A cat among the pidgins

April 21, 1995

Simon Targett meets the psycholinguist seducing the public with talk of occipital lobes, Steven Pinker (below)

Syntax, inflectional morphology, diphthongs, the cerebral cortex and the occipital lobe. It is hard to imagine more unlikely subject matter for an international blockbuster. Yet, this week, the 500-page paperback The Language Instinct entered the bestseller list at number two.

The man behind the magnum opus is Steven Pinker, a trendy chisel-jawed whizz-kid from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With his long Samsonian curls, sharp ties and pointed cowboy boots, Pinker looks as different from the anoraked laboratory egghead as English does from Serbo-Croat or Japanese. His popular writing style and panoramic vision further distance him from the traditionally turgid and tightly focused scientist.

Yet he is no less a scientist for all that. Trained at McGill and Harvard, he taught first at Harvard and then at Stanford before moving in 1982 to the department of brain and cognitive science at MIT, the capital of linguistic research. Now a full professor, Pinker employs experimental methods to explore the theoretical basis of language, which is unusual in the linguistics field and a hangover from his days as a psychologist.

Much of his energy has been devoted, in effect, to giving empirical endorsement to the work of Noam Chomsky, the MIT-based and long-anointed lord of linguistics described by Pinker as a "paper-and-pencil theoretician". Chomsky has famously argued that children are innately equipped with a language template - the so-called "universal grammar" - that allows them to distil the syntactic patterns out of parental speech.

Pinker demonstrates this by focusing on language acquisition and observing the extraordinary capacity of the dependent and dribbling three-year old to grasp the finer details of grammar. In particular, he looks at the way children understand past-tense theory, using computers to measure to 1,000th of a second the reaction time taken to convert a verb to the past tense.

But he goes one step beyond Chomsky, arguing persuasively that the language "organ" is not an arbitrary by-product of evolution - the Chomskian view, Pinker says, is as ludicrously unlikely as "the proverbial hurricane that blows through a junkyard and assembles a Boeing 747" - but the direct product of Darwinian natural selection.

He shows how man - possibly over 350,000 generations - evolved the "neural circuitry" that underpins language, prompted by the prospect of improved communication and, it seems, sexual conquest. "Anthropologists have noted that tribal chiefs are often both gifted orators and highly polygynous," he writes, adding that this is "a splendid prod to any imagination that cannot conceive of how linguistic skills could make a Darwinian difference."

In emphasising evolution, he endeavours to take the mystery out of man's unique facility for language, to counter those who use it to "call for sequestering the study of humans from the domain of biology". It is, he contends, no more special than the sonar skill of bats, the celestial navigation ability of migratory birds and the dexterity of the elephant trunk, which can uproot trees and pull up blades of grass. As he puts it: "In nature's talent show, we are simply a species of primate with our own act, a knack for communicating information about who did what to whom by modulating the sounds we make when we exhale."

This idea, as well as his broadbrush approach, has made Pinker the talk of the university tearooms. Everyone but everyone, from linguistic scholars to evolutionary biologists, primatologists and philosophers, pays tribute to his brilliant populism. Given that The Language Instinct is selling like hot cakes - more than 500 a day, and faster than Margaret Thatcher's The Downing Street Years, Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch - it is hard to see how any academic could do otherwise.

Except that it has happened before. The historian A. J. P. Taylor drew heavy peer criticism for his populism, and as a consequence lost out to Hugh Trevor-Roper in the race for the regius professorship at Oxford. In this context, the tributes seem remarkably generous, with Bangor's honorary professor of linguistics, David Crystal, even saying that "it reminds me of all the reasons why I went into linguistics in the first place - that curiosity, that fascination in why language is there".

There is no question that in The Language Instinct Pinker is self-consciously populist, going even further than Stephen Hawking, who simply resolved to leave out mathematical equations after being told that they would "halve the sales". Jargon is explained in parentheses, jokes are scattered throughout the text, and wide-ranging references stretch from Samuel Johnson and Lord Macaulay to Rod Stewart and Meryl Streep.

But if the book is meant, as Pinker claims, "to be read in bed or on the beach", it is also intended for "the academic market". And this is where the fire of controversy ignites because academics become sharply divided when assessing the merits and demerits of Pinker's work against the criteria of the serious monograph.

Patently, Pinker is something of a feather-ruffling cat among the pidgin experts. This much is evident from the fact that his claim to be treated seriously is not taken seriously by all academics - including some active in the fields Pinker embraces: biology, psychology and linguistics. Richard Dawkins, reader in zoology at Oxford University, is unusual in observing that The Language Instinct is "highly accessible to the general reader yet at the same time seminal for professionals". Liverpool professor of psychology Robin Dunbar, on the other hand, says that "several biologists have scratched their heads and said 'what's new?'". Crystal is similarly dismissive, suggesting that Pinker can only have intended the book "for academics who don't know anything about the subject".

The particular reservations are several. Crystal quibbles over Pinker's methodology, and especially his research into past-tense theory and "x-bar syntax", arguing that "he stops at the point where they are uncontroversial". Bristol philosopher Andrew Woodfield, director of the centre for theories of language and learning, quarrels with Pinker's contention that conceptual thought does not depend on language. And Terry Moore, Cambridge lecturer in linguistics, questions Pinker's reliance on Chomsky - who is taken in "a generous and deeply uncritical way" - and also his interpretation of Chomsky's central thesis about the creative aspect of language use; ie, the phenomenon of children manufacturing language in a new and appropriate way.

But the biggest brouhaha has been over Pinker's appropriation of Darwin's theory of natural selection. There are two main points of dispute. One line of argument contends that language is a cultural invention, and came about principally because of man's superior intelligence and learning ability. On this basis, say primatologists, chimpanzees, as the second most intelligent species, should be able to learn the rudiments of language.

Notwithstanding the achievements of chimps such as Kanzi, who appears to have picked up communication skills researchers tried to teach his mother, Pinker dismisses this thesis with gentle mockery, saying that language was not invented just as "web-spinning was not invented by some unsung spider genius". He backs up his argument by showing that chimpanzee vocalisations are controlled not by the cerebral cortex - as human speech is - but by phylogenetically older neural structures in the brain stem and limbic system.

The second point of contention concerns the Chomskian idea that language is an evolutionary by-product rather than a naturally selected end-product. Pinker dismisses this argument, saying that the "pitiless laws of physics", far from doing us "the favour of hooking up" the microcircuitry that allows language to happen, would have led to something else: "bat sonar or nest-building or go-go dancing or, most likely of all, random neural noise".

That he does dismiss Chomsky in quite so cheeky and robust a fashion is controversial enough, and would appear to have caused some friction around the dining halls of MIT. Given their professional and physical proximity, one would have supposed that Pinker and Chomsky are pals. Yet Pinker says with cursory matter-of-factness that there is "not that much personal contact" and reveals that "we've never worked together and I've never studied with him".

Chomsky, for his part, has made a diplomatically uncontroversial statement on the back of the Penguin paperback: "An extremely valuable book, very informative, and very well written." Yet he would seem to have his doubts. In a written response to The THES, Chomsky says that Pinker's book exhibits "terrible reasoning and confusions about evolution". One common confusion is to assume that natural selection is the single factor in evolution rather than one factor among many.

"Possibly," says Chomsky, "he (Pinker) shares the common belief that Darwin tried so hard to counter: that natural selection IS evolution. Of course that could not be. In fact, the proposal cannot be coherently formulated. Natural selection takes place under conditions of physical, chemical, biological law, including principles . . . involving complex systems and the way they develop - principles about which very little is known."

Who is right about language evolution? Pinker says that his argument - he rejects Crystal's view that it is still just "a very grand theory" - is "the best explanation for the range of facts on language acquisition, language universals and language pathology". Yet he recognises that there are many unanswered questions. Who did the first grammar mutant talk to? What explains the rococco complexity of human grammar? Why do people swear in different languages even though the impulse to swear is not controlled by the language faculty?

Pinker optimistically thinks these outstanding problems are "resolvable". One big help would be to find the so-called "language gene", or as Pinker puts it "suite of genes". Already, "the search is on".

Yet there are hard-nosed theoretical linguistic scholars such as Oxford professor James Higgin-Botham who say that, even if the language gene is located and language is shown to be evolutionary, so what? "The real question is whether we can learn anything about language from the mere fact that it evolved," he maintains. "Even if it does have an adaptive complexity, there are many properties of language that have no functional role".

But Pinker is unlikely to be bothered by such criticism. He has made his mark on the kingdom of linguistics, and he is now off to conquer the grander empire of cognitive science. As he says, with a wry smile: "My next project is a humble little book on a narrow topic: How The Mind Works."

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