few linguists to have explored the origin of language. Several leading linguists blame Chomsky for the neglect. His proposed system of Universal Grammar was such a complicated mechanism that his critics argued there was no way it could have evolved, since it would have been useless until the full structure was in place. This was a misguided criticism since evolution explains very well how enormously complex organs such as the eye or ear have evolved. Nonetheless, Chomsky, rather than debate the point, discouraged any discussion of evolution, several leading linguists now say. "Opponents of UG argue that there couldn't be such a thing as UG, because there is no evolutionary route to arrive at it," writes Ray Jackendoff. "Chomsky, in reply, has tended to deny the value of evolutionary argumentation." 40
"To the extent that Chomsky has been willing to speculate on language origins at all, his remarks have only served to discourage interest in the topic among theoretical linguists. He has adamantly opposed, for example, the idea that the principles of UG arose by virtue of their utility in fostering the survival and reproductive possibilities of those individuals possessing them," writes Frederick Newmeyer, a linguist at the University of
Washington, Seat tle.41 These two critics are not without standing; Newmeyer was president of the Linguistic Society of America in 2002, Jackendoff the following year.
Chomsky denies that he ever discouraged people from studying the evolution of language and says that his views have been misinterpreted. "I have never expressed the slightest objection to work on the evolution of language," he says. He outlined his views briefly in lectures 25 years ago but left the subject hanging, he said, because not enough was understood. He still believes that it is easy to make up all sorts of situations to explain the evolution of language but hard to determine which ones, if any, make sensed
For outsiders looking in, it's hard to understand why linguists such as Newmeyer and Jackendoff would blame Chomsky for the entire profession's neglect of evolution, given that his colleagues, as independent academics, were presumably capable of thinking for themselves. However, Chomsky did have a significant impact on what others thought, says Steven Pinker, in part because of his intellectual stature and in part because of an aggressive style of debate that polarized the whole field. "Why should one man's opinion count for so much?" Pinker asks. "The fact is that Chomsky has had, and continues to have, an outsize influence in linguistics. He has rabid devotees, who hang on his every footnote, and sworn enemies, who say black whenever he says white. This doesn't leave much space for linguists who accept some of his ideas (language as a mental, combinatorial, complex, partly innate system) but not others (the baroque and ever-changing technical details of his theory of grammar, his hostility to evolution or any other explanation of language in terms of its function)."43
Like other social scientists, linguists have not made a habit of looking to evolution for explanations, even though it is the bedrock theory of biology. Pinker was one of the first linguists to do so. With Paul Bloom, he wrote an influential article with a self-declared "incredibly boring" goal. Its purpose was to explain to linguists that, contrary to the views of Chomsky and the science historian Stephen Jay Gould, "human language, like other specialized biological systems, evolved by natural selection."44
Was this article helpful?