Chomsky - different perspective

Denis Donovan dmdonvan at
Sun Nov 7 14:29:42 UTC 2010

Anyone still interested in the discussion of 
whether language is a uniquely capacity and 
whether other species possess might want to read 
a paper in press by Gergely Csibra and Gy├Ârgy 
Gergely. The paper seems quite relevant to the 
current Hauser controversy as well.

I would be most interested in reactions to Csibra 
and Gergely's thesis since it would appear to 
made the species divide even wider. Similarities 
across species are fascinating but they don't 
always have the same implications--which is why 
there is no need to deny similarities across 
species in order to appreciate the differences. 
After all, nearly thirty years ago Patricia Kuhl 
and J. D. Miller demonstrated that chinchillas 
perceive artificial stimuli along the da-ta 
continuum just as categorically as do humans. In 
fact, Kuhl and Miller found that when they 
plotted a graph of chinchilla da-ta 
discrimination the results were nearly identical 
to those of an English speaker.

Here's a taste of what the  Csibra and Gergely paper offers.

Csibra, G. and G. r. Gergely (in press). "Natural 
pedagogy as evolutionary adaptation." 
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 
B: . 


We propose that the cognitive mechanisms that 
enable the transmission of cultural knowledge by 
communication between individuals constitute a 
system of 'natural pedagogy' in humans, and 
represent an evolutionary adaptation along the 
hominin lineage. We discuss three kinds of 
arguments that support this hypothesis. First, 
natural pedagogy is likely to be human-specific: 
while social learning and communication are both 
widespread in non-human animals, we know of no 
example of social learning by communication in 
any other species apart from humans. Second, 
natural pedagogy is universal: despite the huge 
variability in child-rearing practices, all human 
cultures rely on communication to transmit to 
novices a variety of different types of cultural 
knowledge, including information about artefact 
kinds, conventional behaviours, arbitrary 
referential symbols, cognitively opaque skills, 
and know-how embedded in means-end actions. 
Third, the data available on early hominin 
technological culture are more compatible with 
the assumption that natural pedagogy was an 
independently selected adaptive cognitive system 
than considering it as a by-product of some other 
human-specific adaptation, such as language. By 
providing a qualitatively new type of social 
learning mechanism, natural pedagogy is not only 
the product but also one of the sources of the 
rich cultural heritage of our species.

From the text:

During recent years, we have documented that 
human infants and children possess specialized 
cognitive mechanisms that allow them to be at the 
receptive side of such cultural transmission. By 
being sensitive to ostensive signals (such as 
direct eye-contact, infant-directed speech, or 
contingent reactivity), infants are prepared to 
identify and interpret others' actions as 
communicative acts that are specifically 
addressed to them [2,3]. They also display 
interpretive biases that suggest that they expect 
to learn generic and shared knowledge from such 
communicative acts. For example, infants expect 
that ostensive signals will be followed by 
referential signals [4], pay preferential 
attention to generalizable kind-relevant features 
of objects that are referentially identified by 
demonstrative communicative acts addressed to 
them [5,6], learn causally opaque means actions 
from communicative demonstrations [7], and assume 
that communicated valence information about 
objects (i.e., whether they are evaluated 
positively or negatively) is shared by others 
[8]. These and other findings suggest that 
preverbal human infants are prepared to receive 
culturally relevant knowledge from benevolent 
adults who are, in turn, spontaneously inclined 
to provide it.

This paper advances the hypothesis that the 
cognitive systems that make natural pedagogy 
possible reflect an evolutionary adaptation in 
the hominin lineage. This account can be 
contrasted with other explanations, according to 
which this type of social learning is not 
human-specific, or is the result of cultural 
rather than cognitive (hence biological) 
evolution and therefore not universal across 
human cultures, or is a by-product of some other 
basic adaptation. We think that empirical and 
theoretical arguments can be advanced against 
these proposals. (pp. 4-5)

Denis M. Donovan, M.D., M.Ed., F.A.P.S.
Director, EOCT Institute

Medical Director, 1983 - 2006
The Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry
St. Petersburg, Florida

P.O Box 47576
St. Petersburg, FL 33743-7576
DenisDonovan at

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