(Part I)


Juan Uriagereka is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Maryland and one of the most original and creative thinkers of our times. Taking the view that the language faculty presents itself in three broad domains: “its evolution in the species, its development in the individual, and its use in actual performance where we gather most our data from”, Juan’s research output has ranged across the entire spectrum – from influential syntactic analyses to various computational simulations of the evolution of human language. In a two - part interview, Juan speaks to Tanmoy Bhattacharya and Ayesha Kidwai on a wide range of issues.


































































































































































































Ayesha Kidwai: In your own work you have consistently sought to contextualize the project of generative syntax within the larger framework of human biology and evolution. While this is without question the context of Chomsky’s inquiries, how much do you think that this consciousness of the larger picture should guide the everyday practice of the ‘ordinary syntactician’? If it is also your impression that this consciousness is true of only a fraction of syntacticians, do you think that a neglect of the larger picture poses a problem?

Juan Uriagereka: There’s an old American saying that goes “You pays your money, you makes your choice!” In my view linguistics is a “special science”, in pretty much the way chemistry or for that matter biology is. If you wish, it is part of the study of “complex systems” in nature, and “complexity” is, well, complex. Of course, language is so central to the human experience that it may not seem complex to any of us, but professionals of this business know better. The question is, then, what to do about that. Some of us – and certainly Chomsky is the best example – feel that to gain a real understanding of linguistic structuring you must fit it within “the larger picture”. This is mainly to help us decide what, among competing and reasonable theories, could fit a criterion of adequacy that makes one or more approximate the truth. So here you go into more or less traditional concerns (and I mean “traditional” in the sense that these worries take you back to the Enlightenment, the Renaissance or even Classical Antiquity): what sorts of structures can a child acquire, what sort are realistic for a human mind, what could have emerged in the history of our species, and so on and so forth. Without criteria like these, it is hard for me to even imagine how we could decide on the details of “the right theory”, among other things because we simply can’t experiment with a human the way a chemist does in the lab, or even the way the biologist can with plants or animals. As a result of that, a structure that would surely reveal itself if we started knocking out genes or taking away parts of brains, or whatever, has to be studied with much more subtlety and interdisciplinary ingenuity. But that’s neither here nor there: it’s just (good) science.
And no, “neglecting the larger picture” poses no such problem as such, any more than, say, neglecting doing experiments would for a chemist. This is not a matter of principle, just one of practice. Ultimately, only time will tell whether structures postulated in ignorance of all of this will in the end be more adequate than those we postulate informed on biochemical, physical or mathematical concerns. There are no guarantees for success in science, anymore than there are in art. The proof is always in the pudding.                                                                                          

AK: With the developments in the minimalist program however it appears that the big picture context has attained greater prominence than ever before. Two sorts of constraints now apply for explanatory adequacy (and beyond): (i) those grounded within the language faculty, such as considerations of economy and computational complexity, and (ii) those that operate in domain-general ways, such as “bio-physical laws”. Is it not the case that while recourse can be taken to some intuitions about language to discover those in (i), the ones in (ii) lie outside the domain of linguistics per se? How can such constraints then be understood and ‘discovered’ by ‘ordinary syntacticians’? And how is such work to be of the same order of value in a cross-disciplinary fashion, as for example, the modularity thesis was three decades ago?

JU: First let me clarify the idea of “beyond explanatory adequacy”. Chomsky classically postulated three levels of adequacy for linguistic theory – I’d say for any scientific theory. (i) Observational, (ii) descriptive and (iii) explanatory. (i) is the minimum criterion for empirical science, obviously. (ii) already requires some sort of coherent edifice from which you can deduce the facts observed, and of course make new predictions and so on. (iii) is where the real claims of truth lay, though. Each science presumably has a way of distinguishing among (roughly) descriptively adequate theories, whether it is elegance, reduction to some other science, or whatever you think should decide the competition among theoretical alternatives. In the case of linguistics, Chomsky suggested, reasonably, that the very first explanatory criterion should be language acquisition by infants, in “poverty of the stimulus” conditions. It is pointless to have a fancy descriptive theory if there is no way a child could possibly fix its open variables in realistic time. It took us a few decades to even come close to addressing such a criterion, and I think it is fair to say that it was only with the advent of the Principles and Parameters model that we came even close to being able to explicate how children acquire the diversity of languages we experience in the world. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that is a finished project – in short, we don’t know yet, in full detail, how it is a child can achieve this phenomenal task. But at least we have an “in principle” answer, and we pretty much know, or at least strongly suspect, that if we continue working on this line of research, we’ll get a better and better picture.
That said, have we cracked the linguistics nut completely? Do we have, now, an explanatory theory? Well, it depends on the demands you impose. Physics in the nineteenth century was thought to be pretty much finished and understood, a matter of finessing the details of the forces and interactions among what was then thought to be atomic units. By challenging that system – not giving it up, mind you: just asking questions about its foundations – people like Einstein and Poincaré first, and of course later on all the particle-physics guys, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Dirac and so on, the whole bunch, told us how much we were missing by not going beyond the obvious. It’s probably a model story for us too. Sure, we can stop at classical “explanatory adequacy”, just as a number of physicists these days would still not go into superstring theory or whatever the latest model brings, “branes” or whathaveyou. That’s fine. But then again it’s perfectly legitimate to keep attempting to unify the forces, ask about reducing the elementary particles to more basic objects, and so on. Same in linguistics, going “beyond explanatory adequacy” just means pushing the envelope, and sure, then Minimalism makes a couple of interesting, and tentative, suggestions about where to find answers.
Now, once that much is accepted, your question is whether “ordinary syntax” can make progress here, and whether some of the minimalist concerns don’t just lay outside linguistics. The thing is, I’m afraid I don’t quite share the presuppositions. Again, let’s go back to physics, chemistry or biology, those sciences where clear progress has been made during the last few centuries. Does, say, String Theory look like ordinary physics? Well, I can tell you I studied a bit of relativity in school, and that did look like the ordinary physics I knew and could operate with, with Newton’s laws extended in ways that, though difficult to follow operationally, are conceptually quite simple. I can still read that stuff. However, if you show me any quantum physics beyond, say, Schroedinger’s equation – which I can still trace, in some form at least, to more familiar stuff involving kinetic and potential energy, that sort of thing – I have to start asking help from physicists. And even when they explain things to me, I don’t feel I have a good grounding of what’s really going on, and why, say, the relation between scalar and vectorial values does make such a difference in how given variables interact, and so on. But that’s “ordinary physics” too, or I should even say, that’s most of what kids now study in college, right?
Same with chemistry: I’d doubt Levoisier would have the foggiest idea of what, say, Linus Pauling was doing, although of course ultimately what Pauling achieved allowed for the explanation of the phenomena Levoisier had observed – of course via Dalton, Mendeleiev, etc. Not to talk about what goes on today in organic chemistry, where not just simple “valence” is at issue, but all sorts of arcane topological shapes that various compounds achieve, which affects just about anything one can imagine in “chemical form”, if you wish. And imagine what Darwin would say about “ordinary molecular biology”… So the issue is true of all sciences, as they progress: they become more intriguing, interactive, and harder to work with. So what do you do then? What scientists have always done: When Newton needed the calculus, he invented it. The idea was good enough for Leibniz to also, apparently, have come up with it, independently. And that’s ultimately the right measure: if Minimalism is in some sense right, things will start falling into place. Units and interactions will start to make sense, whether Chomsky postulated them or someone else did, simply because they are good ideas about a complex phenomenon.
Let me clarify one more thing: you don’t “discover” any of this. Theoretical science is not really about discovery, but about evaluation, following criteria along the lines discussed above. How does one come up with a theoretical edifice, like, say, Minimalism? Certainly not via any discovery, something that, say, Chomsky one day finds in a lab or after encountering a language in the Amazon. Rather, first of all, you are part of a scientific enterprise – linguistics is clearly one of them, going back to Panini, if not the scholars who first allowed us to segment speech into writing systems. Second, you begin to develop theoretical edifices, like for instance the one Saussure and the Russian formalists put together in the early twentieth century, which is where most of us come from in contemporary linguistics. Third, you test the hell out of them: you squeeze, stretch, bend, and even break what they say, until you approximate a better understanding of what they may be telling you.
This is one respect in which I think many scholars deeply misunderstand Chomsky’s approach to science. They often say that he “changes his mind”. I think that’s rubbish: he rarely does, the sorts of assumptions I’m discussing now have been his forever, so far as I can tell. What he does change are the ways in which his theories work. Why? Well, because he learns new facts, like all of us do, and because he’s human after all, and he may have missed a step here or taken too fast a turn there. The greatest geniuses make mistakes. Ramanujan, for instance, was apparently the most gifted mathematician you could encounter – but he occasionally didn’t get things right. And that’s in a formal science; imagine in an empirical one. For instance, Einstein made mistakes he didn’t know he was making (attempting to reduce quantum physics to relativity, which everyone nowadays will tell you cannot possibly work, the opposite reduction being the only one with a chance) and he even thought he made mistakes where there wasn’t one (like the Cosmological Constant, which apparently has something to it).
So Chomsky, or the rest of us, is no different: we try our best, and part of that process is not regarding our models as dogma. They are just ideas. I’d be very worried about a theoretical model that has remained constant for decades! It reminds me of Borges’s character, Pierre Menard, who wanted to write Don Quixote in the twentieth century, after all that has happened since Cervantes’s did… So can anyone seriously keep the exact same model after, say, the advent of Chaos Theory? How about the mapping of the genome or the proteome? How about developments in Topology, Category Theory and so on? I think it would be absurd, if these other adjacent sciences continue to make progress that surely will be of relevance to anyone who studies language, or more generally “form” in this universe.
So that brings me to the last aspect of your question: Will the concepts we work with in Minimalism have the impact that Modularity had? I don’t have a crystal ball, but it seems to me that it would be irresponsible for other scientists out there not to look at what we do in linguistics, especially at the level we operate with in Minimalism. Let me tell you a little secret: there are not so many great ideas out there in Complexity Theory… I mean, the field is fascinating, and researchers have now convinced most of us that there is such thing as predictable unpredictability (chaos), and perhaps even the emergence of stability within that mess (complexity), God only knows how. But that’s the key: we only have certain intuitions about how form can stabilize under, say, dissipative conditions of the sort Ilya Prigogine studied. Some progress might come from the sorts of studies that I guess go back to René Thom in topology, singularities, catastrophes and all that, themselves arguably the sort of thing that Poincaré had foreseen. And some might also come from computational studies, the sort perhaps Stephen Wolfram has pushed, which again go back to earlier things by Mandelbrot and so on. But I see absolutely no reason why we, linguists, cannot also contribute to this project. In fact, Neils Jerne already observed that in his Nobel laureate lecture, in 1984. And people like David Searls are making extremely intriguing use of computational linguistics concepts (like the Chomsky Hierarchy) to give us some insight into such hard nuts to crack as the “protein folding” puzzle, after having studied linguistics with the Penn Group.
In my view this is only the beginning. I have profited the most from working with people in the edges of linguistics, applying relevant notions to adjacent fields, whether it is philosophy, computer science, psychology, neurology, or even computational biology. These scientists have asked my collaboration as a boring syntactician, and in order to better understand the very complex problems they were dealing with. In fact, I’d say our department at Maryland is constructed based on exactly this premise, which was shared throughout two long decades and by three very competent chairs (Lightfoot, Crain and Hornstein). I don’t think this is accidental, just the normal consequence of interdisciplinary research, which linguistics, and certainly the Minimalist Program, continues to be at the forefront of.

  TOP                                                                                                        Last Question

AK: The Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch work of recent years has had a tremendous impact on scientific inquiry in general and ethology and biology. While you have already begun to explore the implications of the “recursion-only” thesis in your own work, many other linguists have been skeptical, holding the claim to be too strong. Most notable of the aggrieved have been Ray Jackendoff and Steven Pinker, whose critique of the thesis specifically is that it flies in the face of the findings of generative linguists over the past five decades – that syntax and morphology are special to language, and therefore to humans. Do you agree with them that the HCF thesis is a rejection of past knowledge? If not, can you please elaborate upon how this thesis may be seen as an outcome of the progress made by generative inquiry over the last fifty years?

JU: I totally disagree with that critique. Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch, aside from being top-notch scientists in their respective fields, happen to be extremely well informed and responsible scientists, who are just aware, to start with, of current developments on the Evo-Devo project in biology – not to speak of current developments within linguistic theory. Let’s take the matter head on. Suppose it were the case that, say, the FOXP2 gene recently found to be implicated in language (and let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is, and indeed seriously so) had the basic same role it has now in an ancestral organism. To be specific – and this is probably close to true – we know FoxP2 (in lower-case to distinguish it from the human version) is present in song-birds, distant from us some three hundred million years of evolution. Moreover, we know that even among the birds, while all manifest this gene in roughly the same neural circuitry, only three major groups (singing birds, humming birds, and parrots) have the relevant feedback loops that lead to what you may think of as “vocal learning”. To the best of anybody’s knowledge, (relatively) similar brain anatomy within the mammals is found in bats and cetaceans, and then you don’t find it among the apes until you hit us (and perhaps Neanderthals).
Alright: so what does this mean for the autonomy of syntax, if true? It really means zilch. It is perfectly possible, indeed likely, that human syntax is nothing but new strategies with old tools, the way Stephen Jay Gould would have expected for all biological innovation. To tell you a possible story, much in the spirit of the HCF paper, it could have been that an ancestral gene (FoxP2) was responsible for regulating a “parsing window” of the sort that you need to identify bird-song. This is very likely going on in zebra finches, at least, who we know through the work of Constance Scharff, express FoxP2 in the acquisition circuit (early on in life) and moreover in the production circuit (later in life). In the second instance, as Stephanie White and collaborators have recently shown, whether the gene is down or up-regulated depends on whether the bird is singing alone, practicing as it were, or singing to the female, attempting to get one particular song through that, if communicated, can lead to mating. So there you go: arguably if the “operational memory” window (to put it in terms sympathetic to Michael Ullman’s conjectures in this regard) is narrowed, the bird enters some sort of an improvisation mood, within relevant limits – a bit like Charlie Parker practicing in the back-alley. In contrast, if the memory window is widened, the bird now basically sings an aria, Pavarotti style, to his beloved, hoping for the best. Say that’s true (it’s the only explanation I can even imagine for the observed behavior). So we have a regulating gene that widens and narrows operational memory, whatever that is. A gene, by the way, which we know can be turned off, even within birds, for whatever reason –indeed most birds don’t have any of this, even if it is part of an ancestral lineage shared with mammals, so pretty far back.
Now enter the mammals, and for some reason a few of those again make use of the gene. I don’t know of any specific studies – at least as careful as the finch ones – that tell us what the gene is doing in dolphins or bats. But whatever it happens to be doing there, it may have nothing to do with what it does for birds (in all likelihood), or for that matter us. Our version of the gene is novel, possibly mutated within the last couple of hundred thousand years, if calculations made by the Leipzig group are correct (if so, possibly not even Neanderthals had this allele, although we’ll know soon enough, as their genome, I’m told, is in the process of being mapped). What does FOXP2 do for us? In short, we don’t know. We do know, however, that when the gene mutates, as in the famous KE family, the result is dismal inflectional morphology, non-existent concord, absence of complex embedding, and so on. (I wish, by the way, that all the data available on this poor people were examined again from current perspectives, but I also feel bad about bothering them any more.) That seems important, and possibly very structural.
Of course, it’s true also that the affected members have difficulties with the serialization of gestures and things of that sort, including mathematical tasks. But we have no idea whether those are parasitic in syntax, in some sense or another, as seems likely. At any rate, you can’t start knocking the gene out – the way you do with mice – to see what happens then, and you can’t chop people’s heads off – they way you do with finches – to see whether the caudate nucleus is swamped with the FOXP2 protein as we talk, write, sing or whatever. So we go with other methods, and come up with conjectures, and the usual, which is the way Michael Ullman made his bet that this gene is regulating operational memory. So fine, say all of this is true for the sake of argument. Have we questioned the autonomy of syntax?
I really don’t see how. In all likelihood, what we are doing with FOXP2 is something like linearizing in parsing the complex structures that, say, Theta Theory (or your favorite structuring mechanism) gives us. It is very possible, I’d say even probable given all we’ve found about chimps and bonobos in the last couple of decades, that they too have some form of syntactic structuring mechanism, at least as a system of thought. So fine: we possibly, then, have, the Theta Theory of a chimp coupled with the linearization parser of a finch. If you wish, to put it as a T-shirt slogan, again in the HCF spirit: chimp + finch = human. Alright, I’m being provocative – but it’s to make a simple point. Although we have no idea what the function is that relates (the relevant neuroanatomy or molecular biology of) a chimp and a finch, we do know that it is this sort of combinations that give you new species, or new structures within them, or new behaviors within given structures, etc. That is the Evo-Devo project, in short. The realization that things couldn’t be as smooth as Darwin expected (with nineteenth century tools and preconceptions), and perhaps even as bumpy as Gould claimed (with classical twentieth century, and in his case historicist assumptions). Who knows what the details are here, but this is what we’re getting over and over at this level: modify a regulating gene for some reason, and although in most instances you just don’t get a viable organism (legs start popping out of eyes or weird, monstrous things like that) occasionally you get the fountain of youth. So you stick to it (“you” meaning some species), and then other changes hopefully follow that finesse the new structure/behavior.
Is the new organ, circuit, mechanism or whatever “autonomous”? Well, how can it not be, if nothing with those characteristics had been around before in evolutionary history? I mean, take bird-song. Is that an autonomous faculty? To the best of my knowledge it pretty much is, and it has little to do with other so called systems of communication, like whatever octopi do, or the bees, or even plants (which in very serious respects communicate too). That approach seems to me to be rather hopeless, at least at this stage of our understanding of “communication”. Many, the majority of interesting things you see out there, are pretty autonomous. And syntax is nothing but another such autonomous mechanism, organ, or whatever you want to call it. Moreover a pretty recent one, it seems. So I really don’t see even the source of the criticism to the HCF thesis. And yes: I do think the thesis – if it can be called so, I’d rather refer to it as a program, or even a set of questions – is the result of progress in syntactic theory. To start with, we now understand recursion much better than we did half a century ago. And all the notions I alluded to in the previous paragraph, some coming from parsing, others from notions like linearization, and perhaps even the minimalist emphasis on these kinds of features of the system manifesting themselves optimally.
I should add, by the way, that another criticism that is often raised in this regard is the contention that biology is not optimal. This hides a misunderstanding, first, of the sense of optimality we seek within minimalism. It is emphatically not functional optimality of the classical sort in New-Darwinism. Indeed, most of us are probably prepared to admit that the language faculty is pretty sub-optimal in a variety of functionalist regards, for instance with respect to center-embedding or the issues arising from garden paths. But the form of the system is where you see, if you wish, structural optimality, of the sort you expect in physics. That suggests that the very physics of the system are involved in that optimality, if the observation turns out to be correct. Now, does biology have optimality of that sort? You bet. Think, for instance, of the scaling law that West, Brown and Enquist have beautifully modeled in fractal terms or for that matter the old observations about Fibonacci patterns that go back at least to the Renaissance. Only a dull professor can fail to see the structural optimality of a sunflower! And the thing is although the same mathematical function describes what you see in a peacock’s display, or in a virus coating. Note: in each of these instances the arrangement serves a totally different function: maximal display of features for I guess – photosynthesis in one instance, ventilation in another, whatever’s going on with viruses, and so on.
And that’s just nature out there, around us, all over the place. I don’t even think it is worth emphasizing this point, but obviously it seems contentious, still, in many camps – which I find truly perplexing. The questions go back to Aristotle if not the Pre-Socratics, and were fully articulated by Leibniz, Goethe, and the great morphologists of the eighteen and nineteen centuries. And in a nutshell, although obviously Darwin gave as a great paradigm to talk about all of this, he didn’t – he couldn’t – give us all the answers, whether they would lie in biological workings within genes, chromosomes, cells, individuals, populations, and their respective dynamics, and basic physico-chemical and computational constraints, ultimately mathematical restrictions, and on and on. It’s a “complex” system, life is. Is it really surprising that this wonderful array is at play? That in some areas it is really serendipitous while in others it’s truly elegant?

 TOP                                                                                                          Last Question

AK: A significant aspect of your research in recent years has been the puzzle of language evolution. In a paper with Massimo Piatelli-Palmerini, ‘The Immune Syntax: The Evolution of the Language Virus’, you make some interesting conjectures about the evolution of language. In the paper, you make the suggestion that humans (with FLB and minus FLN) would have had a “proto-language” [that] allowed for elementary grounded messages, involving indexicals (or names) combined with immediate locations, or even salient characteristics, an “ability, in its most rudimentary form, is not specifically linguistic.” The emergence of language, you conjecture, is the emergence of Narrow Syntax, and a consequence of the transformations that such proto-language(s) underwent once the changes in the human version of the gene FOXP2 gave humans a significantly improved “phonotactic kit”, hence a massively expanded phonetic vocabulary.” My question is how the first moment of language emergence is to be conceived.
As Richard Lewontin has argued, this moment is extremely difficult to conceptualise: “Evolution by natural selection occurs when individuals within a species possess a trait that gives them a reproductive or survival advantage within the species that lack the trait. It is an explanation of how a new trait spreads within a species, not how the species may replace other species once a trait has been incorporated. Just because a trait may be of advantage to a species when all of its members possess it, it does not follow that a single individual who first showed the trait in the species would leave more offspring. Thus a species that possesses linguistic competence may indeed take over the earth as a consequence of the technological and managerial capabilities that are the result(s) of language, but in a species lacking linguistic competence, the rudimentary ability to form linguistic elements by a few individuals may be taken as a sign of difference that causes them to be expelled or even killed.”
As far as I can judge, this first moment – and the mortal consequences for the first human+FOXP2 -- remains as problematic for your fable as anybody else’s. While it is not that Lewontin’s doubts necessitate a bar on all speculation, the point is an important hurdle for all such conjecture. Your thoughts?

JU: I couldn’t agree more with Lewontin’s worry. I entirely share it, and this is actually one of the main reasons Massimo and I went into the virus scenario. (The idea of the virus, by the way, must be credited to William Burroughs, although in his colorful style he qualified it as “from outer space” – which I have no evidence for, one way or the other.) In that piece you mention, we didn’t develop that in any way, but in later pieces, and the book we’re now writing, we fully embrace the virtual necessity of the virus scenario to address the Lewontin worry. We want to cut the Gordian Knot: produce a whole sub-species with the relevant characteristics, literally. In short, if you get a population infected by some species specific and tissue specific virus, and this alters their genome in relevant ways, then in a matter of one generation (not eons) you have the population you need. That way they cannot be “expelled or even killed”, or at the very least they could fight back as a unit.
Now, the question here is how it is possible for a virus, or any such “horizontal” transmission of genetic material, to do the trick. But this we know: we have a text-book instance in the adaptive immune system, which is relatively recent (going back to our common ancestor with jaw-endowed fish, like sharks). Apparently we didn’t get this system through normal “vertical” genetic inheritance. It came out as a result of a massive infection which did not kill us (“us” meaning our ancestor with sharks), but made us stronger. This is rare, of course – in this instance because the innate immune system, which we share with our common ancestor with bacteria, would have attempted to prevent it – but it is not impossible in the least. In fact, more and more it seems clear that much of what looks like “junk DNA” has this sort of origin (about 50% of our genome in the human instance, by present count – and growing). So our conjecture is that some insertion of that sort may have given us a crucial element in the emergence of the language faculty, given a sub-species with roughly the properties your question mentioned. (If you wish, chimp-like Theta Theory or whatever else turns out to be the correct “proto-language” step, if that’s even the right notion.)
This, incidentally, is testable. In particular, if something along these lines is biochemically real – not just a metaphor – then one should see its mark in the junk DNA of the organism, in relevant regions. This is the reason I have become more and more skeptical that FOXP2, in particular, is the smoking gun here. I say that because, although to my knowledge nobody has yet examined its non-coding region (the Leipzig group analyzed the 3% or so that codes the protein), judging from the similarities with chimps on the segments examined, this doesn’t look like a “viral-infection” kind of variation, which should be quite massive. FOXP2 is actually one of four genes in the FOXP family, all regulating genes, one actually involved in the immune system (FOXP3, if I recall correctly). Apparently they all “talk” to each other, so they probably, to same extent, act jointly. Which is to say two things: (i) that a viral insertion on any of these genes would arguably have the desired effects, and (ii) nobody has the foggiest idea how it is that these genes, any of them, work, let alone how they do so in combination. I mean, say Ullman is right and somehow these guys (or at any rate FOXP2), does regulate some crucial aspect of operational memory. Precisely how is that done? No clue, and no obvious way to go yet, as it is not clear, to start with, what the hell is operational memory, what sort of “thing” it is, and where it resides, and so on. Let alone how it affects computations of various degrees of complexities within the Chomsky Hierarchy. So for all those reasons Massimo and I like to talk of Mr. X, meaning some gene (or gene sequence) that somehow got infected, as per the logic of the Lewontin worry. Again, in principle this guy could be found, in part by comparing those regions of the human genome with lots of transposon activity (a landmark of “horizontal” transmission) to comparable chunks of the chimp genome, to find discrepancies. This is being done, I believe, although not everyone out there focuses on “junk DNA” – I think in fact few scientists do.
At any rate, we expect Mr. X to also give us another bizarre property of human language: atomism, which is probably at the heart, both, of our amazing ability to have our lexicons explode by age three or earlier, and the capacity to turn something into a symbol, or if you wish, less poetically, a “bag of tricks”. I mean, I could, in Goedel fashion really, take any chunk of the table in front of me and bag all its contents (literally) and think of that as a symbol. Or the contents of half this page, or whatever else you want. That’s a distinctive human ability, to the best of my knowledge, which I think we are now in the position of understanding a topology for. (I happen to think this has to do with the ability we also have to transform Euclidean spaces into non-Euclidean ones, by warping them.) So perhaps Mr. X has to do with that sort of ability, which we got infected for. This is less crazy than it may seem. It all depends on exactly what sort of space codes memories, and I mean space not just in the obvious physical sense, but actually also in the mathematical sense, a set of local relations. Some manifold, if you wish, that somehow allows us to store information (where “us”, again, might be quite an ancestral species); “information bubbles”, as it were. Needless to say, for a story along those lines to be even remotely correct, perhaps the place where the presupposed memory resides is not neural networks (where it is unlikely that matters of direct viral infection, topological warpings of the protein-folding sort, and so on, would happen, at least literally). More likely it should be found, as Randy Gallistel has occasionally remarked, “at the bottom” (to use Richard Feynman’s quip about there being “room” down there…). This is within neurons, not outside them or in their interconnections. I know this does sound crazy, but the truth is that the cell’s guts are a priori much more promising as a model of what the Turing architecture may look like in a “biological computer” than anything else we’ve found so far. I mean, there is a place where “a processor and a memory tape” can be quite literally encountered, right? But anyway, if anything like this is even remotely on track, then FOXP2 was probably recruited by the consequences that Mr. X may have had in our brains, whatever those really were.
That’s what I’d say from my present perspective: that Mr. X somehow helped us evolve the characteristic atomistic bagging of symbols, which probably related to our ability – as children, lost at puberty – to literally “latch” onto new words upon a trivial exposure, of one or two token instances. It’s almost as if the whole network of Universal Grammar were deployed by the child every time a new word comes in at the right context, and then some sort of imprinting forces the virtually permanent storage of that word in that brain. As I say, this ability doesn’t reach into adulthood – try learning a new word with one exposure, the way my four year old does! Anyhow, it is not hard to fathom that this is what may have had a viral origin, and that as a consequence we had a vocabulary explosion that required phrasal combinations, the way Martin Nowak and Partha Niyogi have argued, and then parsing all that wonderful mess would be harder than parsing “proto-language”. At that point I could fathom that the ancestral FOXP2, used by birds for parsing complex songs out of simple strings of sounds, could have come in handy. Nature is full of clever moves like that, for instance when forming eyes several times anew, but with some of the same basic genes, like the Eyeless gene, stuff that forms the proper invagination to capture images, etc. There may be different ways to do this (the lens could be outside the, as it were, “camera obscura” or inside, simple or complex, etc.), but the basic tool-kit is essentially the same.

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AK: In your conjecture, the direct effect of FOXP2 is the birth of morphology, which is metaphorically, a viral intruder. The introduction of morphology in turn triggers an immune syntax response to eliminate it, and over at least a generation, “this sort of response, which forces the system into an antigen-antibody dependency that only a context-sensitive system can model (one where the derivational history can be accessed…) amounts to the fixation of a morphosyntactic parameter.” How would you respond to the question that this conception sees the perfect Language to be the proto-language, and it conceives of NS as the means of eliminating the noise created by FOXP2? If so, why would a competing individual with just FLB not be preferred?

JU: Well, two things. First, that particular scenario was one of the two we outlined in our recent work – the other one, more literal, I just discussed. But in either one, you are quite correct in noting that the role morphology is given is of an “imperfection”. In effect, this is the Viral Theory that Chomsky introduced a few years ago, and people like Howard Lasnik and his collaborators have interestingly explored. So we are using “viral” in two ways here. One is the literal, biological meaning. The other one is a linguistic viral, who I myself introduced when presenting Chomsky’s theory in Rhyme and Reason: the system must expel (a kind of) morphology – and do it fast. I suggested that this looks like what the adaptive immune system does in antigen-antibody interactions. My hope was, and still is, that eventually this metaphor may be reduced, and perhaps even that some of the mysteries of “uninterpretable features” can be understood this way, or at least approximated rationally. For it should be clear that these sorts of features are quite peculiar, particularly in a system that seeks perfection in the interfaces of sound and, especially, meaning. What is “uninterpretability” doing there?
So let’s go to the bottom of this issue: Do I regard that as a problem? This is a deep one, and Chomsky himself, over the years, has gone back and forth on the matter (“uninterpretable features” for him being an imperfection at points, and following from “virtual conceptual necessity” at others). Of course I have no idea which of these opposing views is the correct one, but I really have no conceptual issues with the “imperfection” one. Put it this way: if there were a perfectly perfect universe, with, say, as many protons as anti-protons, the interactions themselves would annihilate the known universe. It is because, apparently, one in I don’t know if it is ten billion interactions is imbalanced in the direction of matter that we have the characteristic asymmetry that gives us “us” (where “us” is now everything, quite literally).
Or take another familiar example, those pretty eddies that Prigogine studied: you have a water flow, augment the velocity of the fluid, drop a pebble, and bingo! Eddies (in well understood conditions, mind you, which eventually lead to turbulence if you continue augmenting the velocity of the fluid). Take away the pebble, the “imperfection”, and there goes your system. So anyway, sometimes imperfections are actually necessary to produce a certain structure in terms of the reaction the system provides. The reaction is perfect, but the imperfection is not part of the system. I don’t see a problem with that approach, and suspect that – while the “total perfection” is a good one for so-called conservative phase-transitions – this “limited imperfection” is a good one for so-called dissipative phase-transitions.
I don’t know, call me old-fashioned – or just old – but I kind of like it that imperfection too has a role in all of this, no matter how small. Again, God knows if any of this is true, but my ego gets a nice lift when I figure that even imperfect things have a prayer. But there we’d go into my politics, and this is probably a good place to end.

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