Why can everyone learn Portuguese? Are some aspects of our nature unknowable? Can you imagine Richard Nixon as a radical? Is Twitter a trivializer? New Scientist takes a whistle-stop tour of our modern intellectual landscape in the company of Noam Chomsky.
Let’s start with the idea that everyone connects you with from the 1950s and ’60s—a “universal grammar” underlying all languages. How is that idea holding up in 2012?
It’s virtually a truism. There are people who misunderstand the term but I can’t deal with that. It’s perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be, is what is called universal grammar.
But there are critics such as Daniel Everett, who says the language of the Amazonian people he worked with seems to challenge important aspects of universal grammar.
It can’t be true. These people are genetically identical to all other humans with regard to language. They can learn Portuguese perfectly easily, just as Portuguese children do. So they have the same universal grammar the rest of us have. What Everett claims is that the resources of the language do not permit the use of the principles of universal grammar.
That’s conceivable. You could imagine a language exactly like English except it doesn’t have connectives like “and” that allow you to make longer expressions. An infant learning truncated English would have no idea about this: They would just pick it up as they would standard English. At some point, the child would discover the resources are so limited you can’t say very much, but that doesn’t say anything about universal grammar, or about language acquisition. Actually, I doubt very much that a language like that could exist.
Ideas about human nature naturally crop up in your work. It’s a fuzzy term, so what do you mean by it?
To me it’s just like bee nature. Humans have certain properties and characteristics which are intrinsic to them, just as every other organism does. That’s human nature. We don’t know very much about it except in a few domains. We know a lot about how the digestive system develops, that’s part of human nature. We know some things about the visual system. With regard to cognitive systems, the systems are more complex and difficult to investigate, so less is known. But something is. Language is one component of the human cognitive capacity which happens to be fairly amenable to enquiry. So we know a good deal about that.
In your new book, you suggest that many components of human nature are just too complicated to be really researchable.
That’s a pretty normal phenomenon. Take, say, physics, which restricts itself to extremely simple questions. If a molecule becomes too complex, they hand it over to the chemists. If it becomes too complex for them, they hand it to biologists. And if the system is too complex for them, they hand it to psychologists … and so on until it ends up in the hands of historians or novelists. As you deal with more and more complex systems, it becomes harder and harder to find deep and interesting properties.
If human nature is relatively fixed, as you argue, how do we achieve social and political change?
Human nature is not totally fixed, but on any realistic scale evolutionary processes are much too slow to affect it. With language, for example, we have very good evidence that for the last 50,000 years there has been no evolution. That is a reflection of the fact that our basic capacities have not evolved.
So within a realistic time frame there is not going to be any change in human nature. But human nature allows many different options and the choice among those options can change, and it has. So there are striking changes, even in our own lifetime, of what we accept as tolerable. Take something like women’s rights: If you go back not so many years women were basically regarded as property. That’s a sign of the expansion of our moral spheres. So sure, human nature remains the same but a lot of things can change.
Sticking with social and political change, what is going on with climate-change denial in the United States?
The Republican party now has its catechism of things you have to repeat in lockstep, kind of like the old Communist party. One of them is denying climate change.
Why is it happening?
It happens that there’s a huge propaganda offensive carried out by the major business lobbies, the energy associations, and so on. It’s no secret, they’re trying to convince people that the science is unreliable, that it’s a liberal hoax. Those who want to be funded by business and energy associations and so on might be led into repeating this catechism. Or maybe they actually believe it.
The Republican-dominated House of Representatives is now dismantling measures of control over environmental destruction that were instituted by Richard Nixon. That shows you how far to the right they have gone. Today Nixon would be a flaming radical and Dwight D. Eisenhower would be off the spectrum. Even Ronald Reagan would be on the left somewhere. These are interesting, important things happening in the richest and most powerful country in the world that we should be very much concerned about.
The media has been one of your big interests over the years. Are new and social media really changing the way we do things?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask. I’m kind of out of the Stone Age, I don’t use any of these things and don’t know a lot about them, but they are doubtless effective. For example, Occupy Wall Street could not have developed like it did without social media.
Are they affecting other things very much?
I think that is open to question. For one thing, by their very nature they have to be fairly superficial, there isn’t a lot you can say in a tweet or even an internet post. Almost by necessity, I think it is going to lead, or has led, to some superficiality. So like most technology, there is an upside and a downside.
You argue that the United States is in political and economic decline. Is that also true of the intellectual and scientific worlds?
Well, there are some who do claim that, but I’m not convinced. For example, if you look at the journal Science, the editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts has a series of editorials in which he is deploring the way science is taught in the U.S. In the federally funded schools and the universities people are being taught factoids; they are taught the periodic table to memorize when they do not understand what it is about. Alberts says this totally misleads people about the nature of science and that it is driving kids away from science. If what he is describing does overwhelm the education system it will presumably lead to a decline in scientific competence and capacity as well.
Looking back on your long career, if you were to start all over again would you still choose to study language?
When I was a college student and I got interested in linguistics the concern among students was, this is a lot of fun, but after we have done a structural analysis of every language in the world what’s left? It was assumed there were basically no puzzles.
In the 1950s, there was a serious attempt to address the core problems of language and it was immediately discovered that everything was a problem and we did not understand a thing. Now a great deal has been learned and we understand a lot more about the nature of language. The contemporary field is still very exciting. It is a living field. If you’re teaching today what you were teaching five years ago, either the field is dead or you are.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.