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William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton, Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the human brain (MIT Press, 2000), index and chapter 1. See also

copyright ©2000 by William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton
ISBN 0-262-03273-2    QP399.C35 2000     612.8'2-dc21
Available from or MIT Press.

There is a Spanish translation from Editorial Gedisa of Barcelona.

Webbed Reprint Collection
This 'tree' is really a pyramidal neuron of cerebral cortex.  The axon exiting at bottom goes long distances, eventually splitting up into 10,000 small branchlets to make synapses with other brain cells.
William H. Calvin

University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA

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Lingua ex Machina

Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky
with the Human Brain

William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton

Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, the intellectual spectator sport of the last four decades, implies an innate brain circuitry for syntax. That opens up an evolutionary can of worms, suggesting a large step up to human-level language abilities – one without the useful-in-themselves intermediate steps usually associated with Darwinian gradualism. That macromutations were suggested is only one example of the deus ex machina quality of most attempts to explain the origins of language.

A proper lingua ex machina would be a language machine capable of nesting phrases and clauses inside one another, complete with evolutionary pedigree. Such circuitry for structured thought might also facilitate creative shaping up of quality (figuring out what to do with the leftovers in the refrigerator), contingency planning, procedural games, logic, and even music. And enhancing structured thought might give intelligence a big boost. Solve the cerebral circuitry for syntax, and you might solve them all.

The authors offer three ways for getting from ape behaviors to syntax. They focus on the transition from simple word association in short sentences (protolanguage) to longer recursively structured sentences (requiring syntax).

They are after invention via sidesteps (Darwinian conversions of function), not straight-line gradual improvements. "We hope to see the brain finally getting its act together because of one important improvement that, together with what’s already in place, confers an emergent property, syntax. The committee can finally do something that all the separate parts couldn’t. It might be like adding a capstone to an arch, which permits the other stones to support themselves without scaffolding – as a committee, they can defy gravity. Our task as scientists is, in part, to imagine the scaffolding that could have initially put such a stable structure in place."

Two of their pre-syntax candidates, carryover from reciprocal altruism’s cognitive categories and ballistic movement’s planning circuits, are compatible with slow language improvement over a few million years. Their third, corticocortical coherence, should have a threshold. Once crossed, structured thought and talk would have become far more fluent – and thus a capstone candidate for what triggered the flowering of art and technology seen late in hominid evolution, after brain size itself had stopped growing.

William H. Calvin is a theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, whose book The Cerebral Code demonstrated how a Darwinian quality-improvement process could operate in cerebral cortex on the seconds-to-minutes time scale of thought and action.

Derek Bickerton is a linguist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, author of Language and Species and Language and Human Behavior, whose work showing how children convert a pidgin into a creole is part of the evidence for an innate predisposition to particular grammars.

A Bradford Book
Cover art and design by Mark Meyer
Author photograph by Katherine Graubard


"This proposal is an intellectual tour de force; few other scholars possess the knowledge and confidence to integrate neuroscience, linguistics and evolution so skillfully.... Witty, opinionated and deeply clever, a wonderful introduction to one of the most controversial issues in the study of the mind."

– Paul Bloom, Yale University, in the New York Times Book Review (16 April 2000)

ON LANGUAGE BY WILLIAM SAFIRE (New York Times Magazine, 9 July 2000)
Language books to schlep along on vacation.

For linguistic heavy hitters, M.I.T. Press offers "Lingua ex Machina," subtitled "Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain," a cross-discipline debate by the neurophysiologist William Calvin and the linguist Derek Bickerton ($26.95). They try to (not try and) resolve "the apparent paradox that has hag-ridden the human sciences for centuries: that we were produced by the same forces as other species, yet behave so differently from other species." Great archaic word, hag-ridden; means "afflicted by nightmares. "For linguistic heavy hitters, M.I.T. Press offers "Lingua ex Machina," subtitled "Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain," a cross-discipline debate by the neurophysiologist William Calvin and the linguist Derek Bickerton ($26.95). They try to (not try and) resolve "the apparent paradox that has hag-ridden the human sciences for centuries: that we were produced by the same forces as other species, yet behave so differently from other species." Great archaic word, hag-ridden; means "afflicted by nightmares."

Science (14 July 2000)
NEUROSCIENCE:  How the Brain Made Language -- A review by Michael T. Ullman

[I]n recent decades a number of parallel revolutions have shed light on many aspects of the what, how, and why of language. Now William Calvin, a jack of many scientific trades including neurophysiology and evolutionary theory, and Derek Bickerton, a linguist with expertise on the emergence of new languages, have gathered numerous strands of these largely independent enterprises. They have woven them together to create a complex tapestry that reflects the actual interdependence of the different levels of language study.... Lingua ex Machina is an ambitious book. The integration of the different strands of language study is a difficult but necessary enterprise, and the authors are to be congratulated for tackling it. By strengthening each side of their theoretical edifice with support from other areas of study, they succeed in building an intriguing and largely coherent story. Their account is also fun and interesting to read. The dialogue between the authors--structured as a correspondence at an Italian villa cum conference center where they spent an engaging month of bocce ball, walks in the countryside, scrumptious dinners, and conversations with literati--enlivens the subject matter. Calvin and Bickerton offer a plethora of engaging anecdotes, quotes, and informational tidbits from many different disciplines. They provide an appendix to explain linguistic theory, a clear glossary, and (in keeping with the times) even a web address for additional information. Both authors are original thinkers, and they present many provocative ideas in addition to their main hypotheses.... Calvin and Bickerton have given us an ambitious, intellectually exciting, and deeply stimulating discourse that brings together the what, how, and why of language.


The back cover:

In a lively back-and-forth across disciplines, Calvin and Bickerton wrestle language to the mat in a way no single author could. Why did language evolve, and what kind of existing blueprints in the brain did it enlist? Rather than depicting language as a stand-alone instinct, the authors see it as the culmination of many different developments, some of which started long before our species appeared on the planet, such as tit-for-tat cooperation. The result is a delightful introduction to the language origins debate – Chomsky's agnosticism on the matter notwithstanding – by two veteran debaters.

– Frans de Waal, Emory University, author of Good Natured and Chimpanzee Politics.

How does language arise, in the species and in the individual, from other capacities? How did the right neurobiology evolve? How, in children, do linguistic systems form? Why do they take so long? In Lingua ex machina, Calvin and Bickerton, in a refreshing spirit of courage and wonder, advance directly and insightfully into the amazing details of the hardest questions.

– Mark Turner, University of Maryland, and author of The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language.

Lingua ex Machina is the result of a fascinating and unlikely collaboration between two highly original thinkers - a linguist and a theoretical neurophysiologist - who have spent their careers considering the evolution of the human mind from these very different perspectives. In their efforts to find common ground, despite many differences of opinion, they converge on a number of surprisingly fresh hypotheses: from a kind of phase shift in cortical signal processing brought on by the enlargement of human brains to an internalized social instinct turned sentence template. Whether or not you find these proposals credible, if you are at all interested in the origins of language and intelligence you will not want to miss listening in on this lively brainstorming session."

– Terrence W. Deacon, Boston University, author of The Symbolic Species.


1. The Villa Serbelloni (WHC)

2. What Are Words? (DB)

3. Why Putting Words Together Isn’t Easy (DB)

4. Bigger than a Word, Smaller than a Sentence (DB)

5. Language in the Brain (WHC)

6. How Are Memories Stored? (WHC)

7. Hexagonal Mosaics and Darwin Machines (WHC)

8. A Common Code: The Brain's "Esperanto" Problem (WHC)

9. Protolanguage Emerging (DB)

10. Reciprocal Altruism as the Predecessor of Argument Structure (DB)

11. Role Links for Words (DB)

12. The Word Tree as a Secondary Use of Throwing’s Segmented Movement Planner (WHC)

13. Corticocortical Coherence Promotes a Many-Voiced Symphonic Sentence (WHC)

14. The Pump and the Slingshot (WHC)

15. Darwin and Chomsky Together at Last (DB)

Linguistics Appendix
About the Authors

Web supplement:  Some photographs of Bellagio.

This is the final edit of the forthcoming book, exported from Wordperfect 9.0 into FrontPage 2000; its formatting closely follows the finished book, at least as seen in IE5 on a PC.

CORRECTIONS to the printed book:

chapter 7, "in 1665 by the Dutch physicist Christian Huygens...."

p. 136, ln. 5 from bottom: "What" vice "That" (Thanks to Dale Lichtblau)

p. 143, ln. 6, 2nd para.: "come" vice "came" (Thanks to Dale Lichtblau)

p. 261 Missing reference at "vi":  Russ Rymer, "Annals of Science: A Silent Childhood-I," New Yorker (13 April 1992), p.48.


William H. Calvin is a theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He is the author of nine books, mostly about brains and evolution; his research on neocortical circuits, The Cerebral Code, published in 1996 by MIT Press is part of a long-term interest in how Darwinian processes in the brain can operate in mere seconds to shape up novel plans, such as sentences to speak aloud. He is also the author of The Atlantic Monthly's cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop," which will become a book about abrupt climate change and the role it played in human evolution. His web pages start at

Derek Bickerton is Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawai'i in Honolulu. He is the author of Roots of Language, Language and Species, and Language and Human Behavior. His research on how children exposed to pidgins convert them into creoles provides one of the key lines of evidence for universal grammar. He has studied the evolution of language for two decades and one of his major concerns is to resolve the apparent conflict between formal, nativist accounts of universal grammar and the evidence from paleoanthropology and neurology.

William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton, Lingua ex Machina (MIT Press, 2000). or direct from MIT Press.

Other books by the authors

Derek Bickerton, Language and Species  
(University of Chicago Press, 1990).
Derek Bickerton, Language and Human Behavior
 (University of Washington Press, 1995).
William H. Calvin
, The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind
(MIT Press, 1996). or direct from MIT Press.
William H. Calvin
, How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now
(Science Masters, BasicBooks, 1996).
William H. Calvin and George A. Ojemann, Conversations with Neil’s Brain: The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Addison-Wesley, 1994).

Linguistics is arguably the most hotly contested property in the academic realm. It is soaked with the blood of poets, theologians, philosophers, philologists, psychologists, biologists, and neurologists, along with whatever blood can be got out of grammarians.

Russ Rymer in The New Yorker, 1992


That the ultimate answer in a long-lasting controversy combines elements of the two opposing camps is typical in biology. Opponents are like the proverbial blind men touching different parts of an elephant. They have part of the truth, but they make erroneous extrapolations from these partial truths. The final answer is achieved by eliminating the errors and combining the valid portions of the various opposing theories.

–Ernst Mayr, This is Biology, 1997

copyright ©2000 by 
William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton



The Villa Serbelloni
Bellagio, Italy





People at dinner last night kept asking me what Chomsky’s innate grammar is all about.  Where is this language macro­mutation in the brain, and all that?

Wrong question, of course, but it’s a sure sign they’ve gotten used to the amazing view of Lake Como from the terrace where we eat at the Villa Serbelloni, on a long table with several dozen interesting people.  You’ll see when you arrive.  If there’s a clear evening before I get back from Milan, remember to watch for the last of the sunset over the Dolomites.

Provided, of course, the other “residents” give you a chance. Several confessed to reading up on our subject, in anticipation of our arrival for a month of writing about the brain and language.  It forcefully reminded me that Chomsky’s innateness has been the intellectual spectator sport of the last four decades.  I tried to explain to them that some gene-specified aspect was unsurprising to a biologist – that you and I hoped to flesh it out with appropriate anthropology and neuro­science in a way that Chomsky wasn’t particularly interested in doing, and to provide some evolutionary proposals that wouldn’t rely on macro­mutations and the like.

I also tried to explain your notion of proto­language put forth in Language and Species, with a good supply of words but with sentence length limited to only a few words by the lack of structural elements such as phrases and clauses.  Protolanguage has no way of saying who did what to whom, not without an enormous effort.  I emphasized that there was a large gulf between protolanguage and our full-fledged syntax without any obvious intermediate states, quite a jump from my pidgin Italian to being able to nest four verbs in saying, “I think I saw him leave to go home.”

It’s going to be challenging for us to try and describe how the gulf was first bridged by evolutionary processes.  I hope we can avoid the deus ex machina quality of some of the previous attempts to explain the origins of language ability, the ones that finally seize upon a slender, unsupported reed as the way out of the muddied morass – the equivalent of that “god machine” the ancient Greek playwrights wheeled in to solve thorny plot problems.  Yet it is a language machine we’re searching for, one capable of those elaborate maneuvers seen in language with syntax (you don't have to think about it; indeed, you can't turn language recognition off), but conforming to some design constraints imposed by the neurobiology (what it’s possible to do with mere neural circuits) and the evolutionary history (up from apelike communication and mental powers in only five million years, each stage boot­strapping the next).


But, in a broader view, language is just our best example of the whole range of higher intellectual functions.  Our lingua ex machina probably needs to be able to handle creative shaping up of quality (for instance, figuring out what to do with the leftovers in the refrigerator), long-range planning, procedural games, and even music.  Solve the structural basis for one, and you might solve them all.

I think that the linguists’ conceit, that syntax is what thought is all about (and that without syntax, you couldn’t think with any depth or originality), reflects a useful strategy for brain researchers, simply because syntax provides a lot of useful constraints on theorizing.  But other parts of higher intellectual function might be even more useful in that regard.  Want to lay any bets that we would discover more about higher intellectual function via studying music in the brain?  Yes, music seems likely to be a spare-time use of the neural machinery evolved for thought and language – but we might be able to separate the issues of vocabulary and structuring better in music, where you have structure without predication, as the Israeli musicologist Ruth Katz reminded me at dinner!  What’s unmusical in any culture might tell us what the neurons can’t do.

Intelligence (in our sense of versatility in dealing with novel situations) is a particularly intriguing part of the puzzle of higher intellectual functions.  But as Ernst Mayr once said, most species are not intelligent, which suggests “that high intelligence is not at all favored by natural selection” – or that it’s very hard to achieve.  So our look at bootstrapping syntax also needs to keep in mind this more general problem of finding indirect ways of achieving intelligence.  What gives rise to syntax might also give intelligence a big boost.

Evolution, after all, is full of sidesteps, such as those conversions of function that Darwin identified.  Wheelchair considerations may be what “paid for” all of those curb cuts on every corner, but most of their subsequent use involves wheeled suitcases, baby carriages, grocery carts, skateboards, bicycles, and other uses that would never have paid for it.  Some of the underpinnings of language may be secondary uses as well, so we need to watch for free “curb cuts” affecting syntax.

See you soon.



Well, when I got greeted with a facetious “Calvin tells us that the two of you are going to out-Chomsky Chomsky,” I started to wonder what you’d been telling them.  Then I remembered that whatever you tell people about Chomsky, they seem to get hold of the wrong end of the stick.  Some people get no respect, others get no comprehension.  If what Chomsky said about innate capacities had been said about any species but ours, everyone would have accepted it years ago.  The evidence that language is a biologically determined, species-specific, genetically transmitted capacity is simply overwhelming, no matter how many people try to chip away at isolated bits of it.  But somehow humans are supposed to be special.  The same rules don’t apply.  The idea that our prize possession, language, is just some mechanical thing seems very threatening to some people.

Unfortunately, Chomsky is unwilling to look either at the neurolog­ical infrastructure of language or at the ways it might have evolved.  Why he’s unwilling is neither here nor there.  That’s his business.  No one has to do everything.  But obviously, once it’s established that language is biologically determined, the next step is for someone to try and find out exactly how it evolved.  And once it’s established that language is rooted in the structure of the brain, the next step is to go looking for it there.  These three things – language, evolution, and the brain – it seems to me, are interlocking.  You can’t really look at any one of them without looking at the others.  If you want to know how language evolved or how it operates via brain mechanisms, you’ve got to know exactly what it’s like – how it differs from bee dances and chimp calls.  But you really can’t be sure what it’s like until you’ve seen how it evolved or how it works in the brain.  All three areas of knowledge should be feeding one another, but they’re not.  And that’s the king-size hole in our understanding of ourselves that I’m hoping, between us, we might be able to plug up a bit in the next month.

However, once we start looking at how language could have evolved and how the brain does the job, we become aware that some of the ways linguists have looked at language are more than a little awkward.  Over the last decade or so, an enormous amount has been written about the evolution of language – all the more enormous when you consider how little we know about it.  Some of what has been written is sensible; much, alas, is not.  To go through this literature, to evaluate it, to show how our ideas differ from it, would be an enormous task, one that would inevitably get in the way of the concrete proposals we have to make.  So we’re not going to go through it and we’re not going to criticize anyone else’s approach. In the endnotes we’ll show where alternative answers can be found.



Well, Chomsky’s term “language organ” might have been unfortunate, as was some of the early supercharger-type imagery used to describe how language might have been tacked onto an ape brain, as were the cardboard notions of how evolution works (those deus ex machina macromutations).  But I have no quarrel with what I take to be the heart of Chomsky’s argument, that human brains are predisposed to use certain types of syntax and not other possible schemes – and that it wasn’t obvious how to do this from textbook versions of Darwinism. Today, we’d probably emphasize a baby’s predisposition to discover patterns in the language  (or invent, in the case of creoles) and thereby softwire a language machine in one of the neurologically possible self-organizing schemes, rather than speaking of something being innate from conception onward.  But that’s just the current state of the ever present nature-nurture debate.

There are lots of little brain areas, the size of a small coin, one of whose functions is particularly specialized – say, naming inanimate objects.  I’ll give some examples when I eventually discuss where concepts are located in the temporal lobe.  We still tend, following Gall’s phrenology, to give functional names as if an area were exclusively concerned with the named function.  But most areas are multifunctional; we merely discover one function that compels our attention – and name the area after it!  And so onwards to the reification fallacy (it has a name, therefore it must be a thing).

But certainly the language specializations of the brain are not exclusive; the same areas of brain have a lot to do with inventing oral-facial and hand-arm movement sequences, and with judging sound sequences – and these functions probably all evolved together.  Their brain real estate may well constitute a common facility, one used not just for language tasks but for any involved sequence, whether sensation or movement or thought – just as curb cuts are now multiple-use though paid for by a single use.

Structure is one way to look for the physical basis of real language, but you can also ask how each individual develops the functionality during early life.  Part of the language instinct could turn out to be something very simple  –  say, a real fascination on the part of the young human with discovering any hidden patterns in the sensory environment, such as the repeated strings of speech sounds that we call words.  We may happen upon crystal-like self-organizing tendencies in the neural circuitry that preserve them – tendencies that aren’t likely to come from experience. That way, after discovering words in the auditory barrage, you can go on to discover the pattern of words that we call a “question.”  There could be one stage after another of searching for higher- and higher-order patterns, each making use of the same automata propensities in the neural circuitry.


So language acquisition might consist of the discovery of patterns in the environment, some of which can be remembered by patterns in the brain.  Just as some types of crystal are more common than others, so syntax might settle into certain patterns more than others.  Those patterns are what, I take it, “Universal Grammar” refers to.  Rather than a gene for a language machine, you might have an epigenetic tendency to seek hidden patterns in your sensory environment which, together with the brain’s potential for creating varied “crystals” shaped up by previous evolution, would give you the syntax that makes us so different from the apes.


Now, Derek, let me summarize what we said about book organization at breakfast and afterwards, when we walked up to the castle on the cleaver.  I need a little aide memoir for my fallible brain, the sort of thing that politicians write in their diaries to save for the day when they write their memoirs.

We’re not trying to write the book about language origins, one that covers the landscape of interesting ideas that float around at conferences on language origins.  We’ll be happy just to show several powerful ways of getting from ape behaviors to syntax without relying on the usefulness of communication per se.  We’re after invention, not improvement.

Our imagined audience is not unlike the other residents here at the Villa Serbelloni: the typical serious reader, but not necessarily in the sciences (the artists and poets hereabouts ought to find it of interest and be able to follow our explanations).  As for content, well, as Ernst Mayr likes to say, the big scientific questions tend to resolve around what, how, and why.  And they’re all interlocking; one’s incomplete without the others (though we often pretend otherwise, as when we focus on one aspect at a time as “the answer”).  So we might want to structure our Bellagio book around the relevant what-how-why questions.

What’s a word, anyway?  What’s a simple utterance of a few words?  And, since a longer sentence is not just a heap of words any more than a house is merely a heap of construction materials, what’s all this argument structure and phrase structure that constitutes syntax  –  or used to, back before minimalism struck?  And what about all those little closed-class words of grammar, such as the articles and prepositions?  What are the stages of a child’s development of language?


How does the brain represent a word?  How does it link words up?  How does it store new memories, retrieve them?  How does the brain invent a novel utterance, without it being complete nonsense most of the time?  How does language deteriorate in strokes?

But all the linguistic what’s and neurophysiological how’s are incomplete without the evolutionary why’s, those step-by-step explanations about how things came to be the way they work now, explanations involving Darwin’s bootstrap.  Why is it unlikely that words evolved out of primate cries and calls?  Why did our particular kind of syntax evolve?  Does it have anything to do with the brain expanding fourfold during the ice ages?

What’s our best scenario for a step from primate cries to protolanguage?  From lots of vocabulary up to the use of syntax for facilitating long sentences like this one?  We’ll need to talk about the relationship between evolving language and all the other changes evolution made in the typical ape (I know you want to discuss the extensive advance in sharing food and doing favors for friends).  Then, with some examples in hand, we ought to discuss what would constitute a really satisfying explanation, covering the whole spectrum of such questions about language and the rest of the higher intellectual functions that separate us from the smartest apes.  The “unfinished agenda,” as it were.


Though often considered as a gradual series of improvements in efficiency, evolution is also characterized by a string of Good Tricks conserved by evolution and reused in different contexts.  Many biological structures are multi­purpose, and the most obvious “function” of a structure may change over time.  Darwin’s example was the swim bladder of the fish, most obviously useful for adjusting buoyancy via filling up a balloon with blood gases, but also useful as an interface for exchanging blood gases with the atmosphere, a simple lung that might allow the fish to crawl ashore.  Darwin may not have known about curb cuts, but he spoke of a conversion of function, and warned that selection favoring one function might well benefit another function.  We’d probably say that selection for language abilities benefitted musical abilities, because it’s so hard to figure out what evolutionary circumstances would have rewarded four-part harmony.  There may be no free lunches in some ultimate sense, but there sure is a lot of bundling of products; pay for one, get something else “free.”  And the minor product may turn into the major one in the long run, enor­mous­ly aided by the initial natural selection that paid  –  in a different coin – for the other.

Also, because structures are so easily duplicated, once you have the genes for one, it is possible to specialize in several directions at once.  Our chromosomes are filled with non­functional near-duplicates of the functional genes; that’s exactly how any computer programmer would operate, doing experiments on copies of the functioning program, eventually using the new one more and more of the time as the bugs are eliminated.

Simple rules generate complex patterns. (The big lesson of fractals and chaos!)  Some variants on the existing rules are stable (most are nonsense, others quickly undo themselves), and so one sees self-organizing systems bootstrapping themselves in what Jacob Bronowski calls stratified stability.  The stabilities are, of course, somewhat confining  –  just as the steep fjordlike walls of the Como valley made it easier for the ancient glacier to go certain directions rather than in others.

That’s the sort of thing we ought to see with language evolution: experimental advances above a plateau of stable function (like your protolanguage), sometimes discovering a new stable level (like structured utterances), but with confines developing as you go.





Levels of organization are, fortunately for us, a commonplace in technology.  As an example of four levels, fleece is organized into yarn, which is woven into cloth, which can be arranged into clothing.  Each of these levels of organization is transiently stable, with ratchetlike mechanisms that prevent backsliding: fabrics are woven to prevent their disorganization into so much yarn; yarn is spun to keep it from backsliding into fleece.

A proper level is also characterized by “causal decoupling” from adjacent levels.  For example, you can weave without understanding how to spin yarn (or make clothing).  Many of the branches of science are founded around a single level of organization.  Mendeleyev figured out the table of elements and predicted the weight and binding properties of undiscovered elements, long before anyone knew about atomic spectra or biochemistry.  As a chemist, it helps to know the electron orbits that underlie chemical bonds, and it may help to understand an overlying level such as stereochemistry, but most of chemistry is a set of relationships within a level – just like weaving, a subject in its own right.

Within the brain sciences, we have to cope with close to a dozen levels of organization (and so we frequently argue about whether learning is a matter of gene expression, ion channel, synaptic, neuron, or circuit-level alterations).  We can even invent new levels on the fly, such as analogies, though most of them don’t last for very long.


But some do.  Among the major tasks of early childhood are the discovery of four levels of organization in the apparent chaos of the surrounding environment.  Infants discover phonemes and create standard categories for them.  With a set of basic speech sounds, babies start discovering patterns amid strings of phonemes, averaging nine new words every day.  Between 18 and 36 months of age, they start to discover patterns of words called phrases and clauses, adding ‑s for plural, adding ‑ed for past tense.  After syntax, they then go on to discover Aristotle’s rule about narratives having a beginning, middle, and end.  Thus in four years, children “pyramid” four levels of organization, each with its own rules that are causally decoupled from the underlying level’s rules.  I’d caution that levels don’t mean orderly hier­archies:  you might have several different levels taking off from an earlier one, more like a tree or a web than a ladder.

It is tempting to treat consciousness as the highest level of organization that you’ve currently got cooking.  When you first contemplate the toothpaste in the morning, the level of consciousness might not be very high, operating merely at the level of objects or simple actions.  Handling relations (such as speaking in sentences) may become possible only after your morning coffee.  The relations between relationships level (analogies) may require a double espresso.  Poets, of course, have to compare metaphors, which requires a series of stage-setting preliminaries.  Writers attempt to dramatically shape their materials to result in, as Sven Birkerts said in The Gutenberg Elegies, “a kindled‑up sort of high."

Understanding such staging might allow us to spend more time at more abstract levels  –  or even invent a new level in this house of cards, if the prior levels can be sufficiently shored up.  I can almost imagine a meta-poet taking a long walk here at the Villa Serbelloni, trying to stage manage yet another level atop the earlier shaky edifice, inventing meta-metaphors.

So, Derek, I wonder if your protolanguage isn’t just going to be a level of relationships  –  mostly associations between a few objects and a verb  –  atop which syntax can operate as a new, more structured level.  And that some sort of meta-syntax could operate atop it, in turn.


What you want the neuro to provide, as I understand it, is a nice clear step up from protolanguage to syntax, the brain finally getting its act together because of one important improvement that, together with what’s already in place, provides an emergent property, syntax.  The committee can finally do something that all the separate parts couldn’t.  It might be like adding a capstone to an arch, which permits the other stones to support themselves without scaffolding  –  as a committee, they can defy gravity.  Our task as scientists is, in part, to imagine the scaffolding that could have put such a stable structure in place initially.

I can imagine some Good Tricks that might provide that big step, allowing for the recursive nature of embedded phrases and a considerable improvement in speed of operation.  A big step doesn’t necessarily mean that perform­ance suddenly flowers.  Graded improvement of function can still occur via the amount of time that you utilize the Good Trick, or the number of situations to which you apply it, or the intensification of culture occasioned by widespread use (more vocabulary invented, etc.).  But I think that I can give you something without intermediate syntax levels, something that will deteriorate back to protolanguage in a fairly obvious manner without intermediate stops (I’ve never heard of an aphasic patient able to embed two deep, but not three).  And that recursive phrases and clauses will emerge in our lingua ex machina as neatly as they do in the child’s third year.


Notes and References for this chapter

Copyright ©2000 by
William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton

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