to home
to summary of reasons

Forty-Four Reasons
Why the Chomskians Are Mistaken

Reasons 31—33

31. Modularity versus Self-Organization:

The issue of modularity of language (which is essential for the nativist argument) is shown empirically to be flawed. But not in relation to adult's brains. In adults, there's no doubt that there are specific language areas (such as Broca's and Wernicke's areas). There are reports of adult hemispherectomy (the surgical removal of one entire hemisphere) of the left brain of adults with severe damage to language comprehension and generation. This could be seen as an evidence of the language organ hypothesis.

However, when this hemispherectomy is done on children of early age, (these surgeries are unfortunately necessary mostly because of uncontrollable epilepsy), these children have been able to develop language almost to a point of normality! And language grew up using the remaining, right hemisphere. It is also shown that the earlier the hemispherectomy is done, the better the recovery of the language abilities (Kolb 1995), demonstrating that this "language organ" does not exist from birth, but is fabricated" along the way.

What recent studies point towards is that our brain evolves significantly during the initial months of life, and that a lot of our perceptual abilities are also solidified during that time. Brain plasticity continues in children well over 2-3 years and during that time much of our cognition is developed. Chomsky's view of the poverty of stimuli had it backwards: it is excess of stimuli. Brains appear to self-organize to make sense of language and all sensory inputs they receive.

32. Genetically-based cognitive disorders:

Children with Down's Syndrome suffer from a general impairment in cognitive abilities, and for that reason they are often classified as being of a lower mental age. However, in terms of language production, such children perform even worse than their putative mental age, suggesting that they have additional problems with their "language-related organs." So far so good for nativists.

This evidence is often cited in conjunction with reports about Williams Syndrome, a different genetic problem. In this case, children perform admirably well on language-related tasks (and also music), but fail sensibly (compared to control children) on all other cognitive tasks (visual reasoning, logic/mathematics, etc). This is the "top level" argument of those who defend innate language, because it appears to show a double dissociation that would perfectly characterize a linguistically specific organ.

Once again, a careful review of relevant evidence, taking into consideration developmental aspects, may reveal different interpretations. Electrophysiological studies of children with Williams Syndrome show that their language abilities are spared because of patterns of activities in different parts of their brains, when compared with normal children. This suggests that their brains were able to compensate for these deficiencies by developing new cortical areas to support the required abilities. Down's syndrome appears to impair such development.

A better explanation for such evidence is that the faulty genetic aspects control high-level architectural aspects of the brain, which influence its ability to develop suitable forms of processing among different parts of the cortex. This is required, for instance, to properly process and bind sensory and perceptual aspects, which are essential to cognitive abilities, among them linguistic performance.

Thus, the double dissociation argument loses its power when we consider that the brain is not a static organ, but a dynamic and self-organizing mechanism that adapts to its environment. It is interesting to see that music is not impaired in Williams Syndrome, suggesting that language and music have much in common.

33. Anti-nativist literature is growing:

As a reason in itself, I find the following list of references important to this critique. They show that the breadth of topics relevant to the origins of language in humans transcend the mere limits of linguistics to include, among others, areas such as neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence and paleoanthropology.

Arbib, Michael A.; Rizzolatti, Giacomo (1998) Language within our grasp. Trends in Neuroscience Vol 21, No. 5, 1998.

Bates, Elisabeth (1994) Modularity, Domain Specificity and the Development of Language. CRL, Univ. California, San Diego.

Christiansen, Morten H. (1994) Infinite Languages, Finite Minds, Connectionism, Learning And Linguistic Structure. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Edinburgh

Deacon, Terrence W. (1997) The Symbolic Species. W. W. Norton & Company.

Elman, Jeffrey, and Bates, E., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., Plunkett, K. (1996) Rethinking Innateness, A Connectionist Perspective on Development. MIT Press.

Elman, Jeffrey (1995) Language as a dynamical system. In Port & van Gelder: Mind as Motion, MIT Press

Galaburda, Albert M.; Geschwind, Norman (eds) (1984) Cerebral Dominance. Harvard University Press.

Janik, Vincent M. (2000) Whistle Matching in Wild Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Science, Volume 289, No. 5483, 25 Aug. 2000, pp. 1355-1357.

Johnson, M. H. (et al.) (1999) Cognitive Modularity and Genetic Disorders. Science Vol 286, 17 Dec. 1999

Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1992) Beyond Modularity. MIT Press.

Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1998) Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders. Trends of Cognitive Sciences, Vol 2, No. 10.

Kolb, Bryan (1995) Brain Plasticity and Behavior. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

Lieberman, Philip (1998) Eve Spoke, Human Language and Human Evolution. W. W. Norton & Company

Mithen, Steven (1996) The Prehistory of Mind. Thames and Hudson.

Plunkett, Kim; Parisi, Domenico; Bates, Elisabeth; Elman, Jeffrey; Johnson, Mark; Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1999) Innateness and Emergentism. In Bechtel & Graham (eds) A Companion to Cognitive Science. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Steels, Luc (1996) Synthesising the origins of language and meaning using co-evolution, self-organization and level formation. AI Lab, Vrije Universiteit, Brussel

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue; Lewin, Roger (1994) Kanzi, The ape at the brink of the human mind. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue; Shanker, Stuart G.; Taylor, Talbot J. (1998) Apes, Language and the Human Mind. Oxford University Press

Zeki, Semir (1993) A Vision of the Brain. Blackwell Scientific Publications

(Sergio Navega's contribution ends at this point.)

to the next reason

to the previous reason

to the summary of reasons

COPYRIGHT STATEMENT:
This piece is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross, with specified
portions Copyright © 2000 by
Sergio Navega. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the authors.
All Rights Reserved.

to top
to summary of reasons
to linguistics menu
to home