terms, it is that while one could come up with a story, none are convincing or realistic. His own story of tying it to the number faculty has been consistent since the 1970's as I told you earlier.

I hope this myth that Chomsky is anti-evolutionist is busted. It just isn't the case.


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