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Review of  Language, from a Biological Point of View

Reviewer: Jakob Michael Steixner
Book Title: Language, from a Biological Point of View
Book Author: Cedric Boeckx María del Carmen Horno-Chéliz José-Luis Mendívil-Giró
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Neurolinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 24.4413

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This book grew from a series of lectures “Language, brain and genes: lectures in Biolinguistics” at the University of Zaragoza in 2009. It aims to present up-to-date accounts of “a broad range of areas where currently a rapprochement between linguistics and biology is actively being sought” (p. 1), with an implicit focus on points of convergence between Generative Grammar (GG), specifically the Minimalist Program (MP), and evolutionary-developmental biology. The central questions outlined in the introduction are: what factors have contributed to the current resurgence of interest in the biological foundations of ‘biolinguistics’, in what ways has the intellectual context in which this interest takes place changed since the previous installment of biolinguistics as exemplified by Lenneberg (1967), and what opportunities and challenges does this offers to linguists?

In addressing the question of what makes today’s intellectual context so fruitful for a new look at the biological foundations of language, the authors propose the following factors:

1. The discovery of the FOXP2 gene and subsequent research on its evolutionary history and interactions with other genes.

2. A shift of focus in (comparative) cognitive psychology from ‘higher cognitive functions’ towards analysing basic building blocks and underlying mechanisms. For language, this means that “[a]lthough much attention was devoted to” what Hauser et al. (2002) termed the “Faculty of Language in its narrow sense” (FLN), “it is perhaps the research on FLB [the Faculty of Language in its Broad Sense] that has so far proven far more productive” (p. 4, also Fitch et al. 2010).

3. A “New Extended Synthesis” (Pigliucci and Mueller 2010), away from a ‘genocentric’ perspective, towards an appreciation of the crucial role of development and epigenetic mechanisms. This relativises the old ‘nature-nurture’ debates.

4. The “granularity mismatch” that has hitherto hampered interdisciplinary cooperation between cognitive neuroscientists and linguists is beginning to be tackled with linguistic models that are explicit about the computational primitives they presuppose.

5. From within theoretical linguistics, the formulation of the Minimalist Program provides a framework for the needed bottom-up approach to the Faculty of Language (Chomsky 2007).

Against this background, the authors encourage readers to seize, as linguists, the opportunities offered by current developments beyond linguistics. The biolinguistic project requires linguists to “provide the elements that researchers from other fields must look for at the neural and genetic levels, and whose evolutionary origins must be traced back. But this is only feasible to the extent that linguists are willing to engage in this interdisciplinary dialogue” (p. 8). The mission of the book is to enable readers to make that step.

The book is organised into three thematic parts with three chapters each, discussed in turn below.

This section outlines basic arguments about the nature of the language faculty and cognitive architecture, forming the theoretical backbone of the book. It contains chapters by Cedric Boeckx (“The I-Language Mosaic”), Víctor M. Longa and Guillermo Lorenzo (“Theoretical Linguistics Meets Development”), and José-Luís Mendívil-Giró (“The Myth of Language Diversity”). A common theme, especially of the first two, is trying to spell out implications for linguistics and cognitive science stemming from theoretical developments in biology, in particular the evolutionary-developmental perspective and criticisms of an overly “genocentric” perspective on evolution and inheritance.

In his chapter, Cedric Boeckx contrasts a more traditional generative approach to biology with the ways in which he thinks a genuinely interdisciplinary biolinguistics needs to take full benefit of developments in other fields. He draws a parallel between the shift towards a more bottom-up approach in linguistics (the MP) and cognitive science at large (a shift to mechanisms and away from syndromes as the unit of interest). We now suspect that “much of the complexity [of adult-state linguistic knowledge] is epiphenomenal, and emergent; attainable on the basis of very simple properties and processes” (p. 27). This can be motivated by biological considerations: The presumably recent origin of the Faculty of Language (FL) means that the underlying neurobiological modifications must be limited. On this conceptual basis, he sketches a theory of adult grammars’ complexity arising from grammaticalisation-like processes and entrenchment of schemata during ontogeny. The initial state grammar may contain little more than unconstrained merge and symmetry-breaking mechanisms that will produce dependencies. He dubs this approach “a softer, less specific, less genetic nativism” he believes to be better grounded in biology (p. 50).

Víctor M. Longa and Guillermo Lorenzo’s chapter aims to “reappraise ... linguistic nativism from both a biological and a linguistic point of view” (p. 52). It assesses the “genocentric” view of the development of organisms that dominated biology for most of the 20th century, and how it has affected the ways in which nativist linguistics has conceived itself. The authors argue that the time is ripe for biolinguists to take the status of Universal Grammar (UG) as the outcome of developmental processes seriously, which they argue requires for MP to break with earlier versions of GG in a deeper sense than most would be comfortable with. The chapter critiques the “genocentric program” in biology, or “modern preformationism”, which the authors counterpose with an evo-devo perspective that puts strong emphasis on developmental processes which force us to reconsider “innate” traits as those that “reliably appear at certain points of a species-typical path of development” (p. 65, cf. Mameli and Bateson 2006) rather than as the result of a genetic blueprint. This forces linguists to adopt an “unorthodox linguistic nativism” dispensing with even basic tenets like the logical connection of poor stimuli to ‘rich’ genes. They illustrate this with an analysis of the famous example of main auxiliary fronting as emerging from non-specifically linguistic constraint. By bringing development into linguistic nativism and GG, the authors wish to reconceptualise UG as an “exceptional assembly of common developmental factors”, as a set of limitations on possible grammars given common developmental constraints acting on humans in a species-typical (social/linguistic) environment rather than as genetic instructions with specific linguistic content.

In the most polemic chapter, Mendívil-Giró claims that the difference between Generative Grammar and what he calls the Functional Cognitivist Paradigm (FCP) exemplified by Evans and Levinson (2009, henceforth EL) is at its base a clash between different epistemologies, GG adopting a deductive and FCP an inductive perspective. The ‘myth’ of language diversity is claimed to follow from the inductive perspective that proceeds from individual languages. Furthermore, it is argued to stem from the “old anthropocentric prejudice that human beings are essentially a matter of culture rather than nature” (p. 92, but see the papers in Whiten et al. 2011, on perspectives for studying culture itself as an object of biology, watering down this distinction).

Mendívil-Giró argues that a naturalistic theory of UG does not require the kind of adaptations with specifically linguistic content Tomasello (1999, 2009) or EL argue against. Generativists have stressed that it is sufficient for FL to be unique as a system whose individual components can be exaptations (note, though, that the primarily linguistic function of the recursive operation is often defended vigorously -- JS).

The chapter draws an analogy between the FCP’s focus on diversity and the ‘adaptationist’ program in evolutionary biology, which similarly downplays structural principles and constraints imposed by entrenched developmental pathways. In these terms, universals among human languages are explained as convergence fuelled shared selective pressures under the FCP’s view, while the Minimalism defended here would analogise them to ‘deep homologies’, i.e. traits that seem to independently evolve in distantly related clades but on closer inspection turn out to be highly parallel down to the molecular level.

The chapters in the second part look at how results from neuroscientific and neuropathological research on language processing and linguistic theory can complement and inform each other.

In Chapter 4, “The Role of Aphasic Disorders in the Study of the Brain-Language Relationship”, Fernando Cuetos discusses the role of aphasiology for determining the neurobiological foundations of language in a time when neuro-imaging methods allow the study of healthy subjects with high temporal and spatial resolution.

Cuetos argues that these modern methods have critical limitations of their own. For example, the methods offering the best temporal resolutions, magneto-encephalography and electro-encephalography (MEG/EEG), only scan the surface and are of little use in assessing the roles of subcortical nuclei. On the other hand, the potential insights from aphasic pathologies are diminished by the perseverance of variants of the Wernicke-Geschwind model, implying an overly simplistic architecture of FL. For aphasiology to reach its full potential of becoming a cornerstone of biolinguistics, it is required to abandon the focus on “macro-syndromes” and to move towards a close look at sub-syndromes, and associated symptoms, realising thus that “linguistic processes are the result of a pattern of interaction between different regions” of the brain rather than depending on language centres (p. 160).

Martina Baus and Manuel Carreiras write about “Word Processing” in chapter 5. For many readers, the most interesting and novel aspect will be the discussion of word processing in sign languages. Contrasting results from word processing experiments in signed languages with those from spoken languages offers a deeper understanding of the mechanisms involved by allowing us to disentangle modality-dependent phenomena from the effects of more abstract principles underlying human linguistic capacity as such. In this vein Baus and Carreiras discuss evidence from phenomena such as ‘tip of the finger’, the sign-language equivalent of ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomena, as well results from psycholinguistic experiments on sign-language word processing.

Itziar Laka’s chapter on “More than One Language in the Brain” discusses insights from the study of bilinguals for a theory of the neurobiological underpinnings of language. The prototypical subject of neurolinguistic research has been the monolingual brain, despite the fact that the study of bilingual language processing can provide unique insights into questions such as the plasticity of the FL or age-sensitivity and specificity of acquisition. The chapter selectively reviews results from neurocognitive and behavioural studies of bilingualism. Among others, the chapter discusses evidence that in bilinguals, both languages are always activated. This may explain the extra-linguistic benefits of bilingualism some studies hint at, such as a better ability to ignore irrelevant information: If suppressing the first language during L2 use requires suppression of the simultaneously activated L1 infrastructure, this might simply be the effect of training those control structures. From a biolinguistic perspective, possibly the most interesting aspect is differences between different linguistic levels in how much of an effect late acquisition shows: Phonology and parts of syntax are most prone to display non-native effects while L2 learners appear to acquire a native-like lexicon relatively effortlessly. Much of the evidence thus accumulated is compatible with Ullman’s (2004) thesis that the difference between procedural and declarative memory and their respective developmental trajectories underlies a ‘critical period’ for language acquisition.

The chapters in this part discuss what we do and do not know about the genetic foundations of FL, and the role and limitations of analogues and homologues in other species in hypothesising about its evolution. In doing so, all three chapters warn that the search for a genetic and evolutionary basis of ‘language’, or even linguistic subsystems, can obscure the view of the mechanisms that underlie linguistic capacities, and which may be more or less broadly shared with other animals or only gradually different from our closest relatives.

In his chapter on “The Language Genes”, Antonio Benítez-Burraco covers recent advances in linking specific genes with anomalous language development (most famously the FOXP2 story), but also warning about assumptions often implicit in their discussion. The very concept of a ‘Specific Language Disorder’ (SLI), and the widespread desire to exclude non-specific cognitive disorders that also affect language as input to a theory of the genetics of language, is symptomatic. A rich assembly of genes for language and language only, much less genes for individual subcomponents of language, are a biologically implausible concept given the ubiquity of pleiotropic effects. Finding non-linguistic effects of a gene thus does not allow us to exclude it as a candidate even for a crucial prerequisite of FL. The author argues for a more nuanced version of ‘innatism’ (see also Mameli and Bateson 2006 for a caution about the use of ‘naïve’ innatism in behavioural science) which, while at odds with traditional GG, is said to be compatible with a Minimalism taken to its logical conclusions.

Guillermo Lorenzo, in a chapter on “The Evolution of the Faculty of Language”, aims to shift the discussion beyond the question which, if any, primate behavioural syndromes language is an extension of. He argues that language the search for continuity in complex phenotypic traits may be in vain. Small quantitative changes in gene expression at crucial points in an animal’s developmental pathway can produce large phenotypic differences, and thus the appearance of novel traits in ways that seem to defy gradualism if looked at from a superficial level.

Unlike direct precursors for language as an overall system, homologues and analogues at the level of the computational primitives involved are of interest to the author. While the complexity of birdsong and monkey alarm calls remains qualitatively below that of human language in all examples studied (at a Type 1 grammar in terms of the “Chomsky hierarchy”), Lorenzo points to analyses of the knot-tying behaviour of weaver birds that take it to represent a context-sensitive grammar. It is argued that what enables some species (humans and weaver birds) to reach the level of context-sensitive grammars is primarily a quantitative difference in working memory: A T3 grammar requires a stack-like WM, or a push-down automaton-like architecture, while T1 grammars only require keeping the latest element of any sequence activated, i.e. they are computable by a finite-state automaton.

Bridget Samuels’ final chapter on “Animal Minds and the Roots of Human Language” is the only one that addresses phonology. Samuels starts from the fact that the standard Minimalist model of Core Grammar + interfaces, or the FLB/FLN distinction of Hauser et al. (2002) does not address the status of phonology: The sensory-motor interface as usually conceived of seems to best correspond to speech, or phonetics in terms of traditional linguistic levels. Samuels aims to define a proper place for phonology within a minimalist architecture. There are two conceivable approaches: Either (parts of) phonology falls into FLN, whether based on independent operations or on ones shared with / extended from Narrow Syntax, or, phonology could be located in FLB, using only mechanisms shared with other animals. Samuels advocates the latter, in line with Chomsky’s stance of externalisation as an “afterthought”. While any enumeration of the required component capacities of phonology is necessarily theory dependent, perhaps even more than for syntax, Samuels gives a tentative list and suggests animal homologues or analogues for each. The discussion of hierarchical structure in phonology is particularly interesting for its parallels with and differences from syntactic structure, in that phonological structure is flat and thus comparable to the production of many animal species. The chapter concludes that phonology (unlike syntax under the assumption of a non-empty FLN) is a possibly uniquely human combination of shared component capacities.

In the present context, where much work within the Minimalist Program and ‘biolinguistics’ remains (too) firmly within theoretical linguistics and ‘interface conditions’ are sometimes abused as a dumping ground for unexplained phenomena rather than being spelt out, some of the contributions offer a healthy reminder of what biolinguistics could become. This is particularly true of the chapters by Baus and Carreira, Laka, and Benítez-Burraco, which provide up-to-date summaries of fields of study that will be less familiar to many theoretical linguists but which provide valuable tests for theories of the biological underpinnings of language. Providing such background encourages working linguists to take interface conditions seriously, as empirical claims that should be testable by the toolkits of adjacent disciplines, and provides valuable pointers as to what they could look like.

These contributions take biology more seriously than many other recent publications in ‘biolinguistics’. Nonetheless, the overall picture of contemporary biology, especially in Boeckx’s and Longa and Lorenzo’s chapters, will be perceived as one-sided by many biologists: It is arguably true that many cognitive scientists (especially those working in Evolutionary Psychology (EP)) continue to assume, at least implicitly, a simplistic and somewhat outdated picture of biological evolution, and this has implications for the origins of human language. The role of adaptation as the sole driving force of biological structure and change is often overestimated, and a one-to-one correspondence between genes and traits at least implicitly assumed (see also Bolhuis et al. 2011 for criticisms of the standard EP view of evolution from a biological perspective, and Fitch 2012 on repercussions for discussions of language). The authors in Part I go much further, though, in their attacks against the ‘gene-centric’ view of evolution than the current consensus allows. The effect is that the implications they draw for the biological study of language hinge on biological concepts that themselves remain controversial. This is not to say that the more radical formulations of evo-devo and epigenetism should be ignored altogether by linguists, but anchoring the entire biolinguistic enterprise solely on those seems risky.

Despite occasional pronouncements (already in the introduction) that a genuine integration of linguistics and cognitive biology requires dispensing with ideological divides in linguistics itself, the book remains partial to Generative Grammar and in particular the Minimalist Program. One contribution (Mendívil-Giró’s chapter) explicitly attacks ‘functionalist’ frameworks, and other more theoretically oriented contributions assume some version of Minimalism, and while they sometimes suggest substantial modifications to standard generative concepts (e.g. Longa and Lorenzo’s ‘half a defense’ (p. 83) of UG), the motivation for using this overall framework remain sketchy, and are thus unlikely to convince scholars from different camps.

The main focus lies on the biological basis of human syntactic capacities, with, as noted, only one paper on phonology. ‘Extra-grammatical’ aspects of human linguistic communication, issues such as our vocal learning/imitation abilities or communicative proclivities (Fitch’s 2011 ‘Mitteilungsbedfürfnis’), i.e. the phonetic and pragmatic levels, are sidelined almost entirely. Such a focus is of course legitimate, but since these are non-trivial requisites for human language as we know it with some promising research going on, some readers might have hoped for a broader scope in a book with such broad title. Recent developments linking abstract structure-building capacities with action patterns such as are employed in tool use and manufacture, and the recognition that Broca’s area and its analogue in other apes are heavily involved in hierarchically structured manual tasks (cf. Fujita 2009, Steele et al. 2012) are only touched upon.

Despite this selectiveness, the book can be recommended as a (partial) introduction to ongoing research on the biological foundations of language and potential points of convergence between linguistic and biological theory that are often too little known to a wider linguistic audience.

Bolhuis, J.J., G.R. Brown, R.C. Richardson, and K.N. Laland (2011). Darwin in mind: new opportunities for evolutionary psychology. PLoS Biology 9(7), e1001109.

Chomsky, N. (2005). Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry 36(1), 1–22.

Chomsky, N. (2007). Approaching UG from below. In U. Sauerland and H.-M. Gärtner (Eds.), Interfaces + Recursion = Language? Chomsky’s minimalism and the view from Syntax -Semantics, pp. 1–29. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Clahsen, H. and C. Felser (2006). How native-like is non-native language processing? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10(12), 564 – 570.

Evans, N. and S.C. Levinson (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32(05), 429–448.

Fitch, W.T. (2011). “Deep Homology” in the Biology and Evolution of Language. In A.M. Di Sciullo and C. Boeckx (Eds.), The Biolinguistic Enterprise: New Perspectives on the Evolution and Nature of the Human Language Faculty, pp. 135–166. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fitch, W.T. (2012). Evolutionary Developmental Biology and Human Language Evolution: Constraints on Adaptation. Evolutionary Biology 39(4), 613–637.

Fitch, W.T., L. Huber, and T. Bugnyar (2010). Social Cognition and the Evolution of Language: Constructing Cognitive Phylogenies. Neuron 65, 795–814.

Fujita, K. (2009). A prospect for evolutionary adequacy: Merge and the evolution and development of human language. Biolinguistics 3(2), 128–153.

Hauser, M., N. Chomsky, and W.T. Fitch (2002). The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298, 1569–1579.

Lenneberg, E. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York: Wiley.

Mameli, M. and P. Bateson (2006). Innateness and the sciences. Biology and Philosophy 21, 155–188. DOI: 10.1007/s10539-005-5144-0.

Pigliucci, M. and G. Müller (2010). Evolution: the extended synthesis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Steele, J., P.F. Ferrari, and L. Fogassi (Eds.) (2012). From action to language: comparative perspectives on primate tool use, gesture and the evolution of human language. London: Royal Society. Theme Issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Tomasello, M. (1999). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ullman, M.T. (2004). Contributions of memory circuits to language: The declarative/procedural model. Cognition 921(2), 231–270.

Whiten, A., R.A. Hinde, K.N. Laland, and C.B. Stringer (2011). Culture Evolves. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366(1567), 938–948.
Jakob Steixner is a research assistent in theoretical linguistics at the Department of German Studies, University of Vienna. During his MA studies, he focussed on interactions between syntax and information structure in determining the availability of Negative Concord in a variety of German. His current research, in cooperation with cognitive biologists and psychologists from Vienna and Budapest, attempts to elucidate to what extent and in which ways generic cognitive and perceptual biases determine adjectival ordering restrictions. More broadly, he is interested in a bottom-up approach to the language-cognition interface, or empirical approaches to extralinguistic and non-human correlates of the capacities underlying specific linguistic phenomena.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781443837811
Pages: 400
Prices: U.K. £ 49.99
U.S. $ 74.99