LINGUIST List 12.491

Thu Feb 22 2001

Review: Jenkins, Biolinguistics

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  1. Gary Jasdzewski, Review of Jenkins

Message 1: Review of Jenkins

Date: Wed, 21 Feb 2001 20:05:41 -0500
From: Gary Jasdzewski <>
Subject: Review of Jenkins

Jenkins, Lyle. (2000). Biolinguistics: Exploring the
Biology of Language. Cambridge University
Press: Cambridge, UK; pp. 264.

Gary Jasdzewski, MGH-NMR Center, Harvard Medical School

The book reviewed argues for a biological approach to the
study of language, and is largely a defense against the
charge that Chomsky has been unsympathetic to the study
of the biological basis of language. Jenkins addresses
many of the arguments that Chomsky's detractors have
proffered, including those from Bates, Deacon, Dennett,
Pinker, and Seidenberg, among others. By presenting
passages from Chomsky's first work in 1955 to the present
the author shows how Chomsky's views on the brain and the
evolution of language have been misrepresented by these
thinkers. Additionally, the author uses his extensive
knowledge of the history of science to elaborate on these
views by drawing comparisons between Chomsky's ideas and
ideas within the hard sciences. In so doing, Jenkins
hopes to demonstrate how linguists and anyone who studies
humans "above the neck" are held to higher standards than
their colleagues from physics, chemistry, etc. What
emerges from this discussion is the view that Chomsky's
approach to the study of language is a thoroughly
biological one.

The book contains 5 chapters and an introduction. The
first chapter focuses on foundational issues for a
biolinguistic approach to language, such as the
appropriate domain of biolinguistics, the proper
methodology for exploring biolinguistic questions, and
the nature of formalizations in linguistics. Throughout
the book, Jenkins draws parallels between ideas in
linguistics and the hard sciences to legitimize certain
research strategies used in linguistics. For example, in
physics, idealization of the domain of inquiry is
commonplace and necessary. Thus he suggests it should
not be a source for complaint when the linguist does it.
A major theme of this chapter is the "unification
problem"-the attempt to unite the study of the mental
with the natural sciences, and the ontological status of
posited linguistic concepts or principles. Jenkins
develops the idea that we must study the mind in the same
way that we study other natural phenomena. To do
otherwise commits us to what Chomsky calls
"methodological dualism", the view that we must abandon
scientific rationality when we study humans above the
neck. Linguists are held to higher standards than other
scientists, according to Jenkins, because they are often
asked to demonstrate that some concept has some
psychological or neurological reality. But this demand
is not made of physicists or chemists. As Jenkins points
out, the physicist Weinberg has gone so far as to claim
that concepts such as quarks and wave functions are real
just because they are theoretically useful. Linguistic
concepts and principles that are theoretically useful are
real in the same sense. Finally, Jenkins discusses the
charge that the formalizations used in linguistics are
"soft mathematics" because they cannot be used to gain
insight into other domains. This may be the case, argues
Jenkins, but it is not necessarily so. The
formalizations presently used in linguistics can be
compared to the historically early formulations from
other sciences, where the unification between mathematics
and physical concepts has not always evolved smoothly.
Jenkins shows how this was the case in the development of
Fourier analysis. The same is likely true of
linguistics, where at least one component (acoustics)
already uses "hard mathematics".

The second chapter begins with a discussion of the five
fundamental questions of biolinguistics:
1. What constitutes knowledge of language?
2. How is this knowledge acquired?
3. How is this knowledge put to use?
4. What are the relevant brain mechanisms?
5. How does this knowledge evolve (in the species)?
These questions (which might look familiar to the reader)
are briefly described and prioritized, and a discussion
of the contentious modularity issue is developed.
Jenkins claims that we must assume a language faculty and
modularity of mind to answer the first question, and
cites various cases of aphasia, brain damaged signers,
the neural mechanisms of smiling, and chromosome
aberrations to show how aspects of the language faculty
can be selectively impaired while the others remain
intact. Interestingly, nearly all of the neuroscientific
research cited by Jenkins is older than the earliest
neuroimaging study of language (Peterson, et al., 1988).
It would be interesting to hear his interpretations of
this growing body of literature. At least some of this
research would support Jenkins: Jenkins discusses
Zaidel's (1980) claim that since second languages may
have different neural substrates than first languages a
biologically determined UG is unlikely. But the
neuroimaging research on bilinguals shows that this is
actually not true; the L2 of a highly proficient
bilingual is represented in the same cortical space as
that person's L1.

The third chapter focuses on language acquisition. The
author reviews the principles-and-parameters model and
the poverty of the stimulus argument before devoting the
rest of the chapter on the debate between the nativists
and the connectionists. He examines some "misconceptions"
of these connectionists culling them from the popular
Rethinking Innateness (1996), which lists 12 arguments
about innate representations that nativists allegedly
hold. Jenkins addresses the charges that Chomsky
believes that language is unlearnable and that there is a
gene for grammar, relying on his extensive knowledge of
genetics to show how genes and language abilities might
interact. Connectionists have misrepresented Chomsky's
views on these topics, according to Jenkins, and
moreover, they resort to a poverty of the stimulus
argument of their own when they posit innately biased
algorithms that allow children to acquire language. He
wonders if there is a difference between the camps on
this issue, and suggests that the Elman, et al. (1996)
book might be more appropriately called "Redefining
Innateness". Jenkins then turns his attention
Seidenberg's approach to the study of language, which has
generated a lot of attention within cognitive science.
Jenkins comes to the odd conclusion that Seidenberg
hasn't established an alternative to biolinguistics.

The fourth chapter turns away from theoretical issues and
to the neural and genetic mechanisms of language.
Jenkins believes that the principles of UG are related to
the brain much like Mendelian laws of genetics are
related to genes, and shows how some grammar variations
in our species appear to follow classical Mendelian laws.
Issues surrounding genetic variation in UG are discussed.
He suggests that identical twins with speech defects that
are raised in different language contexts could reveal
information about the parameters of UG. The genetic
aspects of developmental verbal dyspraxia, dysphasia, and
dyslexia are discussed, and a section on the molecular
basis of the critical period for language acquisition and
hemispheric asymmetries ends the chapter.

The final and longest chapter focuses on the what Jenkins
calls the minimalist-internalist view of the evolution of
language. Jenkins approaches this subject in a unique
way, beginning with a very abstract discussion of the
optimality of language design and on ideas that inform
the minimalist program. The properties of organisms are
rooted in nature, such as symmetry, and examples of
symmetry-breaking phenomena from physics and biology are
described. Jenkins believes that the properties of
languages might be the result of similar "symmetry-
breaking bifurcations" during its evolution, though this
proposal lacks detail to be convincing. Jenkins then
attacks the ultra-Darwinists (as represented by Dennett
1996, Pinker & Bloom 1990) for their methodological
dualism and misrepresentation of Chomsky's views on this
issue. Chomsky does not reject natural selection as a
force in the evolution of language, just the idea that it
is the only factor. The chapter ends with a discussion
of primate communication and Deacon's (1997) view that
language exists outside of the brain as a parasitic
organism infecting the brains of children.

I found the book to be valuable for clarifying Chomsky's
views on issues that are important in the study of
cognition. Jenkins has done a service for linguists who
might feel besieged by psychologists. Whereas Chomsky
often shows how his ideas have parallels in the history
of philosophy, Jenkins shows how they have parallels in
the physical sciences. Jenkins' knowledge of the history
of science and its relation to ideas in linguistics is
the book's greatest strength. In order to appreciate
Jenkins' arguments, however, the reader must have some
knowledge of what Chomsky's detractors have said. The
book is not for people new to such issues.

One problem with the book is that Jenkins defines the
important term "biolinguistics" in several places of the
book rather than at the start, forcing the reader to
guess at its meaning. If there are differences between
what Jenkins calls "biolinguistics" and what Chomsky
does, they should be highlighted. Another weakness
relates to the organization of the chapters. It is not
always clear why Jenkins moves from one section to
another. For example, in the language acquisition
chapter he devotes a subheading to "the language
instinct", which does not integrate with what precedes
it, the apparent purpose of which is simply to
demonstrate that Chomsky said it before Pinker.

Jenkins' arguments might be more persuasive if he were to
acknowledge the value in the views that oppose his
(Chomsky's) own. The biggest disappointment for me was
Jenkins' handling of the connectionist/nativist debate.
The constant use of scare quotes in this section seems
excessive and to only serve the purpose of belittling the
views of some connectionists. Considering the popularity
of connectionist approaches to understanding cognition
(in terms of funding, etc.), the view deserves to be
dealt with seriously. Also lacking is a developed
discussion of neuroimaging and biolinguistics. With the
development of cognitive neuroscience in the last decade
and its growing importance in understanding cognition,
one would think that it is important that linguists have
play a part in the design and interpretation of
experiments. Jenkins appears to have a favorable view of
imaging, and several times in the book refers to evidence
garnered from imaging experiments, but unfortunately he
does not discuss them in any detail nor their place in
the biolinguistic program at all.

Chomsky has endorsed this book, calling it the "state of
the art" recently (2000). It does a very good job of
showing how Chomsky approaches the study of language like
natural scientists from the hard sciences have approached
their objects of study, how this approach is informed by
what is known of our biology, and how some thinkers have
misunderstood him and/or unwittingly emulated his
approach. It should be read by anyone interested in the
biological basis of language.

Chomsky, N. (2000). Linguistics and brain science.
In A. Marantz, Y. Miyashita, and W. O'Neil (Eds.), Image,
Language, Brain (pp. 13-28). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Deacon, T. (1997). The Symbolic Species: the Co-
Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: Norton.

Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New
York: Simon and Schuster.

Elman, J., Bates, E., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith,
A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. (1996). Rethinking
Innateness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and
natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13(4),

Petersen, S., Fox, P., Posner, M., & Raichle, M.
(1988). Positron emission tomographic studies of the
cortical anatomy of single-word processing. Nature, 331,

Seidenberg, M. (1997). Language acquisition and use:
learning and applying probabilistic constraints. Science,
275(5306), 1599-1603.

Zaidel, E. (1980). Clues from hemispheric
specialization. In U. Bellugi and M. Stuart-Kennedy
(Eds.), Signed and Spoken Language: Biological
Constraints on Linguistic Form (pp. 291-340). Deerfield
Beach, FL: Verlag Chemie.

Gary Jasdzewski is a Research Fellow at the MGH-NMR
Center and the Harvard Medical School. His research
interests include neuroimaging and second language
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