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Tom Bethell on Noam Chomsky’s dissent from Darwin

Tom writes,

“Chomsky Contra Darwin”

MIT emeritus professor Noam Chomsky made his name in the field of linguistics over 50 years ago. Some are put off by his left-wing politics, but he’s worth studying for other reasons. Less well known than his political views are his criticisms of Darwinism.

Daniel Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in a section titled “Chomsky Contra Darwin,” wrote that there have long been “signs of Chomsky’s agnosticism — or even antagonism — towards Darwinism.” To some, Dennett said, Chomsky “even appeared to be a ‘crypto-creationist,’ but that didn’t seem very plausible especially since he had the endorsement of Stephen Jay Gould.”

Dennett added:

If Darwin dreaders want a champion who is himself deeply and influentially enmeshed within science, they could do no better than Chomsky.”

Dennett also saw that Chomsky has been “unwaveringly hostile to artificial intelligence.” For example, Chomsky has said of the chess playing “abilities” of computers:

What’s going on with the chess is about as interesting as the fact that a front end loader can lift more than an Olympic champion — weight lifter or something. You know, these are just not interesting questions.

Morton Hunt, in his admirable compendium The Story of Psychology, noted the irony that Chomsky is a leftist; for the central thesis of his theory, “advanced in Syntactic Structures, is that certain aspects of linguistic knowledge and ability are innate, not learned.” It’s a doctrine “that leftists, liberals and behaviorist-trained psychologists considered mentalistic and reactionary.”

B.F. Skinner had argued in Verbal Behavior (1957) that language evolved by a series of reinforced grunts. The child says “eek” and the parent “reinforce” this by saying “good,” thereby encouraging improved versions of such utterances. Behaviorism, which dominated the field of psychology in the mid decades of the 20th century, in effect expanded Darwinian ideas into psychology. Animals pressing levers in Skinner boxes showed how it could be studied. “Stimulus” and “response” roughly corresponded to the evolutionist’s “mutation” and “selection.”

To psychologists, the good news was that behaviorism sidestepped the mind, which could not be observed directly. But the relationship between the mind’s “inputs” — sense perceptions — and its “outputs” — behavior – gave scientists a way of studying the mind indirectly.

“Every native speaker of a natural language is capable of producing and understanding infinitely many sentences that he has never heard or spoken before.”

Chomsky’s best known response to Skinner’s book came in a 1959 review in the journal Language. Here is one paragraph:

It is simply not true that children can learn language only through “meticulous care” on the part of adults who shape their verbal repertoire through careful differential reinforcement, though it may be that such care is often the custom in academic families. It is a common observation that a young child of immigrant parents may learn a second language in the streets, from other children, with amazing rapidity, and that his speech may be completely fluent and correct to the last allophone, while the subtleties that become second nature to the child may elude his parents despite high motivation and continued practice.

David Berlinski described his encounters with Chomsky at Princeton in the 1960s. In Black Mischief, Berlinski records Chomsky as saying at one point:

“Every native speaker of a natural language is capable of producing and understanding infinitely many sentences that he has never heard or spoken before.”

The claim that there is nothing special about humans or the human mind has been one of the great dogmas of our time, and one that directly descends from Darwin: We are animals, and no more elevated than other animals, even if in our conceit we are disposed to think otherwise.

That dogma has been challenged by Chomsky, who has argued that language demonstrates a gulf between animals and humans that seems unbridgeable. Not for him the sentimental effusions of Jane Goodall raptly listening to chimps from her hideaway in the African bush.

The nothing-special-about-humans dogma has also been challenged, more recently and in a negative way, by environmentalists who insist that there is indeed a gulf between humans and the rest of nature. For we are the merciless wreckers of natural habitat. Nature, although red in tooth and claw, is innocent at heart. We, on the other hand, are guilty as sin. Therein lies a curious echo of the story of the Fall in Genesis, in which the majority of environmentalists surely do not believe.

A recent book, Chomsky Notebook [Columbia U Press, 2010], updates some of the linguist’s views on Darwin. He says, for example, that the claim that natural selection leads us “to the truth” about the world is “quite unconvincing.” Natural selection is unproblematic, he continues, but only as long as we recognize how little we are saying when we repeat the slogan:

“organisms could not survive long enough to reproduce if they were so poorly adapted to their environment that they could not survive long enough to reproduce. This is undoubtedly true but not very informative.” [p. 103]

To put it mildly. Chomsky here rephrases, in language that is if anything less polite than usual, the old accusation of tautology leveled against Darwin’s claim that natural selection means that “the fittest” survive; fitness being defined in terms of survival. Jean Bricmont, a professor in France, said to Chomsky in the same Notebook:

There is a new intellectual trend in the social sciences loosely called ‘Darwinism,’ whose supporters have been very disappointed by your attitude. On the one hand, they were grateful to you for having brought back the issue of human nature into the intellectual debate. They applauded your criticism of behaviorism, for example. But you seem to refuse to take the next step, which is to admit that human nature has been shaped by evolution and that the only known mechanism that drives evolution is natural selection.

Chomsky replied that he does not “admit” but insists that human nature has been shaped by evolution. “What alternative is there? That it is created by some divinity?” Chomsky won’t go that far. But he also won’t “’admit’ that ‘the only known mechanism that drives evolution is natural selection. . . . There is no point in worshipping at a shrine that every biologist knows to be that of a false god.”

Chomsky … assumes that all life must be interpreted within a naturalistic framework. But he also sees that the standard Darwinian account of how life developed within that framework looks inadequate.

Prof. Bricmont then inquired: “So why not use adaptive thinking in order to guess what elements human nature might contain?”

Here he was inviting Chomsky to propose some “just-so stories,” in which evolutionists are encouraged to invent plausible scenarios that seem to account for adaptation.

“How could anyone object?” Chomsky replied. “Those who find such thinking helpful for their guesses should by all means proceed that way. The task is both too easy and too hard. Too easy because there are innumerable guesses that quickly come to mind in any interesting case — say the evolution if human language. Too hard because we know much too little to be able to evaluate the guesses.”

Which is an excellent criticism of just-so stories. These, by the way were introduced into psychology in a big way by the more recent field called evolutionary psychology, in which, for example, either monogamy or rape can be said to be adaptive, depending on preference.

Summarizing, one can say that Chomsky, like almost everyone else in the secular academy, assumes that all life must be interpreted within a naturalistic framework. But he also sees that the standard Darwinian account of how life developed within that framework looks inadequate.

Others within the academy who must deal with Darwinism may find themselves in the same position but less willing to say so openly. No divinity permitted is the strict rule within the biology departments. Yet life in all its (irreducible) complexity is out there, and it got there somehow. At the same time the Darwinian cupboard seems bare. Life is adaptive when it adapts, and it’s extinct when it doesn’t adapt. (That’s pretty much it. Any further questions, class?)

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18 Responses to Tom Bethell on Noam Chomsky’s dissent from Darwin

  1. From what I have read about Chomsky on the internet I see no reason to seek him out for good ideas or criticisms of evolution or anything.
    The left wing stuff shows the state mind and ability and discredits save in the persons actual job.
    The problem in modern life and science has been these Chomsky types.
    They ruined and frustrated advancement rates in science.
    Its too late to highlight any useful criticism from them.

    About his job.
    Well surely it is true that language could only come from intelligence and not from animals.

    Yet language is not innate but rather intelligence is innate and language just articulates thoughts.
    It does this by mutual organization of sounds which upon mutual organization are segregated and called words which are further segregated into sentence structures themselves just more mutual agreement of organizing thoughts.

    Remember however the original agreements were twisted at babel and 70 languages came out of one.

  2. Robert Byers:

    Yet language is not innate but rather intelligence is innate and language just articulates thoughts.

    Language is clearly a separate ability from intelligence, and is innate in human beings. Here are two pieces of evidence:

    1. Children, as Chomsky points out, have an innate ability to learn languages that adults, with very few exceptions, lack. Yet most people would agree that adults are more (certainly not less) intelligent than 3 year olds!

    2. One of the few people to suffer a serious stroke and subsequently recover almost all mental function that was lost, including language, was Jill Bolte Taylor. She reported her experience in the book, My Stroke of Insight. During the time when she lost the capacity to produce language, her intelligence was still intact. She could still think, but she could not articulate her thoughts. We know this because later, when she recovered the use of language, she could and did articulate them.

  3. Robert Byers well said. Who wants to even recognize an odious character like Noam Chomsky as being in our ‘big tent’, so to speak? In fact I have written before on Chomsky at this blog (extensively) when this was all mentioned before, back in August 2010, just check my commentary there..

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....nguistics/

    It’s all even worse than what I cover in that thread. Chomsky also gave his support to the arming of Hezbollah! shortly before the war in 2006 and has more than flirted with 9-11 conspiracy ‘thinking’. This is all on top of ‘the Robert Faurisson Affair’ (see link) where the ‘Jewish’ Chomsky gave us this harebrained and obscene remark, “I see no anti-semitic implications in the denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the Holocaust..”.

    Chomsky thus has less than zero credibility. On anything. In other words – and I never say these kind of things lightly – Chomsky is literally crazy. A caricature of the Jihad supporting radical Leftist (Chomsky is worse than just an apologist).

    Bethell (who I greatly admire) should know this. That reminds me I have seen the Jewish mathematician David Berlinksi wax lyrical on this exact topic, ‘Chomsky, linguistics and evolution’. Having no credibility means having no credibility ACROSS THE BOARD, and Chomsky has none. At all.

  4. I see this a litle differently. I think Chomsky, much like Einstein, and Fodor for that matter, has an essentially religious nature. which is in conflict with Naturalism and Modernism. All three of them strike me as ecstatic personalities. Just one problem with that: you can’t squeeze ecstasy out of a stone. Chomsky hates Behavioralism because it annihilates ecstasy and individual difference. All three of them felt compelled to pay lip service to Naturalism, but I don’t think any of them really liked it. In this vein, it is interesting to note Fodor’s frequent lapses into Biblical language. They want it but they can’t have it and still have a place at the table in the modern academy.

  5. For what it’s worth, Chomsky’s objection to evolution has always looked to me to be identical to Behe’s.

  6. Yes, allanius, Judaism is/was undoubtedly a seminal influence on the brightest, Jewish atheists; the latter not being quite an oxymoron, probably on that account.

  7. I know Chomsky is wrong in some of his statements, but that he should countenance holocaust-denial as plausible seems surreal. Is it really true?

    Great men, it seems, are often initially moved to become crusading firebrands by compassion at the sight of injustice. In Chomsky’s case, it was the sight of another lad being bullied at school, and probably a feeling of regretful shame at not having the courage to intervene.

    In the case of Keir Hardie, the founder of the British Labour Party (properly so-called) and a Methodist preacher, it was when, for the first time, he saw his mother crying because, for the fist time, she had been unable to give him and his brothers and sisters even a piece of bread to eat.

    I know there are a lot of right-wingers on here, and more power to your elbow for defending formal Christianity, but you should be aware that, as several saints and popes have pointed out, “God made the world and its bounty for all his children,” not just for those with the sharpest elbows, the worldly-wise (however innocently acquired, personally).

    Indeed, I believe that David is a figure of the manual worker, and Solomon, the true son of David of the O.T. a figure of the worldly-wise; Absolom being the false son (the pseudo-intellectual) of David, Christ, made sin for our sakes, hanging from the cross, representing Absolom, when he was lifted from his donkey, his head caught up in the branches of an oak tree; and the three darts thrown at him by Joab, the Holy Trinity.

    So the salvation of the intellectual, the worldy-wise, is very closely bound up with his identification with his “father”‘s interests. “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?” Contributing to justice at a deep, institutional level, not “straining at gnat, only to swallow a camel, simply putting a relatively small sum in the poor box in the church.

  8. I read a number of Chomsky’s works back in the early 80s, when I had to write a paper for a philosophy of language class. Regardless of what one thinks of his political views, Chomsky, at least at that time, was the expert in linguistics. His theory that was that we have an innate universal grammar, from which all human languages are generated. I remember wondering at the time how he thought we came by such a complex, innate system. It was only later that I found out that he didn’t think Darwinian theory could account for it. I agree with Petrushka that there is a large degree of similarity between Chomsky’s objection to Darwinism and Behe’s. The innate universal grammar that he believes we have seems to be irreducibly complex.

  9. It will be difficult to find out whether language is irreducible, since all our hominid cousins are either extinct or absorbed through interbreeding.

    My own take, worth exactly nothing, is the best talkers were also the best military planners.

  10. Axel writes: “I know Chomsky is wrong in some of his statements, but that he should countenance holocaust-denial as plausible seems surreal. Is it really true?”

    Yes it is really true. It’s in the sources I give in the linked discussion from 2010. Namely Australian historian Bill Rubinstein and recounted by numerous scholars and political commentators (who I also mention in the linked thread). Chomsky’s statement in this regard was written in a letter by him to Rubinstein. So unless you are going to call Rubinstein a liar and back up that claim with something called evidence.. Chomsky himself has never denied it nor refuted it, he was just miffed at Rubinstein for revealing it all publicly ie letting the cat out of the bag. Even the liberal Chomskybot fanclub can’t deny it so they just ignore it and explain the whole Faurisson affair away as a ‘freeedom of speech issue’ which is simply disingenuous. Of course his other fanclub (neo-Nazis and Muslim extremists like the late Osama bin Laden, yes really) wouldn’t pretend to care of give a fig in this regard. Why is it so difficult to believe? This all revolves around the Robert Faurisson affair. Faurisson is one of France’s most notorious Holocaust Deniers, Chomsky wrote an approving foreword to his book (where Faurisson makes it clear he is a Holocaust Denier and more in that vein) where he called Faurisson “a relatively apolitical liberal”. It’s in the foreword, it’s indisputable. Chomsky engaged in friendly and polite correspondence with French Holocaust Deniers such as Faurisson, Guillaime and Thion decades back. This isn’t disputed. It’s easy to discover all this if one can be bothered to do the research. See for example the liberal academic Werner Cohn’s essay ‘Partners in Hate: Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers’ available on the web. Plenty other academics have commented on it likewise (and plenty of their essays in this regard are online).

    Chomsky gave his support to the arming of Hezbollah in 2006. You can look it up, it was when he journeyed to Lebanon (where he personally met with the Hezbollah leadership), it was carried by the Lebanese media in an interview he did. It isn’t disputed. It can’t be. So it’s certainly consistent of him (countenancing Holocaust Denial). There is plenty more of this kind of harebrained nonsense from Chomsky.

    What of his 1977 essay denying the Khmer Rouge atrocities ‘Distortion at fourth hand’? So much more..

    It’s easy to uncover all this, I mean if one can be bothered to research it.

  11. I’m not sure that’s the only way to find out whether we have an innate universal grammar and whether or not it is irreducibly complex. I read an article several years ago that seemed to suggest that there was at least some empirical research that backed Chomsky’s theory. And I talked with a linguistics professor in 2001 who said that Chomsky’s theory was still going strong. But that was over a decade ago, now. I have no idea where his theory is at these days.

  12. Bruce David.
    Have to disagree indeed.

    Whether children or stroke victims there is no reason to see innate things going on.
    language is simply the use of sounds and that organized to convey thoughts.

    Kids can learn languages quicker because they are less thinking.
    So concentrating on the important points of languages and not the rest.
    they learn their first language on the same principal that they can learn other languages quickly.
    less to memorize and they better memmorize the nuances.
    They pay better attention because they have no attention for the greater thoughts of adults and so greater use of language.

    Stroke victims simply lose their memory of using sounds for segregating words.
    Nothing wrong with their intelligence but rather their memory in squecking out the sounds rapidly enough.

    We think like God and simply are constrained in these bodies and vocal cords.
    Language is about thoughts needing enough sounds to segregate meaning.

    They err because they see a evolving mind and language and they fail to see the great thinking ability of people including children.

  13. zephyr
    Thanks and I read your suggested post.
    We don’t need him in our tent for many reasons and different reasons.
    Younger and better researchers without the silly taint of a general mind of bad ideas.
    I don’t think this innate language thing is true and so whats his contribution to entice us to get his approval!
    If he jumps on the winning side OKAY.
    There is a seduction that creationism(s) need the old big names.
    We don’t as we are overthrowing the whole thing in origins.
    ID and YEC is so big it either will prevail or be a great flop in science.

  14. I’m not sure that’s the only way to find out whether we have an innate universal grammar and whether or not it is irreducibly complex. I read an article several years ago that seemed to suggest that there was at least some empirical research that backed Chomsky’s theory.

    I’ve seen evidence that there is a specific genetic variation that prevents people from learning the rule for regular verbs. People having this allele have normal intelligence and can learn correct verb usage, but all verbs have to be learned the way we learn irregular verbs.

    Two observations: One is that this supports a genetic basis for the learning of grammar. The second observation is that it appears not to be irreducible. It is not a single, irreducible ability.

  15. I found a reference to the genetic study:

    http://www.thefreelibrary.com/.....+questions…-a015435532

  16. It is now generally accepted that SLI is a strongly genetic disorder. The best evidence comes from studies of twins. Two twins growing up together are exposed to the same home environment, yet may differ radically in their language skills. Such different outcomes are, however, seen almost exclusively in fraternal (non-identical) twins, who are genetically different. Identical twins share the same genes and tend to be much more similar in language ability. There can be some variation in the severity and persistence of SLI in identical twins, indicating that environmental factors affect the course of disorder, but it is unusual to find a child with SLI who has an identical twin with normal language. SLI is not usually caused by a mutation in a single gene. Current evidence suggests that there are many different genes that can influence language learning, and SLI results when a child inherits a particularly detrimental combination of risk factors, each of which may have only a small effect. Only a handful of non-genetic factors have been found selectively to impact on language development in children. Later-born children in large families are at greater risk than earlier born.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.....impairment

    More evidence that supports a genetic basis for language learning abilities, but which also suggests that the genetics is complicated and not irreducible.

    We should know from observing the variation in abilities in ordinary people that people differ in fluency.

  17. Language is clearly a separate ability from intelligence, and is innate in human beings. Here are two pieces of evidence:

    Another is the phenomenon of idioglossia which includes cases where isolated pairs of children have invented their own languages.
    In the better-known case of Grace and Virginia Kennedy, they gave themselves names (Poto and Cabengo) which would seem unnecessary since they were only addressing each other.

    They don’t seem to appear in the total absence of adult speech and often use another language as a foundation, but from there it becomes unintelligible to those speaking the model language. It’s unknown whether they would develop into more complex languages if there was some way to pass them on. (Two twin girls – it starts and ends with them.) I’m guessing that they would, as most languages seem to add words over time.

    A side note from this NIH page:

    Neither the structure of the languages nor its emergence can be explained by other than situational factors.

  18. Everybody.
    No genetics need apply or are likely.
    Language is just expression of thoughts. it must be agreed upon to be understood or a single person must still be consistent in laws of their invented language.

    Its not magical .
    Its simply needing to express ones thoughts and easily observing and memorizing others doing the same.
    Kids learn the principals real quick and later the words.

    They memorize the sound sequences and I noticed with my nieces they first memorize the tones of voice behind meanings better/faster then the words or sentences.

    language ideas have been frustrated in their accuracy because of evolutionary presumptions behind them of evolving intelligence and evolving vocal cords etc.

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