Ideas and actions

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I recently read through Marc Hauser et al., "The Mystery of Language Evolution", Frontiers in Psychology 2014, which expresses a strongly skeptical view on every aspect of the topic, including this one:

[S]tudies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity.

By "underlying biological capacity" they mean something rather narrow, which they call "the language phenotype":

As we and many other language scientists see it, the core competence for language is a biological capacity shared by all humans and distinguished by the central feature of discrete infinity—the capacity for unbounded composition of various linguistic objects into complex structures. These structures are generated by a recursive procedure that mediates the mapping between speech- or sign-based forms and meanings, including semantics of words and sentences and how they are situated and interpreted in discourse. This approach distinguishes the biological capacity for language from its many possible functions, such as communication or internal thought.

This definition leaves out the many aspects of human anatomy and physiology that are relevant to speech and language, and are both shared with other animals and also evolutionarily adapted to make human speech and language work better. There's an old debate about whether it makes sense to ignore all of these other capabilities: for some play-by-play, see "JP versus FHC+CHF versus PJ versus HCF", 8/25/2005.

But there's an even older proposal, which is consistent with Hauser et al.'s view of the language phenotype while explicitly and strongly disagreeing with the claim that there are no relevant nonhuman parallels.

This idea is eloquently presented in a work that I recently re-read in preparation for a forthcoming workshop on "Prosodic Grammar" — Karl Lashley's 1951 chapter "The Problem of Serial Order in Behavior". If you've never read it, do yourself a favor and read it now. To whet your appetite, here are a few relevant quotations:

The study of comparative grammar is not the most direct approach to the physiology of the cerebral cortex, yet Fournié has written, “Speech is the only window through which the physiologist can view the cerebral life.” Certainly language presents in a most striking form the integrative functions that are characteristic of the cerebral cortex and that reach their highest development in human thought processes.

Temporal integration is not found exclusively in language; the coordination of leg movements in insects, the song of birds, the control of trotting and pacing in a gaited horse, the rat running the maze, the architect designing a house, and the carpenter sawing a board present a problem of sequences of action which cannot be explained in terms of successions of external stimuli.

Or later:

[I]t is certain that any theory of grammatical form which ascribes it to direct associative linkage of the words of the sentence overlooks the essential structure of speech. The individual items of the temporal series do not in themselves have a temporal “valence” in their associative connections with other elements. The order is imposed by some other agent.

This is true not only of language, but of all skilled movements or successions of movement. 

And finally:

I have devoted so much time to discussion of the problem of syntax, not only because language is one of the most important products of human cerebral action, but also because the problems raised by the organization of language seem to me to be characteristic of almost all other cerebral activity.  There is a series of hierarchies of organization […] Not only speech, but all skilled acts seem to involve the same problems of serial ordering, even down to the temporal coordination of muscular contractions in such a movement as reaching and grasping. Analysis of the nervous mechanisms underlying order in the more primitive acts may contribute ultimately to the solution even of the physiology of logic. […]

This is the essential problem of serial order: the existence of generalized schemata of action which determine the sequence of specific acts, acts which in themselves or in their associations seem to have no temporal valence.

In evolutionary terms, Lashley is suggesting that a key innovation, maybe THE key innovation, was learning to map structured ideas onto structured action plans (= "generalized schemata of action"); and that the "series of hierarchies of organization" that are characteristic of human syntax were originally borrowed from structures present in "not only speech, but all skilled acts".

We've learned a lot since 1951 about motor control and motor planning, and also about how speech and language work; and in my opinion, the progress makes Lashley's suggestion look even more plausible. Two random relevant links, out of hundreds:

Michael Studdert-Kennedy and Louis Goldstein, "Launching language: The gestural origin of discrete infinity", Studies in the Evolution of Language, 2003
Marc Schmidt et al., “Breathing and Vocal Control: The Respiratory System as both a Driver and Target of Telencephalic Vocal Motor Circuits in Songbirds”. J. Exp. Physiology 2011.

Neither Lashley's chapter, nor either of those two particular pieces of work, nor anything from the several other areas of related research, is cited or discussed in the Hauser et al. article. The lack of attention to the Studdert-Kennedy and Goldstein article is especially odd, since it was published in a volume "Studies in the Evolution of Language", and puts the "gestural origin of discrete infinity" up front in the title.

Hauser et al. do cite Eric Lenneberg's 1967 book The Biological Foundations of Language.  One of the best parts of my undergraduate education was a seminar that Lenneberg taught on the topic of the book as he was writing it — and I recall Lashley-on-serial order as a central focus of that course.


  1. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 11:54 am

    I'm unimpressed by the physical business of production and perception of sounds that could be used for speech. Breathing, respiratory control, vocal apparatus etc. Many creatures can do that. In the context of studying a group that uses language, it's necessary to understand the physical basis of how it works and how that physical constraint interacts with and influences language. But it's not central to the concept of language itself, or else signed languages wouldn't work.

    [(myl) The point is not to impress people (in general or you in particular) but to understand where the hierarchical structure in language might have come from. And Lashley's argument is about action plans in general, including those involved in gesture just as in speech. The fact that gestural languages work well seems like a strong clue that the key innovation is the idea of mapping propositional structures onto the hierarchical structure generally available to the motor system.]

    I'm moderately impressed by the ability to do that production and perception well. Our ability to exercise 'vocal motor control' to physically modulate and discriminate those sounds so as to encode, and our ear's corresponding ability to decode information from those same produced streams of sound is remarkable compared to most species. But it's not unique, and while I agree that it's evolved and developed because of the advantage of facilitating our language use, birdsong or dolphin vocalizations have evolved because of different advantages to an equally impressive degree of complexity and effortless modulation.

    Something that's more impressive is learned vocalizations that are passed from one generation to the next; pods of cetaceans have been shown to do this as whalesong is subject to "drift" in form but can be used to identify members of the same pod (and show relationships created by association between pods) across generations. Likewise some species of birds learn vocalizations from their parents (or from their environments) and pass them on to their young.

    When I come across it in the animal kingdom, I'm very impressed by the attachment of specific meanings to abstract learned symbols. A parrot that knows the difference, eg, between "Red" and "Blue" and can both produce the correct symbol when shown an object having one of those colors, or choose an object of the correct color when given one of those symbols, is remarkable – as are most instances of apes using sign language symbols in that way.

    What we don't have an animal model for yet is called "Grammar" – the human trait of imposing recursive structure on a set of encoding symbols in order to encode interrelationships among the things referred to by those symbols. — which can, to a first approximation, be expressed as the ability to invent, internalize, modify, and use (statistically annotated, stochastic) Chomsky grammars for context-sensitive languages. Natural language has some features that don't strictly fit into Chomsky's context-sensitive category, but they're rare and you could be a fluent speaker of nearly any human language without ever using one.

    Chomsky eventually decided that context-sensitive grammars aren't all that good a model for language. From the view of encoding language in a computer program, they're damnably too rigid; humans are always 'breaking the rules' in statistically significant ways, modifying the grammars on the fly in a way we don't know how to model yet. We can fairly easily utilize context-sensitive grammars in computer software, but the ability to invent and modify those grammars at need hasn't been convincingly automated, and the ability to attach the symbols to meanings is at best laborious and context-dependent, and at worst wholly intractable (or the Cyc project would have produced better results). The best results to date have been produced by pure statistics.

  2. Scott McClure said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    My impression was that the 'gestural origin of discrete infinity' in the Studdert-Kennedy and Goldstein paper primarily meant gestures implemented by the vocal tract, not the hand. I don't think that Hauser et al. represent that aspect of the paper very well: 'The gestural origins theory of language (Corballis, 2003; Studdert-Kennedy and Goldstein, 2003), in which signed expressions predated spoken ones, is on even less stable ground…'

    [(myl) Wow, I missed that statement, which (as you point out) represents a really egregious misreading of the cited paper, which is explicitly about "gestural phonology", a well-known and long-established theory (as the cited paper explains at length) of phonology/phonetics that has nothing whatsoever to do with with sign language. Since I missed this, I shouldn't complain about the fact that it's a flunkworthy mistake for a first-semester student, and means that no referee who knows anything about the field could possible have read this paper carefully. I think this also means that this phrase must have been slipped in after the last time one of the co-authors, my colleague Charles Yang, read the paper carefully, since he knows very well what "gestural phonology" is all about.]

  3. valency said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

    "Chomsky eventually decided that context-sensitive grammars aren't all that good a model for language."

    Really? Citation for that?

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    June 22, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

    I would also like to see that citation. I'm not sure when the last time was Chomsky explicitly discussed the power of grammars–"Conditions on Transformations," possibly?–but the general trend since the mid-1970s has been toward *limiting* it, not expanding it. Perhaps Ray Dillinger is thinking of Chomsky's argument in LSLT against context-free grammar as a model of human language?

  5. Richard W. Symonds said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 12:40 am

    Lashley wasn't cited – nor Chomsky, who highlighted Lashley' s work in the 1950's. Lashley was unknown to psychology or linguistics until Chomsky brought attention to his work.

  6. J. Goard said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 1:33 am

    "[S]tudies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity."

    I'd like to see that quote again (and what follows it) after I see Deacon and Tomasello in the references. Or, perhaps, some small reference to usage-based syntactic theories, simply in order to highlight their different relationship with the evolutionary questions. Or just a hint of the philosopher's style, presenting a conclusion as an alternative: *either* evolutionarily relevant functions of language behavior are strongly separate from the most important features of language structure, *or* certain prominent approaches to language structure are badly broken. Then, fine, let him adopt the former position, but after fairly laying out the choice before us.

  7. AntC said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 1:58 am

    myl quotes above this from HauserThese structures are generated by a recursive procedure … [my emphasis]. Hauser's abstract includes … requires evidence …. We argue … a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved.

    I quite accept that the most elegant/succinct accounts of natural language syntax would use recursion as a descriptive tool. That does not convince me that humans process language recursively. (To the contrary, humans rapidly 'lose the plot' with any depth of recursion, in a way that computers don't.)

    I don't see how anybody could adduce evidence of human computation involving recursion or otherwise, without some sort of neuron mapping. (Even computers merely simulate recursion, up to some (typically large) depth.)

    So observed linguistic behaviour could be explained by iteration/repetition. Then I'm not so sanguine that the human capacity is unbounded/infinite, as Hauser claims. Perhaps it is merely a larger capacity than other species.

    Example: creatures with so small a brain size as spiders can build webs spanning several metres, and needing tremendous three-dimensional 'computations'. If I wanted to describe that 'processing', I would tend to a recursive model.

    Lashley's … cannot be explained in terms of successions of external stimuli. seems very to the point.

  8. David Hilbert said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 9:23 am

    Richard W. Symonds: "Lashley was unknown to psychology or linguistics until Chomsky brought attention to his work."

    Is this just a claim about the work on serial order? Although I seriously doubt the narrow claim, the general claim which you seem to make is absurd. Lashley was one of the most influential American psychologists of the first half of the 20th century and was elected to the National Academy while Chomsky was still a toddler.

  9. Richard W. Symonds said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    DH, I was referring specifically to Serial Order – Lashley's last work.

    With that said, he and his work are little known over here in England.

    Much like the English philosopher CEM Joad – well-known here in his time. Virtually forgotten now – especially his last work.

    [(myl) I don't believe that "The Problems of Serial Order in Behavior" was Lashley's "last work" — here's one of several major publications that have a later date. And it's simply false that Chomsky rescued Lashley's paper from obscurity — I can testify that the work was often referenced in the 1960s (and later) by psychologists with no particular affinity for Chomsky.]

  10. sadaf said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

    Isn't Hauser the guy who'd been found guilty of scientific misconduct two years ago?

    [(myl) Indeed: "ICYMI: Globe summarizes Harvard report on Hauser", 6/8/2014; and so on.]

  11. Ken said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

    @AntC: Then I'm not so sanguine that the human capacity is unbounded/infinite, as Hauser claims.

    Since there's a finite number of neurons (or neural connections, or atoms if you wish) in the brain, operating for a finite time, it's definitely not infinite.

    That means in a technical sense, human brains are at the lowest level of the Chomsky hierarchy and can be modeled by a type 3 regular grammar, or a finite state machine with no store. Of course in practice the number of states is huge, and could well simulate a type 0 machine with a large (but finite) store.

  12. AntC said,

    June 24, 2014 @ 1:54 am

    @Ken My point is that … can be modelled … is talking about a scientific construct. It says nothing about how brains actually work — and that is what Hauser seems to be making claims about.

    Yes, the number of states is huge . Perhaps humans simply 'compute' language with huge numbers of brain-states, not anything fancy like recursion.

  13. Richard W. Symonds said,

    June 24, 2014 @ 7:03 am

    MYL, "The Problems of Serial Order in Behavior" (1951) was his last 'notable' work, and I would maintain he has been largely forgotten by those with "Behaviourist tendencies" because his ideas in 1951 were running counter to the prevailing orthodoxy of Behaviourism (eg BF Skinner).

    In my view, Chomsky "rescued" Lashley's 1951 because it helped re-inforced his own work (eg on syntax), which came to revolutionize not just linguistics, but other major disciplines as well.

    Hauser's debt to Chomsky (& his Language faculty) is beyond doubt, especially regarding the ground-breaking ideas on the Moral faculty (instinct) in 'Moral Minds' (2006) – and Mikhail's "Universal moral Grammar"

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 24, 2014 @ 9:57 am

    The "Hauser et al." piece under discussion has no fewer than seven co-authors in addition to Hauser, one of whom is none other than Noam Chomsky. So unless Chomsky has himself forgotten about Lashley, you can't ascribe the failure to cite his work to lack of awareness of it.

  15. Richard W. Symonds said,

    June 24, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

    "Neither Lashley's chapter, nor either of those two particular pieces of work, nor anything from the several other areas of related research, is cited or discussed in the Hauser et al. article"

    This all sounds to me like "Let's kick him while he's down & make sure he doesn't get up". It is very unprofessional – more akin to bullies in a school playground.

    [(myl) No, it's "Isn't it strange that this article asserts that there are 'no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity', while ignoring a well known and widely discussed idea about the origins of the 'underlying biological capacity.'"

    Your reaction is in stark contrast to the reaction of Charles Yang, one of the article's co-authors, who gave some reasons (space limitations and a feeling that the grammatical analogies are too vague) for the fact that the paper didn't address a broader range of issues related to "the type of pan-recursionism that points to the analogy, perhaps implied homology, of grammar like organization in vision, action, planning"; mentioned his own collaboration with Louis Goldstein; and concluded with "But you are right: some discussion of the Lashley type ideas should have been there."

    You seem to have shifted from simple unsupported assertions of falsehoods (e.g. that Lashley was a forgotten figure somehow rescued by Chomsky) to personal insults (that those disagreeing with one aspect of a paper by 8 eminent authors — Marc Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Lewontin — are "playground bullies"). Please take your polemics elsewhere.]

    When the 'attack dogs' were really after Hauser, certain academics threw them some meat by saying he had not given Mikhail sufficent acknowledgement in his (potentially) ground-breaking book "Moral Minds" (2006).

    If anyone had bothered to read Hauser's book, they would have found Mikhail cited in the Index : "123-27".

    Now, 'Hauser et al' (eg Chomsky) get criticised for not citing Lashley – a figure largely unknown these day by most academics in the related field – whatever anyone says here.

    [(myl) You keep saying that, but you don't cite any evidence except your own opinion. According to Google Scholar, Karl Lashley has been cited 1,210 times since 2010. In comparison, the same search for Marc Hauser yields 725 hits; for his co-author Charles Yang we get 463; for co-author Robert Berwick we get 136; for co-author Ian Tattersall we get 424; etc. Nothing against these fine scholars, but your repeated assertions that Lashley is a forgotten figure are simply repetitions of your own unsupported and apparently ill-informed opinion.]

    Something doesn't smell right somehow.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 24, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    The Hauser et al. paper's quote re the Societe Linguistique de Paris' old ban on speculation as to the origin of language is also quoted (and approvingly so) in Stephen Anderson's Doctor Doolittle's Delusion, which takes the position that language is a radically/uniquely human capability while still finding it useful to spend much of a book talking at length about the non-linguistic communicative capacities of other species of animals and what partial light they might shed on the biological basis of language use in humans.

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