Thursday, November 03, 2005

Noam Chomsky and the human revolution / Mark Fischer spoke to Chris Knight, a scientist specialising in human origins.

Noam Chomsky and the human revolution

Mark Fischer spoke to Chris Knight, a scientist specialising in human origins. His main current interest lies in working out how human language may have evolved. This has led him to clash with Noam Chomsky

You are on record as saying that Chomsky needs to be overthrown and replaced. Why?

Chomsky is a genius - there’s no question of that. He’s made linguistics into a science, discovering how syntax works and how closely the world’s natural languages are related. In his view, at a deep level there’s really just one language, which he calls ‘Universal Grammar’. Linguistics is the attempt to work out the specifics of this grammar.

The problem is that he goes out of his way to construct an impenetrable wall between linguistics and everything else. For him, only natural science can be genuinely scientific. So linguistics can qualify as a proper science only if it sets out from a special definition of language. The main requirement, according to Chomsky, is to avoid confusing two things. One is language. The other is how it’s used. For Chomsky, linguistics doesn’t study usage: it studies only nature. Language is a computational faculty located in the head, enabling us to think in a human way. By defining language as a part of human nature, Chomsky justifies turning his back on culture and the humanities. Meanwhile, in his social activism and commentary, he turns his back on science. Not just Marxism but all other approaches claiming to be ‘scientific’ are point-blank rejected. In a nutshell: socialism mustn’t be scientific and science mustn’t be social. I am an anthropologist. For me, as an anthropologist, the interesting question is not just that Chomsky says such things. The really interesting question is why.

It’s not difficult to show that Chomsky’s objective role has been to drive a wedge between science and activism, doing all possible to ensure that no connection is made. To the American corporate and managerial elite, two things are important. One is that the scientific community doesn’t get active. The other is that the activist community doesn’t get scientific. As if to show that this split-brain approach is perfectly possible, Chomsky goes out of his way to construct two versions of himself, neither of which seems to be on speaking terms with the other.

It is hard to think of a policy more deeply reactionary. We now have a situation in which the climate science community in the US is frantically sounding the alarm, warning the oil industry about the potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming. Because their findings make such awkward reading to oil-dependent politicians, the climate science community is currently being ‘investigated’ by the Bush regime - the implication being that some of the leading scientists may be communist sympathisers. To a Marxist, it’s obvious that all this is nonsense. On the other hand, it is true that when ordinary impartial science collides with the political requirements of the ruling establishment, it becomes an incipiently revolutionary force. The international scientific community is now becoming aware that it must defend its autonomy - the inviolable autonomy of science. Scientists, for the most part, know that they must feel free to say uncomfortable things to their own governments, taking political action where necessary in defence of science.

More than anybody else, Chomsky legitimises the professional judgement that this would be wrong. He acts as a role model for all those who insist that there must be no mingling of politics with science. His peculiar value to the authorities is his talent for championing this position not from the political right but from a standpoint on the far left. This makes him virtually unassailable. His argument sounds very reasonable. He points out that an activist who invoked the authority of science to justify some personally favoured policy would be deeply suspect. Does any activist have the right to dress up this or that political ideology as ‘science’? Conversely, does a scientist have the right to subordinate theory construction to a political cause? Wouldn’t that be betraying the true mission of science?

Such arguments are in a sense right. They are also highly convenient. It is no secret that initially, when Chomsky’s paradigm was getting off the ground in the 1950s, the US military were interested in ‘Universal Grammar’ As they offered substantial funding to Chomsky’s research programme, it is on record what they wanted to achieve. They needed an electronic command-and-control device for use in their weapons systems. They hoped for a system in which personnel on the ground could issue verbal instructions to an airborne missile, specifying trajectories and targets. If they could do this in everyday, natural language - without having to learn special codes - it would obviously be hugely advantageous to them. ‘Universal grammar’ seemed an excellent idea.

It may well be that few people were under the illusion that Chomsky himself could actually build a universal language machine. In fact, on a personal level, he showed little interest in any direct military application of his ideas. But it was widely believed that his theoretical approach might indirectly assist. Working in what was called the ‘Research Laboratory of Electronics’ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky consistently described the human language faculty as if it were a computational device composed of wires and switches.


Noam Chomsky: believes that social factors have nothing to do with the evolution of language
As it happens, needless to say, the machine promised by Chomsky was unlikely to be built in real life. No one will ever be able to construct a machine with a sense of humour, for example. But, machine or no machine, Chomsky’s value to the establishment remained real enough. He succeeded in dislodging linguistics from its former place among the social sciences, redefining the discipline as natural science. Once this move had been made, it caused terrible conceptual problems, producing utter bafflement all around and leading to what became known as the ‘linguistic wars’ - which proved to be among the most bitter and acrimonious disputes in western intellectual history.

Many linguists felt that their intellectual discipline had been violated by the attempt to have it completely removed from the broader humanities and passed over to the natural sciences. In order to avoid social and political issues, Chomsky declared that contemporary word-meanings - for example, the lexical concept, ‘carburettor’ - had been fixed for all eternity when Homo sapiens first evolved. Not surprisingly, such laughable ideas produced gasps of utter disbelief among Chomsky’s colleagues. Nothing in linguistics seemed to make sense any more. To activists in particular, Chomsky’s ideas about genetic determinism seemed abstract and irrelevant. But his principled stance on issues such as Vietnam made him difficult to attack. The outcome has been this very deep intellectual schism and this widespread feeling that you mustn’t mix activism with science.

If you did unite science and activism, what would the implications be? How does this debate impinge on what people should be doing politically in the here and now? Isn’t it all interesting - but arcane?

Not arcane at all. Chomsky’s great achievement has been to prove that language is ‘off the scale’ as far as anything else in biological communication is concerned. It’s not like a development from chimpanzee vocal calls such as pant-hoots or waa-barks. Language is qualitatively different. And he’s correct: it’s hard to see how language could have gradually evolved. Darwinian evolutionary science has so far failed to explain this puzzle at all. Human children are born with a ‘language instinct’ - that is, they are equipped to acquire complex grammatical rules so spontaneously and creatively that it is as if they knew the basics already. But if this is an instinct then it seems to have come from nowhere. No ape has any such instinct. For obvious reasons, this puzzle has appeared to provide ammunition for the creationists.

So, the implication is that language emerged out of some kind of revolution?

Yes, it must have been a qualitative leap, perhaps like the emergence of life itself. It was a major transition, one of many such events during the course of life’s evolution on earth.

Does Chomsky agree?

His view is that language is special. Furthermore, something special must have happened to make it special. Chomsky makes very few categorical statements about the special event in question, which he has recently termed humanity’s ‘great leap forward’. He views the whole topic as speculative. But he does insist on one thing: whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t social.

For Chomsky, you can have a revolution, as long as it remains part of natural science. Therefore it might have been a cognitive revolution. Or perhaps a massive genetic mutation. Alternatively, as neurons accumulated in the human brain, critical mass might have been achieved, whereupon the language device suddenly self-installed. So you can attribute the emergence of language to a ‘revolution’. And you can mix that word with other words, such as ‘cognitive’, ‘genetic’ and so on. But one absolute taboo remains in force. You mustn’t combine the word ‘revolution’ with the word ‘social’. That would be mixing politics with science.

When someone insists on such a point with such ferocity, you have to ask - why? Then, when you remind yourself that they are working in a Pentagon-funded environment, it all begins to make sense. It makes sense that Chomsky is forced to say things that to most people seem insane.

For example, he categorically insists that language is not for communicating thoughts. The first person to get suddenly wired up for language didn’t need anyone to talk to. The individual concerned used language simply to talk to ‘itself’ (Chomsky in his scientific capacity treats humans as ‘natural objects’). If you object that language is brilliant for enabling us to share our thoughts and dreams, he retorts that in fact almost anything can be used in this way. For example, you might want to make a public statement with your new hairstyle. The fact that you can use hair in such a way doesn’t imply that human hair evolved so that people could share their thoughts. Once again, the possible uses of a thing and its intrinsic nature must be kept conceptually separate.

That’s Chomsky’s position. It is easy to show that it doesn’t work. Where evolution is concerned, you need a theory to show how and why humanity’s ‘great leap forward’ happened and what it was comprised of. But, as soon as you have a social theory of any kind, it becomes a hot potato. If you are operating in a Pentagon-funded environment, it takes courage to come up with the discovery that revolution works. Obviously, the theory itself is going to have political implications, even if you are not particularly political as a person.

Your approach seems to suggest that everything distinctively human about human nature springs from a revolution. Is that a fair summary?

That’s right. The chief value of the study of human origins is precisely that. It undermines what is probably the deepest of all prejudices against the whole revolutionary project - the idea that not even a revolution could ever change ‘human nature’ The ruling class want us to believe that greed, selfishness, private property, sexual inequality, violence, etc - all these features of the current global order are intrinsic to the human condition. The study of human origins shows the reverse. This exciting branch of science reveals that everything distinctively human about our nature - for example, self-consciousness, the ability to see ourselves as others see us, the ability to establish moral and political understandings accordingly - all these things which define our humanity emerged out of struggle. They are all products of the greatest revolution in history, the one that made us human.

Did this debate explicitly feature during the symposium with Chomsky you attended?

Chomsky’s lecture on the evolution of language was predictable. He went into ‘C-command’, something called ‘binding’ and various other features of syntax. He implied that something amazing must have happened to get these features implanted into the human brain, but didn’t explain what.

I started by asking a question trying to pinpoint exactly what that ‘great leap forward’ was. What happened? Did I miss something, I asked? Where exactly was his theory? He replied that the brain became suddenly wired for language, although we don’t know how. That was the amazing event.

I asked a follow-up question: “Professor Chomsky, you seem to be very vague about what it was. Yet you are absolutely definite on just one thing: whatever it was, we know for certain it wasn’t a social revolution. Do I understand you correctly?” His comeback was that anyone who thought that social causation impinged in any way was sadly misguided. Nothing in the social life of humanity can possibly find its way back into the genome. We are all Darwinians, he pointed out, not followers of Lamarck.

I couldn’t let this go, despite the etiquette that’s supposed to be observed at such events. I took the microphone again and reminded everyone that the whole point about modern Darwinism is its focus on cooperation versus competition. By ape or monkey standards, human social cooperation is off the scale. Was Chomsky really saying that such topics are simply irrelevant?

He reiterated that social interaction is indeed irrelevant, since we’re dealing with innate structures of the human mind.

I had another go, of course. Humans do indeed have innate cognitive features which apes don’t seem to possess. We can point at things, for example. Stand in front of a cat and point - and it just stares at your finger. It doesn’t get it, no matter how hard you try. Even chimps don’t point things out to one another. Each sees the world from its own perspective. No ape behaves as if enquiring of those around it: ‘Do you see what I see?’ Two-way mind-reading is something they just don’t get. So the human revolution did involve a cognitive leap - but this was emphatically social.

Chomsky was exasperated and simply reiterated his assertion: social factors have nothing to do with the emergence of language. At which point I had to sit down, of course. But it had been worthwhile getting him to unequivocally state his position in such a forum.

So what does the future hold?

Let me mention one particular scientist. His name is Luc Steels. Chomsky has spent his life in an imaginary electronics laboratory. He’s been engaged in concocting designs for a language machine he’d never have to build. He knew that nobody would ever ask him where the fuses should go or how the wiring would work. By contrast, Luc is one of the world’s best-known designers of intelligent robots. His machines are built with the equipment to work out what’s going on around them and correlate perspectives. They don’t have any special wiring for language. They have to work that out for themselves. Luc calls this the ‘recruitment’ theory of the origins of language. His machines just recruit whatever resources they can find in order to establish communication. They’re built to remember those communicative interactions that succeed while forgetting those that fail.

Luc insists that if you follow Chomsky’s advice, it won’t work. If you design the hard wiring for ‘Universal Grammar’ in advance and jam it into your machines, you’ll just get it wrong. The implications are far too subtle and complex for anybody to work out. You just have to make these machines - his own ones look like comical dogs, by the way - and let them interact. After some time, they cumulatively build up the wiring for language. Of course, the outcomes are relatively crude, but in terms of underlying principles, the parallels with language seem to be real. I’m hoping to bring Luc to London soon, so that you can see what I mean.

By a stroke of good fortune, Luc was appointed by the conference organisers to prepare a response to my own paper at the conference. The title I had chosen was ‘The human revolution’. My final slide was this two-word slogan: Revolution works. I was surprised and relieved because Luc defended not only the general theory but also many of the details of my argument. At the symposium, this carried weight, I think, because everyone could see that Luc Steels knew what he was talking about. Unlike Chomsky, he actually had to build his ‘language machines’ - and they worked!

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say Chomsky has spent his life fighting off the theory of the human revolution. His opponents are doing joined-up thinking and he doesn’t want to know. My own experience of conferences of this kind is that, wherever scientists from different disciplines start talking among themselves, they discover that there was indeed some kind of revolution. Then they begin wondering about the details. What exactly happened? Most agree the crucial events occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. A new species emerged - Homo sapiens. Linguistically, socially and in other ways, humans did things that were quite peculiar. Nothing like this species had ever hit the planet before. And, as we begin piecing our story together, there’s this take-home message: Revolution works.

Like Galileo with his theory about a moving earth, a discovery of this kind is bound to upset the authorities. As Chomsky’s approach is set aside, I think linguists will want to escape their irrelevance and isolation, linking up with colleagues in neighbouring disciplines. As scientists feel less atomised and isolated, I think we’ll feel a new determination to defend our intellectual autonomy against the obvious institutional pressures to hold back.

The scientific community is intrinsically international. To remain true to science, we’ve no choice but to resist all merely national governments and authorities in favour of a constituency whose internationalism matches ours. As a scientist in paid employment, I am part of the working class. In becoming scientifically enlightened and self-organised, our aim must be to embrace society as a whole, just as Marx envisaged.

We won the revolution once. We have good grounds for believing we can do it again.

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