Re: Chomsky and evolved language circuitry

From: Josh Martin (
Date: Fri Oct 05 2001 - 11:01:41 MDT

Damien wrote:

> At 10:13 AM 10/4/01 -0400, John K Clark wrote:
> >a small gene (only 6500 base pairs)
> >on chromosome 7 that is responsible for human speech
> >proves that there
> >exist specific circuitry in the human brain that makes speech possible
> it probably
> >evolved very recently. Chomsky has been saying this since 1959
> Curiously enough, he hasn't--he's been quite hostile to specific
> evolutionary explanations for generative grammar. Steven Pinker, e.g., has
> tried to combine evolutionary explanations with Chomskyan X-bar theory,
> etc, but Chomsky always found that level of explanation rather vulgarly
> reductionist. My sense of it (as a non-expert) is that he regards language
> as an emergent but highly rule-bound property of the whole brain. `These
> skills may well have arisen as a concomitant of structural properties of
> the brain that developed for other purposes' (Chomsky 1980, cited in THE

This is why the discovery is interesting, actually, and why Chomsky, whose
opinion on biology is only slightly better than his opinion on politics,
should welcome it. The gene in question, I believe, is involved with
regulating the transcription of a variety of other genes during development.
This means that a relatively small change in this gene could cause a cascade
of effects throughout development. The summation of these effects could
allow a brain area developed 'for' another 'purpose' to be involved in the
production of language. The spirit, if not the letter of chomsky's
hypothesis. I imagine his reasons for not supporting the evolution of brain
structures specifically for language comes from the preposterousness of that
level of complexity arising in the brain on its own. This new finding,
which shows how a small change can co-opt brain structures for a new
purpose, is a plausible explanation for the evolution of language.

I can say more once I have read the whole article, if anyone is interested.
I am especially interested in S. Pinker's take on the discovery, included in
the same issue, but my *&@# school does not have an online subscription to
Nature. That means I am forced to leave my computer to find the article.

Josh Martin

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