The Brain and the Book - Session 5

February 6. Whence Language? Why Literature? An introduction to evolutionary psychology and the problem of language.
  1. Pinker, Language Instinct, "Baby Born Talking," "Language Organs," "The Big Bang," chs. 9-11, pp. 262-369.
  2. Osborne, "A Linguistic Big Bang." Online:
  3. Miller, Review of Deacon, The Symbolic Species. Handout
  4. Arbib and Rizzolatti, "Neural Expectations." Handout
  5. Tooby and Cosmides, "Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?" Handout
  6. Hart, "Cognitive evolution and the modularity of mind," unpub. Handout

  1. Pinker, Language Instinct, "Baby Born Talking," "Language Organs," "The Big Bang," chs. 9-11, pp. 262-369. Pinker argues tt language cld ha evolved by ordinary natural selection within genus homo (i.e., from homo erectus on).
    1. What are the arguments against language ability having evolved gradually within homo sapiens?
      --ape language studies (not good)
      --elephant's trunk: complex things can evolve in just one species. Hyrax.
      --evolutionary bush (not ladder!) allows 5-7 mill. yrs for lang to evolve. Note tt it will evolve in individuals not the species as a whole. NNH: Who do first individuals talk to?
    2. His core arg for its having evolved and against those who say it can't have evolved 365.1ff./376.4ff. There are no extant intermediaries in languages or language ability (as the elephant's trunk has no intermediaries). But 378.2: there is a continuum of viable language systems.
      --no intermediaries of rules
      --no intermediaries of language abilities.
      --NNH: you cld turn the arg around and say that absence of intermediaries shows tt lang is learned, cldn't you?
    3. 366.2-7/377.3 A "proto-language" cld have intermediate rules. Deacon will work on this basis.
    4. Misc. stuff from Pinker:
      1. 265.2/268.4 Phonemes are a low-level module. Neonates understand phonemes as phonemes. Hence that ability must be innate.
      2. 278.1/282.2 Language is social. "Principles and parameters" theory. Make sure you understand it, cld explain it to layperson.
      3. 284.1/288.7 Young chn understand grammatical categories.
      4. 285.3/290.1 X-bar may be innate.
      5. 288.4/293.3 Note the inputs to the child.
      6. Brain diagram & useful skepticism about claims of PET, MRI, etc. See summary on 313.2/319.9 of "very gross anatomy of the language sub-organs."
      7. 322.5/329.9 an important summary of what a grammar gene would look like.
      8. 329.1/337.1 he believes basic design of language to be uniform across the species? But there would be scope for "unique linguistic profiles."
      9. 329.1-5/337.1-4. Basis for idiosyncracy in language use. Cp. idea tt style depends on identity.
      10. 334.3/342.7. Criteria for human-type language: infinite; digital; compositional. Mnemonic: DIC.
      11. 369.2/380.9 Politicians (skilled at manipulations thru language and sex). Kissinger. Clinton.

  2. Osborne, "A Linguistic Big Bang." Online:

  3. Miller, Review of Deacon, The Symbolic Species. Deacon is hard to read because (as Miller notes) he follows out all kinds of side-arguments. But then Miller misspells Terrence throughout.
        N.B. Deacon doesn't know beans about language as such. Heavy reliance on the suspect chimp expts. Evolution through sequence of simple Peircean categories: iconic, indexical, symbolic. No X-bar theory. Diff'ce betw Deacon & Pinker is tt Deacon is trying to explain origin of symbolic capacity; Pinker is trying to explain origin of X-bar theory. They differ in their notions of language, hence what has to be explained.

        What does Deacon mean by "symbolic"? Symbolic requires ability to negate indexical. That, in turn, requires 1) ability to conceptualize a general principle to negate plus 2) ability to manipulate that principle as such. Note similarity to Lacan.

        Key idea of Deacon (summarized by Miller): Language and language ability co-evolve. You get a language that the brain can handle. Then Baldwinian selection favors greater language ability, and people with that greater ability generate a more complex language, and further selection favors still greater language ability, and so on.
        NNH: Assumes an E-language. Cp. Chomsky: language is only I-language.

    1. 132a9. Peirce's three categories.
    2. 132a6: Deacon's three qq. Understand them. Is there an assumed conclusion here?
    3. 131a3. X-bar not intrinsic, only a perceptual-learning bias. (Note the behaviorist bias in Deacon.) This is the key to his argument.
    4. 131a8. Make sure you understand Baldwinian selection.
    5. 131b6. Can you explain this seeming paradox? Rests on the speculations at 131b2. Does this require biological evolution? No. Heavy reliance on brain plasticity. Cp. Schore and development of object regulation. Just how plastic is the brain? Could we state a percentage of possible change?
    6. 131b7. Symbols evolve within a community. Deacon relies on E-language and memes. Problem??? 132b3-9. Deacon relies heavily on animal language experiments. Shaky. 133a3-4. Lacan's non. Symbols rest on the ability to negate indexical rules.
    7. 134b8. He does not make clear how language and language ability co-evolve. He assumes an E-language w evolving stages. Really, Deacon has only one language ability: symbolic thinking. He simply says X-bar theory and Pinker's or Chomsky's idea of language are not "intrinsic to the human brain"--131a3.

  4. Arbib and Rizzolatti, "Neural Expectations." Handout

    You discover one hting, you've discovered everything.
    1) Mirror neurons in Broca's area recognize actions. 2) Mirror recognition also involves expectation of the movement goal. 3) Generate & recognize sound linked to gestures. 4) "Cast structure" grammar: utering a sentence analogous to achieving a goal. 5) A combinatorial system (within Pinker's DIC).
    What do you think?

    1. Would this suit Pinker? Need to get to X-bar.
    2. Would this suit Deacon? At what point does "symbolic" come in?
  5. Tooby and Cosmides, "Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?" Handout
    1. What is the salient quality of "the aesthetic" for these two? That it is not "true," that it is "false." 12.8 "false information."
    2. So what kind of art are they talking about? Fiction. How do Van Gogh and Bach fit in? Lyric poetry?
    3. How do sports fit in? Spectator sports??
    4. 26.6 "abstract isomorphism" --what does this mean?
      Cp. nnh: Don't act on it. 8.9 "Fictional worlds engage emotion systems while disengaging action systems."

  6. Hart, "Cognitive evolution and the modularity of mind," unpub.
    1. Peo like Hart want to justify the study of literature as having some kind of social or evolutionary purpose. Cp. the Dissanayake assignment. Hart wants to justify "narrative."
    2. Is her summary of Chomsky and Pinker accurate?
    3. Summary of often-cited Donald useful. Both Donald and Deacon focus on simply symbolic capacity. Do not address X-bar capacity.
    4. She nicely poses the issue on p. 6.9-7.1. Co-evolution gives a place for narrative in shaping human capacities, hence a justification of the study of literature (e.g., to state legislators). Can you justify the study of literature to a state legislator basing your argument on Chomsky's "principles and parameters" model? Could you justify the study of literature to a state legislator on the basis of a totally innate language capacity?
    5. Note how this gives a high place to Baldwinian evolution--7.3.

  7. You should take a look at Turner-Fauconnier's "conceptual blending." Check the URL at Turner active in establishing MLA's concern w cog sci.

  8. Summary of Karmillof-Smith, Beyond Modularity, referred to by Hart. She seems to have re-discovered "principles and parameters."

  • February 13. What Is Style? We each have personal styles of writing and reading--what does that tell us about us?
    1. Style
      1. Ohmann, "Generative Grammars and . . . Literary Style." Handout
      2. Ohmann, "Linguistic Appraisal of Victorian Style." Handout
      3. Holland, "Prose and Minds." Handout
    2. Toward next week:
      1. Bownds, Biology of Mind, chs. 6-7, pp. 119-176