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.