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Tom Wolfe on Language and Evolution

Michael Egnor


As David Klinghoffer notes, Tom Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech is out (and on Kindle too which makes me happy!). I’m a big fan of Wolfe.

For a little taste, Wolfe has an excerpt, “The Origins of Speech,” in Harper’s Magazine. He tells the fascinating story of Daniel Everett, the anthropologist who challenged Noam Chomsky’s theory of language recursion. Chomsky famously has posited that human language arises from an innate ability of human beings to think and express ourselves via language. He identifies a “universal grammar” common to all languages, and Chomsky believes that we are born with this innate grammar, and that we do not have to learn it. We learn the specific words common to our native language, but the structure of our language — our grammar — is not learned, but is an ability presumably linked to our genetic endowment as human beings.

Chomsky’s radical idea, which he first proposed as a graduate student in the 1950s, was a death blow to behaviorism, particularly as behaviorism claimed to explain language as a matter of conditioning rather than an innate human ability. The extinction of behaviorism, which was a psychological illness on the autism spectrum masquerading as a psychological theory, is enough to earn Chomsky his own glorious chapel in the pantheon of science. Chomsky consigned behaviorism to a padded room with a single essay.

In 2002, Chomsky published his theory of recursion, in which he points out that human beings are able to construct sentences with clauses-within-clauses, and can express unlimited layered meaning using such linguistic recursion.

Chomsky’s point has been consistent and clear: human language is an inborn power unique to human beings, and it permits unlimited complexity of expression and meaning.

In 2005, Everett published a report of a language spoken by a small tribe in Brazil that appears to lack recursion and that lacks the rich complexity that Chomsky claims is characteristic of human language. Wolfe recounts the struggle between linguists and anthropologists who advocate Chomsky’s and Everett’s views, and he raises the question that I suspect is at the heart of his new book: how could human language have evolved? It’s a great article.

I’ll give a précis of my views on Chomsky’s theories and Everett’s challenge. I think that Chomsky is fundamentally right, and I am skeptical of Everett’s claim. I am not skeptical of Everett’s veracity, although his claims about the simplicity of the natives’ language certainly need more extensive confirmation than they have had to date. I am skeptical of the interpretation that has been given to Chomsky’s insight, although I believe Chomsky’s view is true and profound — one of the most important insights in modern times.

Chomsky is right that human beings are the only species with language, and that the grammar that structures our language is innate, not learned. We do have a “language organ.” But I believe that Chomsky and many of his interpreters err by believing that the language organ is a physical organ, a specific part of the brain. There is no doubt that human language is mediated by certain regions of the brain — notably Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area in the dominant (usually left) hemisphere — but brain structures are merely necessary, not sufficient, for language.

Our language “organ” is an immaterial ability. As I have argued previously, human language is an abstract mapping of designators (words) to objects such as particular things and universal concepts. Abstract thought is inherently immaterial, because abstraction entails universal concepts, which cannot be particular things and thus cannot be in or part of the brain. Normal function of the brain is necessary for abstract thought, but the brain is not sufficient for abstract thought. Abstraction — exercise of intellect and will — is an immaterial power of human beings. Language is an immaterial human ability.

With this understanding (which is a Thomistic perspective) the conflict between Chomsky and Everett can be reconciled. Human language is an active potency of the human soul. It is a power possessed by each of us, and exercised to varying degrees depending on our neurological development and cultural circumstances. Human beings and cultures that lack universal grammar and recursion still have the active potency (first actuality, to use a scholastic term) to use human language that entails universal grammar and recursion, but do not necessarily or always exercise that power (exercise of a power is second actuality, in scholastic terminology).

Active potency for human language is actual (real) power inherent to a human being, but is potency (only possibility) from the perspective of actual use of full linguistic capabilities. This is analogous to the ability to play chess, which is possessed by every chess player, but only exercised at the time chess is actually played.

This Thomistic perspective makes sense of Chomsky’s observation that natives of Everett’s Brazilian tribe can learn Portuguese quite easily, which is a language that exhibits both universal grammar and recursion. Members of this small tribe have the active potency to use human language fully, but don’t ordinarily exercise full language ability in their speech within their culture. However, they easily learn to do so when they learn other languages. Everett’s natives have a language organ, but they don’t ordinarily use it. The actual use of an ability (second actuality) is not the same thing as having the ability (first actuality).

Chomsky’s insights are brilliant and of great importance. He believes that language is not primarily a means of communication. Language is a means of thinking, and is necessary for fully human thought. This is true, I believe, because exercise of intellect and will necessarily entails abstract thought, which is immaterial.

Immaterial thought, because it cannot by its nature be caused by particular matter, requires a system of designators (words) for its exercise. The universal grammar that structures our thoughts and language is the correspondence between our language and metaphysical reality, which our immaterial language organ is designed to allow us to contemplate.

Language is a beautiful example of the exercise of the immaterial human intellect. Wolfe raises the question about evolution of human language, and of course, while the brain structures necessary for human language may have “evolved” in some sense, our language ability itself, because it is an immaterial power, cannot evolve, but must be created.

It is in Chomsky’s refusal to follow his own reasoning to that conclusion — that language is a created human ability — that he falls short. Yet his theory of universal grammar and recursion and of the necessity of language for thought are profound insights.

It remains for us to follow the logic Chomsky has opened to us, and to acknowledge that our language abilities are created immaterial powers of the human soul.

Photo: Amazon rainforest, Brazil, by Gleilson Miranda [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.