Carl Zimmer's ever-interesting blog is featuring a two-part discussion of a spat which has arisen between, on the one hand, Noam Chomsky, with Mark Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch, and on the other, Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff. It has to do with the evolution of language: in a very bare summary, Chomsky and co. suggest that most of the necessary abilities were already present in pre-human animals, and that possibly only one additional element, a special capacity to deal with recursion, was needed to get human speech up and running. Pinker and Jackendoff insist it is all much more complex than that, and that speech evolved progressively under selective pressure in much the same way as any other adaptation. Chomsky and co retort that they have lost the plot and are out of date. It is remarkable how bad-tempered disagreements about evolution sometimes get, and it appears that feelings are running rather high here.
There are surely plenty of reasons to stay calm in the current case, though. For one thing the issue is potentially amenable to resolution by further empirical evidence - so why shout about it now? It seems debatable, in fact, whether we yet understand either language or human evolution well enough to tackle such issues on any but the most speculative level. Moreover, how much is really at stake? Although the course of human evolution can never be regarded as trivial, this particular dispute does not seem to hold out the likelihood of any major paradigm shifts in our understanding.
Finally, as has been exhaustively established by science, all theories about the origin of language are false, and those who propose them are wasting their time (admittedly, we have wasted a certain amount of time ourselves).
|It seems a good enough reason, anyway, to look again at Steven Pinker's theory of consciousness. The problem, of course, is that he notoriously has no theory of consciousness. The Language Instinct, his first book, is really excellent: readable and entertaining, informative and stimulating all at the same time; full of expert and overdue debunkings and clear expositions of the ideas of, well, Chomsky in the main, as it happens. How the Mind Works, his second, was naturally awaited with keen interest, but proved to be one of those books with titles that claim a little too much. Pinker professed himself stumped by the more difficult aspects of consciousness: in his view the brain was a computer and a product of evolution, but that was about as far as he could go. Whether you agree with them or not, these are not exciting new theses. Perhaps the main point of the book, instead, was to make the case which Pinker has championed again on many subsequent occasions - that there is such a thing as human nature: that much of the way we behave is determined by hereditary predispositions with a recognisable evolutionary rationale. Armed with this insight, it seems, much about human culture and society which was previously shrouded in mystery is helpfully illuminated. At times Pinker seemed to lack all faith in the ability of false but fashionable beliefs to die off of their own accord, but an awful lot of what he said on this occasion, and again, more grimly, in The Blank Slate, was true and valuable, and well worth reading.|
But whereas in the earlier book he had
cantered across the landscape like a mountain goat, here he seemed to lose
his footing quite badly once or twice. Part of the problem is surely the
variable quality of the sociobiology being put forward: while some of it
is undoubtedly thought-provoking, some resembles banal platitudes too
closely for comfort. When we are told that men are more promiscuous than
women, or that sleeping at night is a universal feature of human culture,
we can be forgiven a small sigh.
"While you physicists have been having your
whiffly conversations about quarks and string and... stuff," shouts one,
"we novelists having being doing hard research. Here's some real physics
for you. Heavy things sink, light things float! Metal doesn't burn! Empty
things are lighter than full things!"
|In Pinker's case, religion and the arts seem
to be particular blind spots. At one point he suggests:
"Most people would lose their taste for a musical recording if they learned it was being sold at supermarket checkout counters..."
Really? By this reasoning it must be
universally acknowledged that Etherege is better than Shakespeare, and
Buxtehude greater than Bach, simply because their work is more difficult
to find. Of course it is true that snobbery, competition for prestige,
shows of status and so on influence the arts. But they also influence the
course of science. Pinker would never suggest that this explains
science, however, because he understands science, and knows that however
great a factor social competition may be, it isn't what science is
ultimately about. And of course it isn't what art or religion are about,
either. So, as it turns out, Pinker does have a theory about consciousness
- namely that it doesn't matter as much as we previously thought. People
build large structures to live in, and so do ants and termites; certainly
there are differences, but perhaps we may have over-rated them. This seems
an unattractive line of thinking to me. The fact that human culture and
patterns of behaviour tend, (like the instinctive behaviour of animals) to
be compatible with the survival and reproduction of those who adopt them
is surely one of the less surprising and interesting things to be said