College 002 -- 3/5/2002

Contemporary research on language learning is part of an intellectual conversation that is two and a half millenia old. More accurately, it's part of several such conversations, which are about a lot of other topics besides language and learning -- especially politics. In some cases this context helps to focus research, but it also often distorts the discussion of scientific issues by loading them with political freight.

My goal here is to give you a sense of what these conversations are, and how current research fits in.

Unlike some of the other lecture notes in this course, this document is not intended to be a complete or independently-readable summary of the content of the lecture. Instead, it will serve to remind you of the themes.

Where do knowledge and ideas come from?

Plato: Learning is recollection -- of knowledge from previous lives or experience as a discorporate soul, when abstract forms can be grasped directly (nativism, rationalism)

Aristotle: Learning results from logic applies to experience (empiricism)

John Locke, "Essay concerning human understanding" (1690):

'IDEA' being that term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding, I have used it to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is the mind can be, employed about in thinking. Let us, then, suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters--without any ideas. Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? To this, I answer in one word--experience; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself.

Let anyone examine his own thoughts and thoroughly search his understanding, and then let him tell me whether of all the original ideas he has there are any other than of the objects of his senses, or of the observations of his mind considered as objects of his reflection.

William Blake VISIONS of the Daughters of Albion (1793)

With what sense is it that the chicken shuns the ravenous hawk?
With what sense does the tame pigeon measure out the expanse?
With what sense does the bee form cells? have not the mouse & frog
Eyes and ears and sense of touch? yet are their habitations.
And their pursuits, as different as their forms and as their joys:
Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens: and the meek camel
Why he loves man: is it because of eye ear mouth or skin
Or breathing nostrils? No. for these the wolf and tyger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav'nous snake
Where she gets poison: & the wing'd eagle why he loves the sun
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old.

Where do knowledge, ideas, skills and preferences come from?

In the case of animals, the 20th century gave two apparently opposite answers:

Ivan Pavlov and associationistic psychology: ideas, skills, preferences come from associations based on experience. In effect they are all learned habits. The structure of knowledge is "out there" in the world; experience (or training) internalizes it.

Konrad Lorenz and ethology: ideas, skills, preferences come from instincts applied to experience.
The structure of knowledge is pre-programmed genetically; experience releases it or connects it with things in the world.

Salivating dogs and affiliated ducklings... nurture vs. nature...

Relations to "universality": do ideas/skills/preferences line up with genetic categories such as species or breed? One answer: the basic principles of learning are always the same, across animals and across types of knowledge or skill, and can be studied in dogs, rats, pigeons etc., where the results of learning can vary arbitrarily for any given animal, depending on its experience. Another answer: each species or breed is pre-disposed to learn certain sorts of things, often pretty narrow and specific things, so the results of learning will be similar for all animals of a given kind, but different for different kinds.

An observation about connections to politics, esthetics etc.: if ideas and preferences come from experience, then they are to a certain extent arbitrary -- change people's experiences and you change their ideas and preferences, perhaps more or less without limits. This was a very attractive political idea to many people around 1900, since they felt there were a lot of oppressive social structures and boring art around. On the other hand, if ideas and preferences are in large part innate -- whether determined by biology or by spiritual revelation -- then they will be relatively resistant to change, and social structures based on them may also be hard to change, and perhaps should not be changed. In fact, the connections between epistemology and politics are much more complicated and less direct -- but the cited connection remains a significant force.

Where does culture fit in?

In the case of humans, knowledge, ideas, skills and preferences are embedded in culture.

The dominant ideas of 20th-century social science are consistent with empiricist epistemology: individuals' ideas, skills, preferences, values are based on cultural experience; and culture itself is an autonomous and self-caused system that can vary arbitrarily.

Key figures in establishing these ideas were the American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1042) and the French sociologist Emil Durkheim. Boas argued that the diversity of human cultures does not reflect an evolutionary progression from more primitive to more advanced, nor a set of deterministic local responses to different environments, but rather expresses an essentially unlimited range of equally valid perspectives, each arising from its own long history of cultural inheritance, borrowing and innovation. Durkheim argued that social facts cannot be explained in biological or psychological terms.

Another side of the conversation.

Boasian social science was not the only game in town: for example, the Nazis.. Konrad Lorenz joined Nazi party in 1938 (immediately after Germany took over his native Austria), and provided biological justification for Nazi ideology in many of his writings.

His ideas in this period included an analogy between the deterioration of animal behavior under domestication and the degeneration of human beings in civilization, which he treated as a kind of genetic "entropy" caused by the loss of the discipline imposed by ruthless natural selection. He therefore advocated a "scientifically founded racial policy" for the "elimination" of inferior people. Lorenz depicted nature as violent but orderly, in contrast with the chaos and confusion of modern human society. He praised the Nazis for emulating the natural discipline of instinct by imposing strict authoritarian controls, modeled on the social organization of wolves, in opposition to the domesticated mongrels whose instincts had been ruined through careless breeding.

Lorenz worked for the German "Department of Military Psychology" during the war, participating in SS-sponsored research to develop scientific criteria for distinguishing "German" from "Polish" qualities in "half-breeds", to help the SS select candidates for a "re-germanization" policy in occupied Poland.

The Nazis lost the war, so the Nazi links of this strand of research were buried, partly by its opponents and partly by its creators. Konrad Lorenz won the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his work on imprinting.

The Nazi wolf-fetish was not unprecedented. Consider the depiction of wolf society in Kipling's "Jungle Books", which were an early influence on Lorenz.

An intellectual war

Long before WWII, Franz Boas and his students such as Margaret Mead saw themselves as involved in a war with people like Lorenz. As a result, they themselves were not neutral or dispassionate investigators on the question of the role of biology in shaping human behavior and cultural patterns.

From Margaret Mead's autobiography, discussing her work on temperament, and speaking of herself and Gregory Bateson:

[W]e also recognized that there were dangers in such a formulation because of the very human tendency to associate particular traits with sex or age or race, physique or skin color, or with membership in one or another society, and then to make invidious comparisons based on such arbitrary associations. We knew how politically loaded discussions of inborn differences could become; we knew that the Russians had abandoned their experiment in rearing identical twins when it was found that, even reared under different circumstances, they displayed astonishing likeness. By then [spring 1935] it seemed clear to us that the further study of inborn differences would have to wait upon less troubled times.

It was not only their own work that they sometimes suppressed or opposed for apparently political reasons. Paul Ekman is a psychologist who set out in 1965 to study the production and perception of facial expressions in cultures around the world, expecting to discover that they were variable and culturally determined. Instead, he confirmed what Darwin had asserted more than 100 years earlier: the basic system of human facial expressions and their interpretation is culturally universal and appears to be genetically programmed. Bateson originally encouraged Ekman's work, though Mead thought he was wasting his time (or perhaps understood what he was likely to find). both refused to be persuaded by his results, and Mead attacked his work strongly to the end of her life. (read passage).


The left end

Ivan Pavlov was Russian. He was born in 1849 and did his seminal research in the period from 1890 to 1903, winning the Nobel Prize in 1904. At the time of the Russian revolution in 1917 he was 68, but he continued to work in the Soviet Union until his death in 1936. His research was internationally respected for its scientific merit, but it had special resonance for the communists. In 1921, Lenin signed a special government decree noting "the otustanding scientific services of Academician I.P. Pavlov, which are enormous significance to the working class of the whole world." As his Nobel biography says, "The Communist Party and the Soviet Government saw to it that Pavlov and his collaborators were given unlimited scope for scientific research."

By contrast to Lorenz, Pavlov never offered ideological support to tyranny. In fact, in 1923 he publically denounced Communism, stating the the basis for international Marxism was false. In 1924, when the sons of preists were expelled from the Military Medical Academy in Leningrad, he resigned his chair of physiology. In 1927 he cast the only negative vote in the Academy of Sciences against the "red professors" nominated by the Communist Party, and wrote to Stalin "On account of what you are doing to the Russian intelligentsia -- demoralizing, annihilating, depraving them -- I am ashamed to be called a Russian!" In 1929 he refused to allow Bukharin, the commissar of education, to enter his laboratory, though Bukharin was the administrator of the funds that supported it.

Nevertheless, Pavlov's theories and results were consistent with Marxist ideology.

So through the middle of the 20th century, we can see a sort of opposition between Lorenz and instincts on the far right, against Pavlov and conditioned responses on the far left. Those in between often tended to affiliate in one direction or the other, depending on the strength of their sympathies or their fears. By 1960 or so, the empiricist/associationist/cultural-relativist position was pretty much dominant.

Nativism battles back

The last half of the 20th century has seen a significant resurgence of the nativist perspective.

Here is the abstract for a recent talk by "evolutionary psychologists" Leda Cosmides and John Tooby:

The study of the human mind has recently been moved into the natural sciences through biology, computer science, and allied disciplines, and the result has been the revelation of a wholly new and surprising picture of human nature. Instead of the human mind being a blank slate governed by a few general purpose principles of reasoning and learning, it is full of "reasoning instincts" and "innate knowledge" -- that is, it resembles a network of dedicated computers each specialized to solve a different type of problem, each running under its own richly coded, distinctly nonstandard logic. The programs that comprise the human mind (or brain) were selected for not because of their generality, but because of their specialized success in solving the actual array of problems that our ancestors faced during their evolution, such as navigating the social world, reasoning about macroscopic rigid objects as tools, "computing" or perceiving beauty, foraging, understanding the biological world, and so on.

Let's ignore the fact that this picture is by no means "wholly new and surprising": aside from the computer network metaphor, it is made up of pieces that have been familiar to philosophers for a couple of thousand years, along other pieces that were explicitly discussed by Darwin and his immediate followers, and later perverted by Lorenz and others in the service of Nazi ideology. Rather, let's ask what has happened since 1960 to bring this perspective to its current position of up-and-coming challenger to the social and behavior science orthodoxy.

Among the contributing disciplines have been ethology (the study of animal behavior pioneered by Lorenz), cognitive psychology, and (probably more than anything else) the work in linguistics of Noam Chomsky and his followers.

What about language?

Up to about 1960, most work by psychologists on language had started from a remark of Pavlov: "the language function in humans is based on long chains of conditioned reflexes involving words." (discuss).

In his Penn PhD dissertation, a chapter from which was published in 1956 as the monograph "Syntactic Structures", Noam Chomsky argued on mathematical grounds that this must be false. He later was given the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Mathematics, for this work. (discuss). He also argued that no general learning mechanism could possibly learn the syntactic structures of human language from the kind of evidence available to human children, and on that basis he argued for a particular kind of "innate idea": a built-in "Language Acquisition Device" representing innate assumptions about what kind of thing a language is.

Various arguments: Gold's theorem. Universals of Language. Rapidity of child language acquisition, and apparent "poverty of the stimulus". Evident stupidity and inadequacy of then-current theories of verbal learning, and the strait-jacket of behaviorism. Ideas about Creole genesis.

Beyond nature and nurture

The opposition between nature and nurture, instinct and experience, genes and environment, is not a very satisfactory one.

We know that even the development and maintenance of biological form requires an interplay between genes and environment. Surely the development and maintenance of ideas, skills, preferences and so on is similar.

To some extent this can now be seen as an argument about time scale and learning mechanism: Is a particular knowledge, skill or preference learned by each individual afresh, and the resulting knowledge encoded somehow in neural pathways? has it instead been learned by the species, and the resulting knowledge encoded in the genome? has the species acquired a disposition to learn certain kinds of things more easily, or to attend to certain features of the environment rather than others, so that individual learning is enhanced or channeled in certain directions without being entirely determined?

When looked at closely, nearly every aspect of the behavior of organisms from bacteria on up turns out to involve some combination of these features in different proportions. Trying to assign every behavioral disposition entirely to "nature" or to "nurture" is not a helpful strategy. Waddington's "canalization" idea: the downhill metaphor.

Furthermore, in the case of social organisms, parasites and symbionts, knowledge can also be acquired and transmitted by collections of organisms in interaction with their environment., though the effects of the behavior of individuals across generations. The case of human culture is an extreme instance of this, but it is not unique. Examples from food choice, location, and acquisition; migration habits; etc.