Speakers often do not state requests directly but employ innuendos such as Would you like to see my etchings? Though such indirectness seems puzzlingly inefficient, it can be explained by a theory of the strategic speaker, who seeks plausible deniability when he or she is uncertain of whether the hearer is cooperative or antagonistic. A paradigm case is bribing a policeman who may be corrupt or honest: A veiled bribe may be accepted by the former and ignored by the latter. (...) Everyday social interactions can have a similar payoff structure (with emotional rather than legal penalties) whenever a request is implicitly forbidden by the relational model holding between speaker and hearer (e.g., bribing an honest maitre d’, where the reciprocity of the bribe clashes with his authority). Even when a hearer’s willingness is known, indirect speech offers higher-order plausible deniability by preempting certainty, gossip, and common knowledge of the request. In supporting experiments, participants judged the intentions and reactions of characters in scenarios that involved fraught requests varying in politeness and directness. (shrink)
Barbarism was by no means unique to the past 100 years, Jonathan Glover tells us, but ''it is still right that much of 20th-century history has been a very unpleasant surprise.'' This was the century of Passchendaele, Dresden, Nanking, Nagasaki and Rwanda; of the Final Solution, the gulag, the Great Leap Forward, Year Zero and ethnic cleansing -- names that stand for killings in the six and seven figures and for suffering beyond comprehension. The technological progress that inspired the optimism (...) of the Victorians turned out also to multiply the effects of old-fashioned evil and criminal stupidity. (shrink)
Language comes so naturally to us that we are apt to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is. Over the next hour you will sit in your chairs listening to a man make noise as he exhales. Why would you do such a thing? Not because the sounds are particularly melodious, but because the sounds convey information in the exact sequence of hisses and hums and squeaks and pops. As you recover the information, you think the thoughts that (...) I want you to think. Right now I am conveying ideas about language itself, but with a slightly different sequence of hisses and pops I could be talking about anything from theories of the origin of the universe to the latest plot twists in your favorite daytime drama. The fundamental scientific problem raised by language is to explain this vast expressive power. What is the trick behind our ability to fill each otherâ€™s heads with so many kinds of thoughts? (shrink)
Â There is an old song by Tom Paxton, later made famous by Peter Paul, and Mary, in which an adult reminisces about a childhood toy: A wonder to behold it was, With many colors bright.Â And the moment I laid eyes on it It became my heart's delight. It went ZIP! when it moved, And POP! when it stopped, and WHIRRR! when it stood still.Â I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
volutionary psychology is the attempt to understand our mental faculties in light of the evolutionary processes that shaped them. Stephen Jay Gould [NYR, June 12 and June 26] calls its ideas and their proponents "foolish," "fatuous," "pathetic," "egregiously simplistic," and some twenty-five synonyms for "fanatical." Such language is not just discourteous; it is misguided, for the ideas of evolutionary psychology are not as stupid as Gould makes them out to be. Indeed, they are nothing like what Gould makes them (...) out to be. (shrink)
My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe who owned a small necktie factory on the outskirts of Montreal. While visiting them one weekend, I found my grandfather on the factory floor, cutting shapes out of irregular stacks of cloth with a fabric saw. He explained that by carving up the remnants that were left over when the neckties had been cut out and stitching them together in places that didn't show, he could get a few extra ties out of each (...) sheet of cloth. I asked him why he was doing this himself rather than leaving it to his employees. He shrugged, tapped his forehead, and said, "Goyishe kop," a term of condescension that literally means "gentile head.". (shrink)
Â LanguageÂ isÂ aÂ humanÂ instinct.Â Â Â All societies have complex language, and everywhere the languages use theÂ sameÂ kindsÂ ofÂ grammaticalÂ machineryÂ like nouns, verbs, auxiliaries, and agreement.Â All normal children develop language without conscious effort or formal lessons, and by the age of three theyÂ speak inÂ Â fluentÂ Â grammaticalÂ Â sentences,Â outperformingÂ theÂ mostÂ sophisticated computers. Brain damage or congenital conditions can make a person a linguistic savantÂ whileÂ severelyÂ retarded,Â orÂ unableÂ toÂ speak normally (...) despite high intelligence. All this has led many scientists, Â beginningÂ withÂ theÂ linguist NoamÂ ChomskyÂ inÂ theÂ lateÂ 1950's,Â toÂ concludeÂ that there are specialized circuits in the human brain, and perhaps specializedÂ genes,Â thatÂ createÂ the gift of articulate speech.Â. (shrink)
Tell us what you think This essay was first posted at Edge (www.edge.org) and is reprinted with permission. It is the Preface to the book 'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable,' published by HarperCollins. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org..
People living at the start of the third millennium enjoy a world that would have been inconceivable to our ancestors living in the 100 millennia that our species has existed. Ignorance and myth have given way to an extraordinarily detailed understanding of life, matter and the universe. Slavery, despotism, blood feuds and patriarchy have vanished from vast expanses of the planet, driven out by unprecedented concepts of universal human rights and the rule of law. Technology has shrunk the globe and (...) stretched our lives and our minds. (shrink)
The acquisition of the passive in English poses a learnability problem. Most transitive verbs have passive forms (e.g., kick/was kicked by), tempting the child to form a productive rule of passivization deriving passive.participles from active forms. However, some verbs cannot be passivized (e.g. cost/*was cost by). Given that children do not receive negative evidence telling them which strings are ungrammatical, what prevents them from overgeneralizing a productive passive rule to the exceptional verbs (or if they do incorrectly pas- sivize such (...) verbs, how do they recover)? One possible solution is that children are conservative: they only generate passives for those verbs that they have heard in passive sentences in the input. We show that this proposal is incorrect. (shrink)
New technologies often have unforeseeable consequences. Michael Faraday could not have anticipated the rise of the electric guitar and its effects on our culture, nor did the inventors of the laser realize they had laid the ground for a thriving industry of tattoo removal. And it is safe to say that Watson and Crick could not have foreseen a day when an analysis of Oprah Winfrey's DNA would tell her that she was descended from the Kpelle people of the Liberian (...) rainforest. "I feel empowered by this," she said upon hearing the news, overcoming her disappointment that her ancestors were not Zulu warriors. (shrink)
Although Darwin insisted that human intelligence could be fully explained by the theory of evolution, the codiscoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, claimed that abstract intelligence was of no use to ancestral humans and could only be explained by intelligent design. Wallace’s apparent paradox can be dissolved with two hypotheses about human cognition. One is that intelligence is an adaptation to a knowledge-using, socially interdependent lifestyle, the “cognitive niche.” This embraces the ability to overcome the evolutionary ﬁxed defenses of (...) plants and animals by applications of reasoning, including weapons, traps, coordinated driving of game, and detoxiﬁcation of plants. Such reasoning exploits intuitive theories about different aspects of the world, such as objects, forces, paths, places, states, substances, and other people’s beliefs and desires. The theory explains many zoologically unusual traits in Homo sapiens, including our complex toolkit, wide range of habitats and diets, extended childhoods and long lives, hypersociality, complex mating, division into cultures, and language (which multiplies the beneﬁt of knowledge because know-how is useful not only for its practical beneﬁts but as a trade good with others, enhancing the evolution.. (shrink)
hen I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I was assigned a classic paper published in Scientific American that began: "There is an experiment in psychology that you can perform easily in your home. ... Buy two presents for your wife, choosing things ... she will find equally attractive." Just ten years after those words were written, the author's blithe assumption that his readers were male struck me as comically archaic. By the early '70s, women in science were no (...) longer an oddity or a joke but a given. Today, in my own field, the study of language development in children, a majority of the scientists are women. Even in scientific fields with a higher proportion of men, the contributions of women are so indispensable that any talk of turning back the clock would be morally heinous and scientifically ruinous. (shrink)
In my life I will receive no greater privilege than the honorary degree from this great institution and the invitation to address you today. I am connected to McGill up, down, and sideways, by countless relatives, neighbors, friends, and students who have taught and learned here. Twenty-three years ago I took part in this ceremony when I received my bachelor's degree in psychology. Forty-five years ago I also took part in this ceremony, though I am only forty-four. Yes, my mother (...) was handed her bachelor's degree while she was pregnant with me. Decades before women played Mozart to their bellies to help their fetus's neurons, McGill University was literally being imprinted into my brain. Thank you for having me back a third time, and for bestowing this immeasurable honor.Â. (shrink)
ucking became the subject of congressional debate in 2003, after NBC broadcast the Golden Globe Awards. Bono, lead singer of the mega-band U2, was accepting a prize on behalf of the group and in his euphoria exclaimed, "This is really, really, fucking brilliant" on the air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is charged with monitoring the nation's airwaves for indecency, decided somewhat surprisingly not to sanction the network for failing to bleep out the word. Explaining its decision, the FCC (...) noted that its guidelines define "indecency" as "material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities" and Bono had used fucking as "an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation.". (shrink)
Most evidence for the role of regular inflection as a default operation comes from languages that confound the morphological properties of regular and irregular forms with their phonological characteristics. For instance, regular plurals tend to faithfully preserve the base’s phonology (e.g., rat-rats), whereas irregular nouns tend to alter it (e.g., mouse- mice). The distinction between regular and irregular inflection may thus be an epiphenomenon of phonological faithfulness. In Hebrew noun inflection, however, morphological regularity and phonological faithfulness can be distinguished: Nouns (...) whose stems change in the plural may take either a regular or an irregular suffix, and nouns whose stems are preserved in the plural may take either a regular or an irregular suffix. We use this dissociation to examine two hallmarks of default inflection: its lack of dependence on analogies from similar regular nouns, and its application to nonroots such as names. We show that these hallmarks of regularity may be found whether or not the plural form preserves the stem faithfully: People apply the regular suffix to novel nouns that don’t resemble existing nouns, and to names that sound like irregular nouns, regardless of whether the stem is ordinarily preserved in the plural of that family of nouns. Moreover, when they pluralize names (e.g., the Barak-Barakim), they do not apply the stem changes that are found in their homophonous nouns (e.g., barak-brakim “lightning”), replicating an effect found in English and German. These findings show that the distinction between regular and irregular phenomena cannot be reduced to differences in the kinds of phonological changes associated with those phenomena in English. Instead, regularity and irregularity must be distinguished in terms of the kinds of mental computations that effect them: symbolic operations versus memorized idiosyncrasies. A corollary is that complex words are not generally dichotomizable as “regular” or “irregular”; different aspects of a word may be regular or irregular depending on whether they violate the rule for that aspect and hence must be stored in memory.. (shrink)
We examine the question of which aspects of language are uniquely human and uniquely linguistic in light of recent suggestions by Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch that the only such aspect is syntactic recursion, the rest of language being either speciﬁc to humans but not to language (e.g. words and concepts) or not speciﬁc to humans (e.g. speech perception). We ﬁnd the hypothesis problematic. It ignores the many aspects of grammar that are not recursive, such as phonology, morphology, case, agreement, and (...) many properties of words. It is inconsistent with the anatomy and neural control of the human vocal tract. And it is weakened by experiments suggesting that speech perception cannot be reduced to primate audition, that word learning cannot be reduced to fact learning, and that at least one gene involved in speech and language was evolutionarily selected in the human lineage but is not speciﬁc to recursion. The recursion-only claim, we suggest, is motivated by Chomsky’s recent approach to syntax, the Minimalist Program, which de-emphasizes the same aspects of language. The approach, however, is sufﬁciently problematic that it cannot be used to support claims about evolution. We contest related arguments that language is not an adaptation, namely that it is “perfect,” non-redundant, unusable in any partial form, and badly designed for.. (shrink)
Glover is a moral philosopher, whose stock in trade is the hypothetical moral dilemma. (A trolley is hurtling out of control. Five workers down the track don't see it and will be killed if it continues. You can throw the switch and save them, but it will cause the death of one person standing on a spur. What should you do?) In this ''moral history of the 20th century,'' Glover deftly analyzes some of its real and terrible moral dilemmas. Is (...) the bombing of civilians ever justified if it would shorten a dreadful war? Should the Allies have accepted Adolf Eichmann's offer to trade a million Jews for 10,000 trucks? What kind of risk to self and family should a moral person be expected to take in opposing a terrifying regime? (shrink)
n sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just (...) one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth. (shrink)
The discovery that genes have something to do with behavior came as a shock in an era in which people thought that the mind of a newborn was a blank slate and that anyone could do anything if only they strove hard enough. And it continues to set off alarm bells. Many people worry about a Brave New World in which parents or governments will try to re-engineer human nature. Others see genes as a threat to free will and personal (...) responsibility, citing headlines such as “Man’s genes made him kill, his lawyers claim.” Behavioral geneticists are sometimes picketed, censored, or compared to Nazis. With increasing knowledge of how the genome works, many beliefs about ourselves will indeed have to be rethought. But the worst fears of the genophobes are misplaced. It is easy to exaggerate the significance of behavioral genetics for our lives. (shrink)
he field of linguistics has exported a number of big ideas to the world. They include the evolution of languages as an inspiration to Darwin for the evolution of species; the analysis of contrasting sounds as an inspiration for structuralism in literary theory and anthropology; the Whorfian hypothesis that language shapes thought; and Chomsky's theory of deep structure and universal grammar. Even by these standards, George Lakoff's theory of conceptual metaphor is a lollapalooza. If Lakoff is right, his theory can (...) do everything from overturning millennia of misguided thinking in the Western intellectual tradition to putting a Democrat in the White House. (shrink)
The thought of a loved one can turn our wits upside down, ratchet up our heart rate, impel us to slay dragons and write corny songs. We may become morose, obsessive, even violent. Lovesickness has been blamed on the moon, on the devil, but whatever is behind it, it doesn't look like the behavior of a rational animal trying to survive and reproduce. But might there be a method to this amorous madness?
Next week voters will consider two major candidates for president who have spent many months talking to them. The voices and messages are familiar enough by now. But what has also become clear is that one of these two men has fought a long and losing battle with the English language.
The addition of vocabulary to the English language is, of course, nothing new. Every word in the dictionary was originally the brainchild of some wordsmith, lost in the mists of history, whose coinage caught on and was passed down the generations.
As if that weren't enough of a puzzle, the more biologically frivolous and vain the activity, the more people exalt it. Art, literature, and music are thought to be not just pleasurable but noble. They are the mind's best work, what makes life worth living. Why do we pursue the biologically trivial and futile and experience them as sublime? To many educated people the question seems horribly philistine, even immoral. But it is unavoidable for anyone interested in the makeup of (...) [Homo sapiens]. Members of our species do mad deeds like living for their art and (in India) selling their blood to buy movie tickets. Why? How might we understand the psychology of the arts within the modern understanding of the brain as a biological organ shaped by the forces of evolution? (shrink)
AMBRIDGE, Mass. — The scant mention of education in President Bush's State of the Union address suggests that the administration feels its work on the subject is done, at least for now. Last year's sweeping bill was a significant achievement, but as with most federal initiatives, it dealt primarily with administrative issues like financing and achievement tests. Little attention was given to the actual process of education: how events in the classroom affect the minds of the students.
Sept. 27 issue - Every evening our eyes tell us that the sun sets, while we know that, in fact, the Earth is turning us away from it. Astronomy taught us centuries ago that common sense is not a reliable guide to reality. Today it is neuroscience that is forcing us to readjust our intuitions. People naturally believe in the Ghost in the Machine: that we have bodies made of matter and spirits made of an ethereal something. Yes, people acknowledge (...) that the brain is involved in mental life. But they still think of it as a pocket PC for the soul, managing information at the behest of a ghostly user. (shrink)
Th is chapter outlines the theory (fi rst explicitly defended by Pinker and Bloom 1990), that the human language faculty is a complex biological adaptation that evolved by natural selection for communication in a knowledgeusing, socially interdependent lifestyle. Th..
With the House of Representatives set to decide next week whether to open an impeachment inquiry, President Clinton's fate may ultimately depend on his theories of language. In his grand jury testimony, Mr. Clinton expounded on the semantics of the present tense (''It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is'') and of the words ''alone,'' ''cause'' and, most notoriously, ''sex.''.
Why do so many famous men gamble their reputations, their careers, and their marriages on reckless sexual encounters? It's hard to believe the "James Bond" theory, that men crave the esteem that society bestows on the dashing stud. Men try to conceal their liaisons, not advertise them, and when they fail, their reward is ridicule from Leno and Letterman, not the respect of a nation.
Language comes so naturally to us that we are apt to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is. Over the next hour you will sit in your chairs listening to a man make noise as he exhales. Why would you do such a thing? Not because the sounds are particularly melodious, but because the sounds convey information in the exact sequence of hisses and hums and squeaks and pops. As you recover the information, you think the thoughts that (...) I want you to think. Right now I am conveying ideas about language itself, but with a slightly different sequence of hisses and pops I could be talking about anything from theories of the origin of the universe to the latest plot twists in your favorite daytime drama. The fundamental scientific problem raised by language is to explain this vast expressive power. What is the trick behind our ability to fill each other’s heads with so many kinds of thoughts? (shrink)
Last week David Howard, an aide to the Mayor of Washington, resigned after a staff meeting in which he called his budget ''niggardly.'' A colleague thought he had used a racial epithet, though in fact ''niggard'' is a Middle English word meaning ''miser.'' It has nothing to do with the racial slur based on Spanish for ''black,'' which came into English centuries later.
IT sounds like something out of the satirical journal Annals of Improbable Research: a team of Swedish neuroscientists scanned people's brains as they smelled a testosterone derivative found in men's sweat and an estrogen-like compound found in women's urine. In heterosexual men, a part of the hypothalamus (the seat of physical drives) responded to the female compound but not the male one; in heterosexual women and homosexual men, it was the other way around. But the discovery is more than just (...) a shoo-in for that journal's annual Ig Nobel Prize - it raises provocative questions about the science and ethics of human sexuality. (shrink)
How the Mind Works is a synthesis of cognitive science and evolutionary biology that aims to explain the human mind with three ideas: (1) Computation: thinking and feeling consist of information-processing in the brain; (2) Specialization: the mind is not a single entity, but a complex system of parts designed to solve different problems; (3) Evolution: as with the organs of the body, our complex mental faculties have biological functions ultimately related to survival and reproduction. The book lays out criteria (...) for attributing an evolutionary function to a trait, and applies them to many hypotheses using data from cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, and biology. (shrink)
The human brain is an extraordinary organ. It has allowed us to walk on the moon, *to discover the of matter and life,* and to play chess almost as well as a computer. But this virtuosity raises a puzzle. The brain of Homo sapiens achieved its modern form and size between fifty and a hundred thousand years ago, well before the invention of agriculture, civilizations, and writing in the last ten thousand years. Our foraging ancestors had no occasions to do (...) astrophysics or play chess, and natural selection would not have rewarded them with more babies if they had. How, then, did our outsize, *science-ready* brain evolve? (shrink)
Do we have a “God gene,” or a “God module”? I'm referring toclaims that a number of you may have noticed. Just last week, a cover story of Timemagazine was called "The God Gene:Does our deity compel us to seek a higher power?" Believe it or not, somescientists say yes. And a number of years earlier, there were claims that thehuman brain is equipped with a “God module,” a subsystem of the brain shaped byevolution to cause us to have a (...) religious belief. "Brain's God module mayaffect religious intensity," according to the headline of the LosAngeles Times . In this evening's talk, Iwant to evaluate those claims. (shrink)
This paper proposes a new analysis of indirect speech in the framework of game theory, social psychology, and evolutionary psychology. It builds on the theory of Grice, which tries to ground indirect speech in pure rationality (the demands of e‰cient communication between two cooperating agents) and on the Politeness Theory of Brown and Levinson, who proposed that people cooperate not just in exchanging data but in saving face (both the speaker’s and the hearer’s). I suggest that these theories need to (...) be supplemented because they assume that people in conversation always cooperate. A reflection on how a pair of talkers may have goals that conflict as well as coincide requires an examination of the game-theoretic logic of plausible denial, both in legal contexts, where people’s words may be held against them, and in everyday life, where the sanctions are social rather than judicial. This in turn requires a theory of the distinct kinds of relationships that make up human social life, a consideration of a new role for common knowledge in the use of indirect speech, and ultimately the paradox of rational ignorance, where we choose not to know something relevant to our interests. (shrink)
We examine the question of which aspects of language are uniquely human and uniquely linguistic in light of recent suggestions by Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch that the only such aspect is syntactic recursion, the rest of language being either specific to humans but not to language (e.g. words and concepts) or not specific to humans (e.g. speech perception). We find the hypothesis problematic. It ignores the many aspects of grammar that are not recursive, such as phonology, morphology, case, agreement, and (...) many properties of words. It is inconsistent with the anatomy and neural control of the human vocal tract. And it is weakened by experiments suggesting that speech perception cannot be reduced to primate audition, that word learning cannot be reduced to fact learning, and that at least one gene involved in speech and language was evolutionarily selected in the human lineage but is not specific to recursion. The recursion-only claim, we suggest, is motivated by Chomsky’s recent approach to syntax, the Minimalist Program, which de-emphasizes the same aspects of language. The approach, however, is sufficiently problematic that it cannot be used to support claims about evolution. We contest related arguments that language is not an adaptation, namely that it is “perfect,” non-redundant, unusable in any partial form, and badly designed for.. (shrink)
The irregulars are defiantly quirky. Thousands of verbs monotonously take the -ed suffix for their past tense forms, but ring mutates to rang, not ringed, catch becomes caught, hit doesn't do anything, and go is replaced by an entirely different word, went (a usurping of the old past tense of to wend, which itself once followed the pattern we see in send-sent and bend-bent). No wonder irregular verbs are banned in "rationally designed" languages like Esperanto and Orwell's Newspeak -- and (...) why recently a woman in search of a nonconformist soul-mate wrote a personal ad that began, "Are you an irregular verb?". (shrink)
These are just a few examples of scientific illiteracy — inane misconceptions that could have been avoided with a smidgen of freshman science. (For those afraid to ask: pencil “lead” is carbon; hydrogen fuel takes more energy to produce than it releases; all living things contain genes; a clone is just a twin.) Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the (...) vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics. Most of our intellectual magazines discuss science only when it bears on their political concerns or when they can portray science as just another political arena. As the nation’s math departments and biotech labs fill up with foreign students, the brightest young Americans learn better ways to sue one another or to capitalize on currency fluctuations. And all this is on top of our nation’s endless supply of New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam. (shrink)
When people speak, they often insinuate their intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition. Examples include sexual come-ons, veiled threats, polite requests, and concealed bribes. We propose a three-part theory of indirect speech, based on the idea that human communication involves a mixture of cooperation and conflict. First, indirect requests allow for plausible deniability, in which a cooperative listener can accept the request, but an uncooperative one cannot react adversarially to it. This intuition is sup- ported by (...) a game-theoretic model that predicts the costs and benefits to a speaker of direct and indirect requests. Second, language has two functions: to convey information and to negotiate the type of relationship holding between speaker and hearer (in particu- lar, dominance, communality, or reciprocity). The emotional costs of a mismatch in the assumed relationship type can create a need for plausible deniability and, thereby, select for indirectness even when there are no tangible costs. Third, people perceive language as a digital medium, which allows a sentence to generate common knowledge, to propagate a message with high fidelity, and to serve as a reference point in coordination games. This feature makes an indirect request qualitatively different from a direct one even when the speaker and listener can infer each other’s intentions with high confidence. (shrink)
The young women had survived the car crash, after a fashion. In the five months since parts of her brain had been crushed, she could open her eyes but didn't respond to sights, sounds or jabs. In the jargon of neurology, she was judged to be in a persistent vegetative state. In crueler everyday language, she was a vegetable.
In a continuation of the conversation with Fitch, Chomsky, and Hauser on the evolution of language, we examine their defense of the claim that the uniquely human, language-specific part of the language faculty (the “narrow language faculty”) consists only of recursion, and that this part cannot be considered an adaptation to communication. We argue that their characterization of the narrow language faculty is problematic for many reasons, including its dichotomization of cognitive capacities into those that are utterly unique and those (...) that are identical to nonlinguistic or nonhuman capacities, omitting capacities that may have been substantially modified during human evolution. We also question their dichotomy of the current utility versus original function of a trait, which omits traits that are adaptations for current use, and their dichotomy of humans and animals, which conflates similarity due to common function and similarity due to inheritance from a recent common ancestor. We show that recursion, though absent from other animals’ communications systems, is found in visual cognition, hence cannot be the sole evolutionary development that granted language to humans. Finally, we note that despite Fitch et al.’s denial, their view of language evolution is tied to Chomsky’s conception of language itself, which identifies combinatorial productivity with a core of “narrow syntax.” An alternative conception, in which combinatoriality is spread across words and constructions, has both empirical advantages and greater evolutionary plausibility. q 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved. (shrink)
Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a "yuck" response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President's Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of "dignity" (...) a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity. (shrink)
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- What will English be like a hundred years from now? No one has ever observed what happens when a language is used for a century in a global village. Will MTV and CNN infiltrate every yurt and houseboat and drive out all other languages? Will regional accents go extinct, leaving everyone sounding like a Midwestern newscaster? Some language lovers worry that e-mail and chat rooms will influence writing & F2F (face-to-face) lang. & leadd it 2 loose it's (...) grammer spllng etc. :-(. (shrink)
The vast expressive power of language is made possible by two principles: the arbitrary soundmeaning pairing underlying words, and the discrete combinatorial system underlying grammar. These principles implicate distinct cognitive mechanisms: associative memory and symbolmanipulating rules. The distinction may be seen in the difference between regular inflection (e.g., walk-walked), which is productive and open-ended and hence implicates a rule, and irregular inflection (e.g., come-came, which is idiosyncratic and closed and hence implicates individually memorized words. Nonetheless, two very different theories have (...) attempted to collapse the distinction; generative phonology invokes minor rules to generate irregular as well as regular forms, and connectionism invokes a pattern associator memory to store and retrieve regular as well as irregular forms. I present evidence from three disciplines that supports the traditional word/rule distinction, though with an enriched conception of lexical memory with some of the properties of a pattern-associator. Rules, nonetheless, are distinct from patternassociation, because a rule concatenates a suffix to a symbol for verbs, so it does not require access to memorized verbs or their sound patterns, but applies as the "default," whenever memory access fails. I present a dozen such circumstances, including novel, unusual-sounding, and rootless and headless derived words, in which people inflect the words regularly (explaining quirks like flied out, low-lifes, and Walkmans). A comparison of English to other languages shows that contrary to the connectionist account, default suffixation is not due to numerous regular words reinforcing a pattern in associative memory, but to a memory-independent, symbol-concatenating mental operation. (shrink)
In the Movie Tootsie, The character played by Dustin Hoffman is disguised as a woman and is speaking to a beautiful young actress played by Jessica Lange. During a session of late-night girl talk, Lange's character says, "You know what I wish? That a guy could be honest enough to walk up to me and say, 'I could lay a big line on you, but the simple truth is I find you very interesting, and I'd really like to make love (...) to you.' Wouldn't that be a relief?". (shrink)
Imagine this scene from the future. You are staring at a screen flickering with snow. Scientists have hidden one of two patterns in the dots, and eventually you spot one. But you don't have to tell the scientists what you are seeing; they already know. They are looking at the electrical signals from one of the billions of cells in your brain. When the cell fires, you see one pattern; when it stops, you see another‹your awareness can be read from (...) a single neuron. Now, in an even more unsettling trick, they send an electrical current to the neurons in that part of your brain and, with a push of a button, make you see one pattern or the other. (shrink)
In my book How the Mind Works, I defended the theory that the human mind is a naturally selected system of organs of computation. Jerry Fodor claims that 'the mind doesn't work that way'(in a book with that title) because (1) Turing Machines cannot duplicate humans' ability to perform abduction (inference to the best explanation); (2) though a massively modular system could succeed at abduction, such a system is implausible on other grounds; and (3) evolution adds nothing to our understanding (...) of the mind. In this review I show that these arguments are flawed. First, my claim that the mind is a computational system is different from the claim Fodor attacks (that the mind has the architecture of a Turing Machine); therefore the practical limitations of Turing Machines are irrelevant. Second, Fodor identifies abduction with the cumulative accomplishments of the scientific community over millennia. This is very different from the accomplishments of human common sense, so the supposed gap between human cognition and computational models may be illusory. Third, my claim about biological specialization, as seen in organ systems, is distinct from Fodor's own notion of encapsulated modules, so the limitations of the latter are irrelevant. Fourth, Fodor's arguments dismissing of the relevance of evolution to psychology are unsound. (shrink)