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Noam Chomsky, Darwinism, and linguistics

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Some have wondered whether Noam Chomsky was a friend to Darwinism. A friend in linguistics kindly writes,

Chomsky made many anti-Darwinian comments, as in his “Language and Mind,” and his critique of B. F. Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” made quite an impact. Chomsky also collaborated with Marcel-Paul Schützenberger who I believe was anti-Darwinian. But he’s distanced himself from ID-his anti-ID screed was noted.

[ … ]

Chomsky started out positive, as with his demand for explicitness and his model of transformational grammar, but his regime was dictatorial, he would take ideas and rename them never acknowledging their source, and so eventually he fell out of favor in linguistics. In linguistic circles it is said that his prestige issued from his radical politics whereas outside the field one hears that his authority flows from his greatness in linguistics. I recommend Levine and Postal’s “A Corrupted Linguistics” in the “Anti-Chomsky Reader” ed. by Collier and Horowitz.

Nevertheless ID writers can still use Chomsky’s insight-they can comb his writings for anti-Darwin gems-even if they call it “quote mining”. Chomsky knew early on that one could not do linguistics unless he conceded our free will and repudiated Skinner’s stimulus-response behaviorism.

Confronting today’s trendy Darwinist tax mooches, Chomsky may have felt he had to bow down and worship Darwin. I have run into many examples of the kind myself.

In any event, I discovered for myself that there is an enormous difference between words and concepts, a difference large enough to sink materialist theories of the mind. How?

Recently, I was helping rehab a very elderly person, and discovered that he always more or less knew things, even though – because his short term memory was damaged due to various health problems – he did not know the words for them. Family members visited him, and helped him re-establish key short term memories.

My major concern now is the people who may be dumped off, unvisited, in the Old Folks. How many of their problems are due to unalleviable brain disorders, as opposed to simple neglect?

If you leave a person alone, except for indifferent paid staff, with no interesting experiences or activities, many restrictions, and confusing floor plans – even a genius might suffer a loss of cognition.

So as long as we’re on the subject—what about the original Chomskian claims? Must one reject Skinnerian behaviorism and assume free will in order to study syntax? Is there a level of universal syntax with no necessary connection to meaning or function? And, as the master would now have it, is recursion* the only aspect of human language that is uniquely human? *Recursion manifests itself, for example, in relative clauses (the person who told me), complement clauses (I want Adam to sing), and other subordinate clauses. Rude
It is perfectly safe to attribute this development [of innate language structures] to "natural selection", so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena. [Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind, 1972, p. 97] In studying the evolution of mind, we cannot guess to what extent there are physically possible alternatives to, say, transformational generative grammar, for an organism meeting certain other physical conditions characteristic of humans. Conceivably, there are none -- or very few -- in which case talk about the evolution of the language capacity is beside the point. [Chomsky 1972 p. 98] It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected. In the case of such systems as language or wings it is not even easy to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them. A rudimentary wing, for example, is not "useful" for motion but is more of an impediment. [Noam Chomsky Language and Problems of Knowledge: the Managua Lectures 1988 p 167] It may be that at some remote period a mutation took place that gave rise to the property of discrete infinity, perhaps for reasons that have to do with the biology of cells, to be explained in terms of properties of physical mechanisms, now unknown. . . . Quite possibly other aspects of its evolutionary development again reflect the operation of physical laws applying to a brain of a certain degree of complexity. [Chomsky 1988, p. 170]
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002134.html Petrushka
F. Marmotta, For anti-Darwin quotes try Chomsky’s Language and Mind, and for a hint as to why he might backtrack, you might start here. Rude
Zephyr, Thanks for the valuable commentary. Noam Chomsky is an embarrassment, for as you say, "If anything proves definitively the ethical and knowledge bankruptcy of the 'intellectual' elite in what passes for Western civilization, it is the Chomsky cult. Explains a lot." I understand Chomsky is quoted more than any other mortal. Other than the man's initial contribution to linguistics (rebutting Skinner and pushing explicitness), he has mostly poisoned the field of his supposed expertise---as Levine and Postal ("A Corrupted Linguistics") and Denyse's friend suggest. Whereas one wouldn't quote Chomsky as an authority, one might want to show how academe's famed figure---perhaps second only to Darwin himself---was critical of Darwin before he came out for him. Rude
Can someone provide an anti-darwinian quote or two from Chomsky? I see a claim, but the evidence isn't presented. fmarotta
zephyr, I hold no brief for Chomsky, and was simply reporting what a friend said about his views on Darwinism. I am quite sure that my friend would reject all Chomsky's opinions, as stated above. (Or he would not be a friend for long. That much I know is true.) How be this: If the reports you cite are correct, Chomsky apologized for mass murderers, but he did make valuable contributions to linguistics, and was only a Darwinist under threat. This kind of thing can happen. O'Leary
Who cares what Chomsky has to say about anything under the sun? I wouldn't want him on my side for anything. If Chomsky came out as a full-on ID supporter, it wouldn't be something I would boast about. It would on the contrary make me wince. About thirty years ago Chomsky was definitively exposed for his buddy buddy associations with Holocaust Denying fascists in France - Robert Faurisson, Pierre Guillaume and Serge Thion. Faurissson is one of the most well known Holocaust Deniers in France (possibly the most well-known), kind of a French David Irving. Faurisson has called the Holocaust a myth, a Jewish racket to extort money from Germany and more delusional anti-Semitic fare of the most despicable kind ie powerful Jewish conspiracies, Jews bent on world domination/Protocols of Zion blather - standard nazi fare in other words. Chomsky wrote an approving preface to one of Faurisson's books in which Faurisson made very clear his odious beliefs on the Holocaust. In Chomsky's polite preface to the book, Chomsky wrote that he saw Faurisson as a "relatively apolitical liberal of some sort". Chomsky wrote to historian Bill Rubinstein justifying his associations with Faurisson: "I SEE NO ANTI-SEMITIC IMPLICATIONS IN DENIAL OF THE EXISTENCE OF GAS CHAMBERS, OR EVEN DENIAL OF THE HOLOCAUST... . I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson's work ...". This was back in the early 80's. This has effectively been exposed by Werner Cohn in his essay, 'Partners in Hate: Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers' (available on the web). Also see the writings of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, W Rubinstein, Oliver Kamm, Edward Alexander, Nadine Fresco and Rachel Neuwirth in this regard. Once Chomsky was exposed on all this - the Faurisson affair, he and his fawning cult have simply lied about all if it, pretending the kerfluffle was about defending Faurisson's right to freedom of speech, when freedom of speech had nothing to do with it. Chomsky and his defenders continue to lie about the whole Faurisson affair as a freedom of speech issue. The same with Chomsky's disgraceful whitewashing of the mass murdering crimes of the Khmer Rouge in the late 70's, in which he dismissed the charges from the survivors of the killing fields of Cambodia as grossly exaggerated and American state propaganda. See his essay published in the Nation here, 'Discretion at fourth hand'. Chomsky then proceeded to lie about this (ie what he actually wrote) when he was rightly excoriated for his denial of the Khmer Rouge holocaust. His red herring defences here had nothing to do with the contents of his essay on the Khmer Rouge, since of course he had egg on his face. People can look all this up if they are interested. He also denied the massacre at Srebinicia by the Serbs during the Yugoslav civil war, defending a so-called scholar Diana Johnstone's "work" on the subject here - and then when called out on it, proceeded to lie and repeat his standard MO - he was just defending Johnstone's freedom of speech, when he wasn't. He explicity endorsed her views, that the Srebinicia massacre was not a massacre at all, it was largely anti-Serb and pro-NATO propaganda and the like. Chomsky's comments on 9-11: the 9-11 terror attack was no more morally reprehensible than Clinton's missile strike on a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan after the US embassy African bombings, to Chomsky they were morally equivalent. He was thoroughly exposed on this front, for his disgraceful moral relativism, by Christopher Hitchens (who I normally don't care for, but on this front the Hitch hits the nail on the head) and one Leo Casey. Chomsky then proceeded to hem and haw and distort and lie about the meaning of his remarks here (which are all on record) when called out on it by an interviewer from Salon. He also said this re 9/11: “for the first time in history the victims are returning the blow to the motherland.” (La Jornada, Mexico, September 15, 2001) Chomsky very recently came out in explicit support for Hezbollah's right to rearm itself. Osama bin Laden himself has praised Chomsky's political writings in one of his speeches. Chomsky's books are sold at neo-Nazi rallies and glowingly promoted by neo-Nazi and jihadist websites like RadioIslam (uh yeah and the radical Left like Counterpunch, indymedia sites and the like, there you go..). Chomsky and the Chomsky cult are simply frightening, delusional, dumb - built on overarching mendacity and hate and mindlessness. Chomsky represents the very worst of the radical Left - moral relativism, knee-jerk anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, apologetics for Muslim extremism (at the least) and pervasive mendacity. In a sane world an uh intellectual and "Jew" who says things like "I see no anti-Semitic Implications in Denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the Holocaust" would not be taken seriously at all. Instead he is the darling of student youth on Western university campuses and many of their profs, Osama and jihadists everywhere, as well as neo-Nazis. A neo-Nazi press, NoonTide Press has even published much of his 'oeuvre'. Some pithy quotes of Chomsky's.. On Mao's China: “But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable... a good deal of the collectivization and communization was really based on mass participation and took place after a level of understanding had been reached in the peasantry...” (Alexander Klein, ed., Dissent, Power and Confrontation [McGraw-Hill, 1971], pp. 117-8) Pol Pot’s Cambodia: “the evacuation of Phnom Penh, widely denounced at the time and since for its undoubted brutality, may actually have saved many lives. It is striking that the crucial facts rarely appear in the chorus of condemnations.” (After the Cataclysm [South End Press, 1979], p. 160) There is so so so much more along these lines... To Denyse - if you mention Chomsky on the net, in blog postings (ie at this blog in your case), there are Chomsky cultists floating around searching his name on google alerts ready to defend the master - America's and even the world's 'top intellectual' according to the NY Times and the UK based Prospect Magazine among others - from any and every heretical charge, no matter how irrationally and incoherently. They never actually address the contents of any criticisms directed Chomsky's way from those of us not enamoured of America's dumbest intellectual (as Stefan Kanker rightly put it), because they can't. If anything proves definitively the ethical and knowledge bankruptcy of the "intellectual" elite in what passes for Western civilization, it is the Chomsky cult. Explains a lot. One may say this is neither here nor there as far as his linguistic theories go, the evolution of language and related..well okaaay. But my point is that Chomsky is so odious that one simply doesn't care at all, that is if one has any moral compass at all AND a real meaty and unvarnished knowledge of the real Chomsky (that you won't read about in the NY Times) and his twisted 'character'. zephyr
Petrushka: That is an amazing feat of automatic translation, especially going through two languages and returning to the original. I heard an explanation just a few days ago of the statistical approach to translation and how earily effective it is, but hadn't seen a demonstration of it. SCheesman
D.O'Leary: "My point is that much human language is allusive in this way, and I doubt some machine can handle that. You would really need to be there, and be a thinking human being, to pick it up." Sohot! A micahne (taht is, a parrogm) cna't eevn pcik up on tihs ... uselns it has been premporgramed to do so. Ilion
Someone above quotes Google translator: "Many people today would be better – life and non-disabled – if they asked their business this way. I am not saying that to boast. Only sorrow and anger for the problems that seem – at least for me – to be resolved easily. This is not the consequence of words, but how the words and the question of the order – that is to transfer them actually." [From Denyse: If anyone thinks this is a good translation, and they live in Canada, I offer good news: We offer free English as a Second Language (ESL) courses for new immigrants and refugees. I gladly pay taxes for that. If you do not understand the underlying culture, Google Trans will not help you at all. You cannot understand words apart from culture. If running such an ESL course, I would, at one point, bus my students up Highway 400 to the TransCanada. We would stop at Science North. Born in the dreaded Palliser Triangle in Saskatchewan, I would be inclined to take them out to the great West, rather than the great East. Not a prejudice. Rather, it is easy to run into people there who are - in some degree - related to me or know me, and would welcome them. It often happens accidentally, never mind when I arrange it. But language can never be divorced from culture, by a machine.] O'Leary
O'Leary: I had Google translate your post into French, then from French to German, then from German back to English. Some of it is lost or garbled, but it is certainly better than no translation at all. If you compare the competence of this machine translation to what was available five years ago, the advance is simply amazing.
Petrushka, to be honest, I never much with Google translator for the treatment of English. There is so little human-Ness. English is not - in itself - important - it is the Magna Carta, the English common law, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness [U.S.] and peace, order and good government, and that Canada is based on the principles of the primacy of God and established the rule of law [Germany]) is important. We recall that, if nothing else. Many people today would be better - life and non-disabled - if they asked their business this way. I am not saying that to boast. Only sorrow and anger for the problems that seem - at least for me - to be resolved easily. This is not the consequence of words, but how the words and the question of the order - that is to transfer them actually.
Quoting Chomsky? I think there's plenty of non-Socialists we can quote in support of ID without resorting to this. Gods iPod
Petrushka, honestly, I have never found the Google translator much use in dealing with English. It misses so much human-ness. English is not - in itself - important - it is Magna Carta, English Common Law, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness [American], and peace, order and good government and that Canada is founded on the principles of the supremacy of God and the rule of law [Canadian]) that is important. We would want to be remembered for that, if for nothing else. Lots of people would be better off today - alive and non-maimed - if they directed their affairs that way. I don't say that to boast. Only in sorrow and anger for problems that appear - to me, at least - to be easily solved. It is not the sequence of words, but how the words and the sequence matter - the meaning they really convey. Laff for the day: Here are some phrases of the sort I mean: 1. "I wouldn't do that, if I were you." (spoken by a foreman to a rookie employee, learning to handle heavy equipment). It means that the rookie might lose an arm. The rookie gets the picture quickly. How is Google translator going to translate that low growl from the dark of the dawn? 2. "She might not be the best person for the job." A polite way of saying: "She is a mobile disaster for any employer, but might grieve to 'human rights' if she is fired." In many cultures, we avoid saying exactly what we mean because we do not wish to give offence or create panic - let alone attract increasingly proliferating charges, fronted by bureaucracies. I would be interested to learn if Google Translator picks up local cultural codes. My point is that much human language is allusive in this way, and I doubt some machine can handle that. You would really need to be there, and be a thinking human being, to pick it up. O'Leary
He strikes me as a fiercely independent thinker.
My reading of Chomsky, starting in 1970, leads me to believe he rejected evolution pretty much for the same reason that ID proponents reject evolution. When asked about this, he tended to waffle. I guess he was embarrassed, because it seemed to align him with a politics he hated. Modern machine translation, such as the Google translator, pretty much bypass Chomsky's ideas in favor of a statistical approach. That seems to be a euphemism for a learning model rather than one based on rules of grammar. Basically the Google translator doesn't attempt to understand language. It simply knows what words are most likely to follow each other. Sounds stupid on paper, but in practice it has virtually replaced its competitors. Petrushka
It kind of warms my heart to think of ID snuggled up to Chomsky. Petrushka
Fiercely independent? Mmm maybe. But I have been stunned at the number of people who know perfectly well that Darwinism is false who have offered incense at his altar. O'Leary
Chomsky may have felt he had to bow down and worship Darwin. I doubt that Chomsky would feel the need to bow down and worship anyone. He strikes me as a fiercely independent thinker. NormO

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