Fwd: Instinctive speech diminishes us not

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
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    Instinctive speech diminishes us not

    By Chet Raymo, 11/6/2001


    Is language something we are born with, or is it something we learn in
    the first few years of life?

    The answer would appear to be obvious. No babe comes talking out of the
    womb. Every child must learn a vocabulary, learn to match sounds to
    things or concepts.

    Yet there are linguists who say that some aspects of language are inborn.
    The person most often associated with this view is Noam Chomsky, who, in
    a series of brilliant works in the second half of the last century,
    proposed that all human languages share a Universal Grammar that
    corresponds to innate structures of the human brain.

    Chomsky was not the first to hold this view - even Darwin guessed as much
    - but he was the first to present a compelling argument based on common
    features of all languages and on observations of language acquisition by

    No one doubts that genes determine our acquisition of arms and legs, and
    few doubt that our tendency to smile when happy and frown when sad are
    instinctive. But the idea that language is partly programmed by genes
    generates a surprising amount of controversy.

    We just don't like to think that something so fundamentally human as
    speech can be part of our animal nature. Language is something we share
    with the angels, not the beasts - or so we like to think.

    And when you think about it, the idea that a Universal Grammar is inborn
    does seem absurd.

    After all, what we inherit from our parents is an arm's length of DNA,
    tangled on 23 chromosomes. The human genome is a sequence of four
    molecules, dubbed A, T, C and G by biologists. The code of life is
    written with these four chemical ''letters," three billion letters in
    all, comprising about 30,000 genes.

    The DNA spins off proteins, sequences of 22 amino acids that determine
    the shape of the protein. How proteins act in the body is determined by
    their shapes and chemical affinities.

    What Chomsky and his followers ask us to believe is that universal rules
    of grammar somehow reside in the protein structure of the brain. When a
    child says ''Shoe off'' or ''We holded the kitty,'' it is not an act of
    imitation - for surely no adult says such things - but an inborn tendency
    to put words together in certain ways. Chemicals, just chemicals.

    And yet, as strange as Chomsky's idea seems, I wouldn't bet against it.
    The organic molecules of life are amazingly versatile, and some things
    that chemicals obviously encode - such as the unguided flight of New
    England's monarch butterflies to a tiny patch of Mexican forest they have
    never been to before - are scarcely less wonderful than speech.

    Now that the human genome has been sequenced, biologists can start
    looking for the putative language genes, those segments of our DNA that
    are critical to the normal acquisition of language. The first
    identification of a ''language gene'' recently has been reported by
    British researchers. It is called the FOXP2 gene on chromosome 7, and
    seems to play a role in development of the brain circuitry that underlies
    speech. Its disruption leads to an inherited speech impairment.

    Writing in Nature, linguist Steven Pinker stated: ''The discovery of a
    gene implicated in speech and language is among the first fruits of the
    Human Genome Project for the cognitive sciences. Just as the 1990s are
    remembered as the decade of the brain and the dawn of cognitive
    neuroscience, the first decade of the 21st century may well be thought of
    as the decade of the gene and the dawn of cognitive genetics.''

    But, in spite of the identification of a language gene, the idea that
    speech is instinctive will continue to be fiercely resisted. Many people,
    including some scholars and scientists, hold that an essential part of
    our human nature, including the ability to express ideas in speech, is
    independent of our animal bodies, an immaterial ''ghost in the machine''
    that will survive our chemical dissolution. My guess is that scientific
    research in the coming century will offer no support for this ancient

    Instead, we will discover that not only language but also consciousness
    and self-awareness are firmly anchored in our biochemical natures,
    inextricably tied to the circuitry of brains that are woven on the loom
    of DNA. None of this, it seems to me, diminishes our estimation of the
    human self; rather, it vastly expands our appreciation for the complexity
    and beauty of a creature who can say ''We holded the kitty'' or - with
    the 17th-century poet John Donne - ''Death be not proud, though some have
    called thee mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.''

    In another poem, Donne wrote, ''I am a little world made cunningly of
    Elements and an Angelike sprite.'' It now appears that our angelike
    spriteness is made of elements, too.

    Chet Raymo is a professor of physics at Stonehill College and the author
    of several books on science.

    This story ran on page C2 of the Boston Globe on 11/6/2001. Copyright
    2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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