Elizabeth Bates bates at CRL.UCSD.EDU
Fri Apr 25 14:56:44 UTC 1997

I think we all agree that humans have language because we are human.
Dogs don't have language because they are dogs.  The debate is not
about innateness in some general sense, but about DOMAIN SPECIFICITY,
that is, do we have language because we have evolved some kind of
domain-specific language acquisition device (which might, as some
linguists have proposed, consist in innate linguistic knowledge,
wired right into the brain)?  Or do we have language because of
one or many characteristics that distinguish the human brain  from
the brains of other mammals, even other primates.  Candidates
for such characteristics include (although this is certainly not
exhaustive) massive differences in size, striking differences
in allometry (the proportion of various regions to one another),
degree of direct cortical control over the articulators, and
so on. These various adaptations (which are quantitative, not
qualitative) appear to have had some interesting computational
consequences, i.e. there are classes of problems we can solve
and kinds of learning we can do that are not available to
other species.  Hence these QUANTITATIVE changes in brain have
brought about QUALITATIVE changes in possible outcomes.  On
this second scenario, we get some domain-specific results
"for free", and do not need to postulate
evolution of domain-specific mechanisms.  All the parts of the
brain that "do" language also "do" other kinds of work, and
if the regions of the brain that usually "do" language are
destroyed in infancy, it seems that a number of alternative
brain plans are possible, and emerge in response to the language
problem.  So the parts of the brain that execute language (and
there are a lot of them that keep popping up in neural imaging
studies these days) are flexible, and they haven't "given up their
day jobs", i.e. they are not specific to language and they continue
to do non-linguistic forms of processing.

Obviously I favor the second, domain-general scenario, because
I think the evidence is strongly in its favor, especially the
neurobiological evidence.  However, I would never want to argue
that we have the same brains and the same processing/learning
abilities of dogs!  One can reject the strong, domain-specific
claims about innateness without being forced to the silly conclusion
that nothing is innate.  -liz bates

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