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A Call for Brainy Research

December 14, 2002

Like most humans, scientists have long believed -- even before the evidence was in -- that language is a skill unique to their species. In many centuries of debate, however, they have been unable to agree on anything else about the nature and evolution of language.

The disagreements became so intense in the 19th century that the Linguistic Society of Paris, in a desperate attempt to deflect the rhetorical sticks and stones, went so far as to ban university debates about the "inconclusive topic."

In a review of the linguistic controversy published in the Nov. 22 issue of the journal Science, Marc D. Hauser and W. Tecumseh Fitch of Harvard and Noam Chomsky of MIT suggest that most inquiries have failed because they began from the naive premise that a skill as complex as language can be localized in a single region of the brain.

Hauser, Fitch and Chomsky are too polite to catalog the failures of their colleagues, such as the now-discredited "phrenologists" of the early 20th century, whose thinly scientific attempts divided the brain into areas responsible for noble traits like literacy and despised ones such as "destructiveness" and "secretiveness." Their ideas were twisted by the Nazis to justify racial hatreds before and during World War II.

Phrenology -- high-tech style -- has reemerged with modern neural imaging devices now in most academic psychiatry/neurology departments. Using scanners with acronyms like CAT, PET and SQUID, modern science has valiantly tried, but failed, to localize the seats of language and consciousness.

Rather than just disdaining the past, the authors of the Science article look to the future, calling on scientists to stop searching for what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the homunculus -- a "little man" in the brain that dutifully assembles speech and sense of self, among other functions.

Instead, the authors call for a "substantial collaboration [wherein] linguists, biologists, psychologists and anthropologists," rather than trying to localize language, try to at least arrive at a common theory of how human expression in general came to evolve.

The Science article is a reminder that science is often less a quest for objective facts than for affirmative and comforting ones. As Thomas Kuhn put it in his 1962 classic, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," most science involves puzzle-solving to discover the expected, not the unexpected.

The Science authors offer a way out of a historical impasse, affirming interdisciplinary research in an era when science is increasingly stifled by narrow specialization.

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