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We’ve talked a lot on this blog about Noam Chomsky, and also about Richard Klein, a scientist who argued that a single brain mutation about 50 kya sparked behavioral modernity (the rise of art, symbolism, and complex tools).
But what we haven’t talked about, is that Noam Chomsky essentially endorses Klein’s theory, only Chomsky is much more specific: he believes the genetic mutation was the capacity for language.
While a lot of comments in the comment section blather on about Chomsky’s political theories, these same comments are mum when it comes to Chomsky’s linguistic theories. Why? Because the latter theory is much more abstract and people lack the cognitive ability to discuss it.
Chomsky believes in part that before about 100,000 years ago, humans could only understand linear language, but because of a mutation after 100,000 years ago, we suddenly acquired an ability to arrange words in stacked triangles, and thus think hierarchically, so adverbs could modify verbs that were linearly far away in a sentence. So as Chomsky’s co-author Robert C. Berwick likes to say:
“Instinctively, birds that swim, can fly”
Instinctively refers to the ability to fly, not the ability to swim, even though linearly, the former verb is closer. So if Chomsky and Berwick are right, if we cloned someone from 100,000 years ago and raised them in the best modern schools today, they would still not be able to understand this sentence because their brains were only wired to process linear, non-hierarchical language.
Chomsky cites the complete lack of symbolism in the archeological record prior to 100,000 years ago as evidence that there was no language.
In Chomsky’s view, language mutated in the brain of a single African about 100 kya, but because he or she was the first to possess language, she had no one to talk to and just talked to herself.
But perhaps once she had kids who shared her capacity for language, the entire family could speak among themselves and plan strategies that allowed her to exploit the environment in ways their pre-language contemporaries could not, causing the language mutation to spread rapidly.
Many years ago some scientists decided to make a monkey out of Chomsky, literally. They raised a chimp as though it were human, and named the Chimp “Nim Chimpsky” and tried to teach it human language.
“The experiment was a total failure” gloated Chomsky. Apparently, the chimp could only string words together linearly, but lacked the hierarchical processing for true language.
A more recent challenge to Chomsky’s language theory is the claim that Neanderthals had language. Chomsky finds it completely unconvincing and wonders, if Neanderthals had language, why didn’t they use it? Chomsky’s analogy: It would be like a wild species bird not knowing it could fly until a bunch of biologists tossed them in the air and said “hey you guys can fly!”
For a more in depth discussion about Chomsky’s views, see this lecture by his co-author Robert Berwick: