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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  December 2002

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE December 2002

Subject:

Re: Genetic basis of language

From:

Ivan Handler <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 2 Dec 2002 12:05:05 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (97 lines)

Chandler,
thanks for your response.  I think this discussion is taking off in new
directions, but they are interesting ones.

First to the original point (or mine at least), language is supported by
behavior.  One can not produce any language without the movement of
muscles, tendons, bones, vocal chords, etc.  So while behavior does not
contain language as a subset, what we call language is in fact supported
by a subset of behavior though the relationship is complex.  For
example, I am now typing on a keyboard.  The behaviors I am using to
type this paragraph are producing language.  If I do the identical
behaviors in thin air, I will not be producing language, so the
correspondence between behaviors that support language and those that
don't involves subtleties as Chandler mentions.  On the other hand, if
we want to look at how genes enter this picture, it is not necessary to
assume that genes have no role to play.  But the role they play does not
have to be in supporting any specific behavior (such as grammar
formation).  It can easily be to allow for the large range of behaviors
that include the support of language.  Which also means for behaviors
that do not necessarily support language as in my typing example above.

On the other hand, if we want to talk about meaning, we are in a
completely different domain.  Meaning depends upon the social net that
it lives in.  The meaning of the sentences I am typing depends
completely upon the net of people who speak English further restricted
to people who are informed enough about the issues we are discussing to
participate.  While the ability to produce language is a pre-requisite
for participating in this discussion, it is by no means sufficient.  I
like Chandler's game theory analogy.  The style I am using to produce
the language I am producing is also for the most part unique to me.
 Others would presumably produce equivalent meanings in different ways.
 This is another way of saying that any construction which would attempt
to model meaning (which is the "purpose" of language) involves a lot of
very complex elements that go way beyond the physical manipulations that
produce language in its many forms.

To my mind this is another reason to be skeptical about the interaction
of genetics and language.  Language syntax, which is usually pointed to
as the reason that there must be some specific "language genes" is used
to carry meaning in a social net, it in itself has no meaning.  While
there are many commonalties that we can see between different languages
in hindsight, there appears to be no way to really provide any theory
that accounts for syntax in its many forms let alone meaning or
individual linguistic style.  I see no reason that the structural
features that we call syntax are not the side effect of the need to
translate internal mental states into linear sequences of symbols and to
translate those same streams back into internal states.  Having a large
range of behaviors means not only having the ability to express language
but also means having a sufficiently large space of potential mental
formations to allow the behaviors to be actualized.  I think that
Michael and Chandler are pointing to this as the central fact that
allows for the existence of meaning.  To my mind, seeing things in this
way makes it far more likely that language is a purely cultural
construct which came about because of the basic opportunism of life to
take advantage of what is available to it, not due to any genetic
structures forcing humans to communicate in specific ways.

-- Ivan

Chandler Davis wrote:

>Dear SftP people,
>        The disagreement between Ivan Handler & Michael Goldhaber
>masks a profound point.  In old-fashioned game theory (which is
>sufficiently up-to-date to accommodate the point), a play of the
>game would correspond to what handler wants to call a behavior.
>But the player doesn't just have one play of the game, because
>there are inputs from the other player --or also, of course, in
>more realistic models, inputs from the environment.  Accordingly,
>we speak of a player having a strategy: that's a rule leading to
>a play in each of the possible circumstances.  Though it's not
>emphasized in a first exposition of the idea, we note that no
>real player lugs around a handbook of what-to-do-in-all-
>circumstances; but there is some reaction pattern; maybe we ought
>to say "reaction pattern" where we say "strategy".
>        In the same way, a language is not a bunch of utterances,
>but a bunch of potential utterances.  And, though it's not
>emphasized in the textbook I last taught this from, a reaction
>pattern: each speaker has a way of producing, in a given case, an
>utterance --a different rule for a different speaker.  I don't
>agree with Goldhaber that proto-language of apes or dogs offers
>no material for potential analysis in linguistics.  The essential
>point is that, even if our analysis does not introduce an elusive
>concept of "meaning" (probably it should, but some might try to
>duck it), it must recognize that the space of speakers'
>strategies (in the game-theoretic sense) is enormously bigger and
>differently structured than the space of utterances.
>                                Chandler Davis
>
>
>

--
Ivan Handler
Networking for Democracy
[log in to unmask]

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