Saturday, March 26, 2011

On "Educating Eve" by Geoffrey Sampson ***

Sampson's book is essentially a refutation of the concept that humans have a "language instinct," as proffered by Steven Pinker (and his predecessor Noam Chomsky). Such "nativist" theories, as opposed to rationalist theories, are particularly dangerous, Sampson believes, on a philosophical level. And in the end that is Sampson's main focus--whether humans are biologically limited machines (drawing on a set of fixed possibilities, even if large) or creative beings able to make an unpredictable something out of nothing, and whether there is a mind as opposed to just a set of chemical reactions in the nerve center we call the brain. Sampson calls into question materialism, which I have no problem with, but I'm not sure how or why a nonmaterialist centers so much discussion on evolution as such, since a belief in dualism would tend to work against a materialist theory such as evolution (after all, did the nonmaterial "mind" evolve, and if so, how?).

Sampson puts up a very clear and formidable argument against the language instinct concept, refuting nearly every major point brought up by Chomsky and Pinker. I am probably slightly more persuaded to Sampson's point of view than the other, though even Sampson admits that on some level, this is the old nature versus nurture debate, and we all know that the answer to that lies somewhere in between. Sampson sides heavily on the nurture side; Pinker and Chomsky on the nature side. Academics can argue and argue, but the true answer probably does lie in between.

To the idea that language acquisition in young children learn language too quickly for it to be anything but instinct, Sampson asks, "Too quickly compared to what?" It takes a child two years--that's a fairly long portion of the human lifespan. Sampson doesn't bring this up, but I was thinking about walking. It is something we "learn," but it's something all children eventually do. Would the fact that it takes two years (as compared to other animals, who walk immediately) put it in the learning camp? Or would the fact that virtually all children eventually DO walk put it in the instinct camp? Were a child to grow up in a society that crawled everywhere crawl rather than walk? In a sense, these are the kinds of questions linguists are arguing over when debating over how natural or acquired language is. And in a sense, the question isn't completely answerable, without doing something horrendous, like taking a bunch of kids and putting them in a place where they couldn't learn to walk or learn a language from adults. What would happen then?

Well, we know in part the answer with regard to language. The case is demonstrated by one "Genie," who grew up severely neglected and who could not learn grammar once she was found, as a teen, by proper society. But Sampson questions even this, claiming that one child cannot a theory prove, especially when Genie came out of a case that was also an emotional trauma as well. Perhaps, there are other reasons she did not talk, he points out. (He doesn't discuss the Indian some centuries back who did exactly what I noted--locked up a bunch of babies so that they couldn't learn language--to see what happened. The anecdote is in either the Pinker or the Davis book.)

That children do learn language more quickly and easily in general does seem to be true to me, but it is also true of most basic things, Sampson says, since as we get older our minds become less sharp. He points to adults who do manage to master second languages--something the nativists say doesn't happen (at least not without significant accents). On this point, one could probably point to examples of both, it does indeed seem that children do better than most adults at acquiring new tongues. Of course, Sampson's reply would be that children are motivated where adults often aren't--a child thrust into a new setting with friends and society around that speaks the new language is going to find more reason to learn the language than an adult who can fall back on the old language, especially in an immigrant community. To arguments that adults can learn physics while children can't, Sampson would point to the need for undergirding knowledge.

The fact that children aren't motivated also points to why they won't learn something like math or physics with the same degree of speed or in a manner that is seemingly automatic.

Some of Sampson's arguments aren't particularly convincing to me. The least convincing of the counterarguments he actually bothers making is one that involves headless nouns. Here, he pulls out Pinker's claim that a headless compound noun will add the plural -s but a nonheadless one will take on the irregular form. We're talking about words like "mailman" here. "Men" is the plural of "man," and when combined with "mailman" becomes "mailmen" in the plural. But a headless noun doesn't follow that rule. Take a word like "tenderfoot," and make it plural. A tenderfoot is not a type of foot--foot is not the head of the compound. "Tenderfoot" is a whole other word, and thus becomes "tenderfoots" in the plural. Sampson argues that he might well say "tenderfeet" (and so on for the various examples); I find this doubtful. Each example Pinker noted seemed like the more common use to me. So Sampson does some research and finds a case where the irregular does sometimes apply to the plural of a headless noun, and to his American example, I can say that he's entirely correct, since I've used it (though I would likely now just use the singular as the plural in conjunction with other words like it). The word is "Blackfoot," as in the Indian tribe. No one says "Blackfoots" for the plural, but some writers do say "Blackfeet." That said, one also refers to several English, several French, several Cherokee or several Cherokees, so the more common usage would seem to me to be "several Blackfoot."

Another argument that proves to be less effective to me is one that Sampson makes in a couple of cases, where he essentially doesn't argue the point at all. He states that since the nativists bother to argue a given point, it proves that the point isn't self-evident, which means that empiricism must be the cause of the particular phenomenon. In other words, if you argue the point, you must be incorrect, because if you were correct, you wouldn't bother to argue it. This seems to me the old witch trial (float and you're a witch and deserve to die; drown and you probably aren't a witch).

I am actually finding myself more persuaded in some ways by Pinker as I review these points. But there is much to find disingenuous in the nativists cause as well. Sampson notes some disturbing things with regard to the research done on the family who couldn't learn grammar that Pinker talks about. The family lacks a grammar gene supposedly--or does it? Sampson points out that the family, if you actually look closely, by and large tests lower than average on IQ tests; grammar isn't the only problem--it's not isolated. (The family members with grammar problems average 85 in IQ; average population is around 100; then again, Sampson doesn't address the anomaly of at least one that supposedly scored 110 among the problem grammar group.)

Pinker does a lot of pulling sentences around to trace elements as we move from a statement to a question, and uses this part of grammar to prove his instinct point. He also talks of sentences not being about to house phrases inside of a phrases. It was a discussion that interested me little, and Sampson's pointing out that these points seem highly artificial--and not even necessarily true--made sense to me.

But Sampson's main concern is that Pinker and Chomsky are, in his mind, arguing from a Platonic point of view wherein there is limited knowledge, all of which is already known, and that all we are doing is "remembering" it. Taken to this extreme, I wouldn't be able to side with the nativists either. But taken to the other extreme, that we can create something from nothing, I don't think I can side with Sampson either.

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