Linguistic ruminations on lethal mutations

October 15, 1999

In the fifth excerpt from the THES book Predictions Noam Chomsky ponders the properties that define our species and asks if they will save or destroy us

The record of prediction in human affairs has not been inspiring, even short-range. Understanding is thin apart from a few areas, and some crucial factors - such as human will - escape our intellectual grasp. Perhaps the most plausible prediction is that any prediction about serious matters is likely to be off the mark.

One question that might be answered in the next century is whether humans are a kind of lethal mutation. The species appears in the last flick of an evolutionary eye, and has now achieved the capacity to destroy itself (and much else) by means ranging from weapons of mass destruction to environmental catastrophes. Perhaps it will find ways to contain its destructive impulses, and to address what may be ominous problems. A rational Martian spectator might not be sanguine about the prospects.

If the first question remains unanswered - the most that can be realistically hoped - generations to come have fascinating inquiries to pursue. To continue with the query about whether we are a kind of lethal mutation: why does that question arise specifically for humans? What properties of this species account for its unusual place in the biological order? Here we turn to questions about higher mental faculties, about which little is understood. It has been - or should have been - a truism in the modern era that "the powers of sensation or perception and thought" are properties of "a certain organised system of matter", that properties "termed mental" are "the result (of the) organical structure" of the brain and "the human nervous system" generally (Joseph Priestley). But how the properties "termed mental" emerge remains about as mysterious as it was 200 years ago.

There is little doubt that the human language faculty is a core element of specific human nature. In this domain, a great deal has been learned recently, enough so that it is possible at least to pose, sometimes partially to answer, questions that could scarcely be contemplated only a few years ago. Thus, we can envisage the prospect that, over an interesting range, human languages will be shown to be deducible from principles of (essentially) shared biological endowment by setting values for fixed options of variation, for example, for the place of a verb in a sentence. Implications for the study of language acquisition, use, and disability, and potentially the brain sciences, are rich, and being productively explored. Recent work suggests more far-reaching possibilities. The minimal conditions on usability of language are that languages provide the means to express the thoughts we have with the available sensorimotor apparatus. One far-reaching possibility is that, in non-trivial respects, the language faculty approaches an optimal solution to these minimal design specifications (with "optimality" characterised in natural computational terms). If true, that would suggest interesting directions for the study of neural realisation, and perhaps for the further investigation of the critical role of physical law and mathematical properties of complex systems in constraining the "channel" within which natural selection proceeds. What the work on optimal design of language seems to suggest is that language might be more like shells of viruses or snowflakes than like prey/predator becoming faster to escape/catch one another. When the brain reached a certain state, some small change might have led to a reorganisation of structure that included a language faculty. Maybe.

Such speculations are not completely without warrant. If they have some measure of validity, they should, in particular, advance understanding of fundamental human nature, though in ways that cannot be predicted with any confidence. Nevertheless, they still fall far short of classical problems that remain as mysterious as ever - for example, problems of will and choice. Perhaps we may discover, for reasons rooted in our cognitive nature, a conclusion that should come as no surprise to those who take for granted that humans are part of the organic world.

Noam Chomsky is professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is an extract from Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future (Oxford University Press/The THES), which is published on November 4. Reserve your copy for Pounds 12.99 (including post and packaging) from The THES Bookshop, Freepost (SWB7 12), Patchway, Bristol BS32 O22, or telephone 01454 7417.

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