Getting back to nature-nurture

Educating Eve
January 7, 2000

"I am sure the idea of human knowledge as biologically built-in is quite wrong. .. The languages that all humans possess are cultural developments, just as their agricultural techniques or their beliefs about astronomy are." So says the author, reader in computer science and artificial intelligence at the University of Sussex.

The Eve in the title represents our first human ancestors. Eve, rather than Adam, has been mentioned to focus on a biological rather than a religious concept of human origins. The book is an updated version of Geoffrey Sampson's earlier writings on the topic, outlined in The Form of Language (1975) and explored further in Making Sense (1979).

The controversy over whether language is due to innate programming or simple learning has been rumbling on at least since the time of Plato. The nature-nurture debate erupted in the 1960s, when Noam Chomsky argued the nativist view. There was a further upsurge of support for nativism in the 1990s, largely as a result of Steven Pinker's widely read work, The Language Instinct (1994).

Sampson's book attempts to combat the nativist view and to reinstate the nurturing one. He begins by outlining Chomsky's case from about 1960 onwards (chapter two), then those by Pinker and others in the 1990s (chapter three).

He points out that several of these arguments are flawed and goes on to explain why gradual evolutionary processes have a strong tendency to produce tree structures, noting that Popperian guess-and-test knowledge development is an evolutionary process (chapters four and five). He concludes (chapter six): "Eve was not a born know-all. She was a good learner. She initiated a process of self-education which we continue to participate in today."

Sampson has provided a clear-headed refutation of some flawed linguistic nativist claims. Yet unconvincing nativist arguments do not, of course, entail that the non-nativist view is correct. He has also provided some suggestions for general cognitive abilities that might underlie human language.

However, identifying these does not preclude the possibility of other, specifically linguistic universals or that certain general cognitive abilities might at some point have become refined and specialised to language. And it is not always clear if Sampson is talking about language origin or language today. The book has a dated air, envisaging the nature-nurture controversy as ongoing. Recent research suggests language is innately guided behaviour. Nature provides a framework: it focuses human attention in certain directions, enabling children to concentrate on key linguistic features. Then experience fills in the details. The nature-nurture debate is fading because language is a mixture of inheritance and learning.

Honey bees provide a parallel case. They were not born with an encyclopaedia of flower types in their minds: yet they unerringly fly to flowers rather than to hats or bus stops. Bees are naturally guided by scent above all, but also by colour and shape. They instinctively fly to flowers because of a combination of factors that they naturally notice and prioritise, but they have to learn details of particular plants in their environment. Humans behave similarly with language.

Sampson has written a lively, but misleading, book. He goes over the top in arguing for nurture, not nature. The answer, as so often in human life, lies somewhere in between.

Jean Aitchison is professor of language and communication, University of Oxford.

Educating Eve: The 'Language Instinct' Debate

Author - Geoffrey Sampson.
ISBN - 0 304 70290 0
Publisher - Cassell
Price - £16.99
Pages - 184

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