Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Return of Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch

Only this time, it's Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky. They're playing musical authors.

Anyway, recall that Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch published a paper a few years ago in Science in which they argued that an explanation of the evolution of language may require only one new ability: recursion. In fact, recursion may be the only new ability we need to explain a whole host of cognitive skills that are unique to humans. You may think Tomasello oversimplifies the case in arguing that all we needed were some adaptations that allowed for collaborative learning, but HCF have brought oversimplification to a level not before witnessed in the behavioral sciences. Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff responded to this silliness with a very good paper of their own, in which they show that the HCF theory just doesn't hold water. If you're keeping up with this debate, you might be interested to know that HCF, now FHC, have written a response, which will be published in the same journal that published the Pinker and Jackendoff paper (thanks to Razib, who I should note is a member of the reading group, which automatically makes him cool, for pointing this out).

If you weren't convinced by the HCF paper, you won't be convinced by the FHC. It's more of the same, with a lot of time spent detailing what they perceive as misconceptions on the part of Pinker and Jackendoff. They do make one very good point, which I guarantee was insisted upon by Hauser (because he's written about it elsewhere), namely that speculation about the adaptive function of language at different points in its evolution is worthless. It's better to use comparative methods (comparing human linguistic abilities to the cognitive and communication abilities of nonhumans, especially monkeys and apes), and data from contemporary humans, because, well, that's real data, while idle speculation isn't. In addition, I do like their "faculty of language in the narrow sense" (FLN) and "faculty of language in the broad sense" (FLB) distinction. The FLN is just those aspects of human language that are unique to humans, and in humans, unique to language. The FLB is language in general, which can include properties that human languages share with nonhuman animals' communication systems, as well as aspects of language that are used by other cognitive systems, and thus not unique to language. I'm not so sure that Pinker and Jackendoff have mischaracterized this distinction, despite FHC's protests. But all in all, the paper is a good read, and I recommend it if you're interested in this sort of thing.

But beware! In the paper, there is a reference to an online appendix that discusses Pinker and Jackendoff's misconceptions about the Minimalist Program. Do not, if you value your sanity, read this appendix! It was obviously written by Chomsky, as it might as well have been written by the Chomskybot. It's no wonder, then, that the editor asked them to remove it from the published version of the paper. The damn things well nigh unreadable. Honestly, it amazes me that in an appendix designed to clear up misconceptions that are apparently based on a lack of requisite background knowledge on Pinker and Jackendoff's part, Chomsky writes an explanation that has holes large enough to drive an entire fleet of Mack trucks filled with background knowledge through. And on top of being about as clear as mud, the appendix is filled with Chomsky's typical ego-filled "where I go, so goes linguistics" rhetoric. When Chomsky ends the appendix with the statement, "Little [of Pinker and Jackendoff's critique] survives such analysis, as far as we can tell" (emphasis mine), I wonder if the "we" refers to Chomsky, with Hauser and Fitch just nodding their heads and saying, "Whatever you say, Noam. Whatever you say." Ugh.

I would love to hear from a linguist whether the appendix makes any sense to them. My suspicion is that for most, it won't. The rest of you, stay as far away from that appendix as is humanly possible. To borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, "When you gaze long into the Chomsky, the Chomsky also gazes into you."

UPDATE: Mark Liberman responds to my plea to linguists, writing:
I'll limit myself to observing that it's entirely "inside baseball": seven pages of text that mention no linguistic facts and no specific languages, nor any simulations, formulae, or empirical generalizations. Aside from a very general and abstract account of Chomsky's view of the goals of his research, the only topic is who said what when, sometimes with a very abstract explanation of why. It's an odd document -- I can't think of anything at all comparable from a major figure in a scientific or scholarly field, except perhaps some controversies over precedence (which is not an issue here). I agree with the judgment of Jacques Mehler, the editor of Cognition, who asked for it to be cut; and it seems to me that it's a distraction for outsiders (including most of the normal readership of Cognition) to try to understand it.
Now I don't feel so bad about making fun of it, even if the Nietzsche joke might have been a bit much.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Liberman links to the next turn in the debate over the original HCF paper, Pinker and Jackendoff (now Jackendoff and Pinker, not wanting to appear less egalitarian than Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky) have written a response to the respone. It's here.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

you people are way out of line. maybe it's fun for you.

i read the original CHF article when it came out.

funnily: I REALLY DON'T RECALL THEM EVER-- ever-- suggesting that recursion was the only distinctive aspect of the narrow/human/ling capacity.

they never posited that.

they mere said that possibly, when (if) we can fully understand the properties of the language faculty in the broad and narrow sense, the only thing in the "narrow" sense might be recursion.

there's nothing absurd or laughable about that.

the whole point of the paper WASN'T to be a groundbreaking study, it WASN'T supposed to elucidate many facts that would lead you to think one thing or the other-- you fools are getting way too much fun out of being naysayers.

the whole point was to layout a sensible framework for studying and understanding human language (in the board and narrow sense). that's all they did.

it's up to the entire fields (and related fields) to figure out what the necessary cognitive components of language are, and to figure out the properties of other cognitive systems (both communicative and non- ).

honestly, people, this is worse than the "al gore said he invented the internet!" meme.

enough already.

Anonymous said...

and on reading your post again, it strikes me as even more foolish.

"recall that Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch published a paper a few years ago in Science in which they argued that an explanation of the evolution of language may require only one new ability: recursion."

they definitely didn't do that. they did the complete opposite.

right there-- read the text people-- they outlined several cognitive systems that are REQUIRED for language to work the way it does.

(for example, a conceptual-intentional system, a motor-articulation system)

it's right there in the article. you obviously missed half the point: the distinction between FLB and FLN. (and in case you haven't noticed, many other animals share with us some components of FLB. the hard task is deciding what constitutes FLN, and if anything else on the planet has anything like it-- not necessarily for the same purpose, but anything like it at all, cognitively.)

Chris said...

Anon, first go back and look under the link "brought," and you'll find the quote from Hauser in which he says exactly what I said he does. Second, I was referring to the FLN. What other abilities do they hypothesize for the FLN? The ones you mention are for FLB. And my point is that the oversimplification is in saying that is the only uniquely linguistic adaptation in humans. If you look at all of the other theories of language evolution, you will see just how different the HCF account really is.

Chris said...

I note, in addition, that even after Hauser, Fitch, and Chomsky have written 2 papers on the topic, Jackendoff and Pinker still share my "misconception" of their version of the FlN. They write, in the abstract to their latest salvo:

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.

Emphasis mine, of course.

Anonymous said...

would you exchange "chomsky" for "einstein" or "tesla" or any other figure whose technical works aren't considered light leisure reading, in that nietzche quote?

i doubt it.

totally reactionary.

what's so hard about the appendix?

d-structure?
s-structure?
SM?
CI?
SMT?

oh, scary?

each of those notions is pretty simply laid out. all over the internet.

nobody should be any more scared than a high-school intro-algebra student who takes a calc textbook and flips ahead 400 pages just to have a look. and freaks out.

it's part symbology, part hierarchical learning. oh, daunting.

Chris said...

I'm going to start this comment with the offering of a chill pill. Take it, or comment elsewhere. You can criticize me all you want, but at least do so in a civil tone.

Now to the substance. I haven't read any of Tesla's writings, so I can't comment on his writing abilities, but Einstein, even in his more technical writings, seems much clearer than this. Of course, it's not long after SR that the math in Einstein's work gets well beyond me, so I can't really comment on how clear they are to people who are not in his field but who understand the math, because I'm not one of those people.

Chomsky, on the other hand, wrote an appendix that even those with more than a passing knowledge of linguistics, and even Chomskyan linguistics, would be befuddled by. As Liberman notes, he doesn't do anything to clear up any of what he sees as substantive misconceptions by Pinker and Jackendoff. Instead, he just references papers and directions. Even if you know, as I do, what d-structure and s-structure are, it's damn near impossible for a non-linguistic to figure out what he's getting at. It's just poorly written.

Finally, as I said in the update, the Nietzsche bit was probably a bit much. It was just meant as a joke. I guess it wasn't funny.

I deeply admire and respect Chomsky. Without him, even my field (cognitive psychology) would probably look much different today. But I can't help but feeling that he's lost touch with his own field, and where it is going, and that he's dragged many young linguists, and perhaps his coauthors, down with him. This is also something that Jackendoff and Pinker allude to in their latest reply.

Anonymous said...

don't be a fuddy duddy.

i come from a very hot school of rhetoric: i didn't do anything i consider uncivil, and i would love it if you copped the same tone with me.

i find it stimulating and engaging.

meat and potatoes: you just repeated for P&J again the whole goddam contentious curmudgeon. they say that CHF "claim that the uniquely human, language-specific part of the language faculty consists only of recursion.

CONSISTS. ONLY. OF RECURSION. -they never said this. they said for all we know, maybe that's the only thing: we need to figure out the real planetary ethnography of communication and cognitive ability TO ACTUALLY GET OUR ANSWERS.

that's the project they're writing about.

and their argument about recursion/comm-adaptation is that recursion is not NECESSARILY an adaptation for communication.

good research will give us our answers.

for all the speculation that linguistic evolution strictly arises from interpersonal/communicative "pressure" there's counterpart speculation that gives us insight into why that isn't NECESSARILY true.

pinker & jackendoff just have a hard time thinking in that mode. they act as if chomsky denies darwinism completely, or that his followers make reservations for ling-evolution OUTSIDE of all darwinistic accounts. it isn't true.

and outside of the CHF article, when chomsky gets derided for crypto-creationism, it's only because he frequently hardlines that we DON'T. ACTUALLY. UNDERSTAND. THE TRAJECTORY. OF HUMAN LANGUAGE EVOLUTION. we don't know what the cognitive constraints are, we can't go back and witness the emergence, but still the features of human language make the question compelling.

p&j (and p&bloom, too) can outline a an evolutionary framework that foccuses on interpersonal communication all they want as the complete alpha/omega story of human language. that doesn't make it necessary or true. (and i thought p&b's original article was good work)

i try to read p&j, it's like a dead fish slapping me in the face. (just like you)

"We examine the question of which aspects of language are uniquely human and uniquely linguistic in light of recent arguments 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 this argument problematic. It ignores the many aspects of grammar that are not recursive, such as phonology, morphology, case, and agreement. "

CHRIS: AM I MISSING SOMETHING HERE? the CHF article(s) wasn't a research study, wasn't a data-driven publication, it was a kind of research program.

and just so you know i'm not some partisan hack: i thought hauser's book was a joke (the evolution of communication-- nice try, marc)

i also went to a special lecture he put on. it was also a joke. ("from grunts to shakespear.")

honestly it's like the snake-oil racket.

what hauser said for himself is silly to me. it's like he has stars in his eyes. it's like he's saying "sure, a functional lexicon, morphology, phonology, all that crap is great but what's REALLY COOL IS IS [what we hypothesize as the only component of FLN]"

you can argue about the place that this or that aspect of language has in FLN, but the whole point is to really figure out those phenomena might be manifest in other species' cognitive systems.

it's not like CHF say "it's only recursion. trust us. if you think otherwise, we'll make fun of you. we got it all figured out." it makes sense to have a hypothesis before research.

but as you can see, THE REAL PROBLEM TO SOLVE is going to be the contentions about what Actually Constitutes An Analog/Instantiation of all the things that could be said to form part of FLN.

Chris said...

Wow, I don't know what to say. HCF and FHC both repeat that the FLN is recursion only (they say this as clear as day), and that is what P&J and J&P are criticizing.

The rest of your comment... really, could you offer some specific criticisms of Hauser's work? I personally consider Hauser to be one of the brightest minds in cog sci right now, and I think his work with monkeys on communication and cooperation is infinitely fascinating. You clearly disagree. Why do you think it's a joke?

David said...

Hi guys. I think I agree with Anon. In section 2.7 of FHC they say "Their (J&P's) conclusion is based on a
misreading of our hypothesis postulating that, at a minimum, FLN consists of the core
computational capacities of recursion as they appear in narrow syntax and the mappings to
the interfaces. This hypothesis is intended as a guide to research; we are interested in the
extent to which it is true, but we welcome empirical demonstrations that other mechanisms
should be added to FLN.'

So it looks like FHC hypothesize that recursion is all their is to FLN, but aren't convinced that there is evidence for anything else, and by evidence they mean comparative evidence, or presumably eventually genetic evidence. JP/PJ are really saying that they don't think characterizing things like this is a good way to do it, and such a research programme is therefore not going to go anywhere. I think that the reason that they reject this programme is that they have another: both have a view of linguistic structure as involving combinatoriality elsewhere than the syntax. So both parties are taking a line on evolution that connects with their ideas about the mental architecture of grammar (broadly conceived). It's therefore a little fresh of PJ to accuse FHC of exactly this, when they are doing it themselves!

Anonymous said...

Glad you guys understand this crap! I am currently taking cognitive psych at a local college to get my bachelors degree and I have to compare and contrast these two articles and i am so *ucking confused.

Anonymous said...

"You can criticize me all you want, but at least do so in a civil tone."

Chris, was your "critique" (or whatever it was) of Chomsky, Hauser, and Fitch--especially Chomsky--civil in tone?

It's my opinion that the previous anymous commenter's civility pretty much matched that of your original post.

Brian said...

I found the Appendix to be beautifully written and clear. Thank you for bringing attention to it, Chris. In fact the original paper, and PJ response, etc, have helped clarify a lot of issues; a significant credit to all the authors.

Anonymous said...

I loved the appendix. I found it quite clear. Definitely worth reading.

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