Thursday, June 28, 2007

I can be cranky - but am I crazy? Biolinguistics and Wikipedia ...

Wikipedia is great. I always hoped to appear there. But now I have ... and my feeling is mixed. My friend Dave Embick from Penn (maybe even more cranky than me, by the way) noticed this entry, and was (un)kind enough to let me know.

There is an entry in Wikipedia on "biolinguistics," a term that has been used in recent years in variety of confusing (and confused) ways. As someone whose faculty appointments are in a biology department and a linguistics department, I feel that *something* about our work has to do with biology and linguistics (after all, we work with the brain part of biology and the language part of linguistics). But biolinguistics is for the most part concerned with more abstract problems, say stuff like "do the laws of growth and form as discussed by D'Arcy Thompson show specific effects on the architecture of the language system." I have friends and colleagues who work on these issues in a serious way, and at some point some comments on 'good' (a research program with 'legs') versus bad
biolinguistics (dead ends) are in order. There is, to be sure, good stuff to be done in that context.

In this entry, in any case, reference is made to the Fibonacci Series and the Golden Ratio, and it it intimated that these parts of mathematics have particular applicability to syntax. Maybe. maybe not. I think that this is an empirical question. But, as Dave points out, one one reading of the Wikipedia entry I am not just cranky, but maybe crazy because I may not 'believe' in Fibonacci :-) here is what is said:

This approach is not without its critics. David Poeppel, the neuroscientist and linguist, has characterized the Biolinguistics program as "inter-disciplinary cross-sterilization", arguing that vague metaphors that seek to relate linguistic phenomena to biological phenomena explains nothing about language or biology. However, it was recently shown that syntactic structures possess the properties of other biological systems. The Law of Nature (Golden Ratio) accounts for the number of nodes in syntactic trees, binarity of branching, and syntactic phase formation."

Now, it is true that I think there are many serious conceptual problems with the way some questions are asked in the context of biolinguistics. However, if there are *really* results that show that detailed properties of syntactic structure follow from the Golden Ratio, I would like to know the linking hypotheses from Golden Ratio to neuronal circuitry to syntactic phase formation. The reason I am cranky is that I can't just buy into this way of talking about stuff. The reason that I am not crazy is that I simply want to see plausible accounts of how these different levels of description interact. So ... show me the money.


Anonymous said...

I came across the Wikipedia entry on Biolinguistics a ways back, and I'm willing to admit that I put in the quote about cross-disciplinary sterilizations, largely because it amused me. I disavow any responsibility for the sentences that follow it, or any word in the rest of the article. At the time I put it in, the article was a stub, and breathlessly positive. I felt a bit of balance might be helpful.

Anonymous said...

YOU may be cranky, but I'm a leg up on the dissatisfaction with biolinguistics.

It seems to me that there are not many in this field who, you know, deal withh actual biology. It seems that they take for granted that the brain does something and there's a chemical/physical basis for it, and that's that. I don't see how any of the ideas put forth by biolinguists have any grounding in experimental design or any neurological reality. It almost seems to be a pop-sci account of how language (supposedly) works based on a biological basis that doesn't either exist or we know anything about.

David Poeppel said...

dear jr, your characterisation of my position is certainly right -- for the moment, i cannot view the relation between linguistics and biology *as discussed in some parts of biolinguistics* as anything more than metaphorical. what i thought was amusing about the wikipedia entry was simply that the -- as you say -- breathlessly positive attitude implies that there exists a range of detailed results and that therefore my critical distance is misinformed and silly. as if i, for example, didn't "believe" in the Fibonacci series (whatever that could possibly mean ...).

alas, i have not yet seen results that convince me. (and perhaps this absence of results is what irritates the erstwhile biologist, too.) for example, suppose you are excited by the concept that a grammar is 'mildly context sensitive'. This is an important commitment with regard to the computational study of language, but what is this supposed to mean in terms of neural architecture??

there are data (for example DTI-based connectivity data from angela friederici's max-planck insitute) that suggest connectivity differences that are *associated* with possible processing differences between finite state and phrase structure grammars -- interesting data, to be sure (PNAS, 2006). but still, none of the claims are cashed out in terms of the cicuitry that forms the basis for processing. the claims have to be cast in terms of a terminology commensurate with computational biological machinery. broca's area (which is really a collection of many areas) does not "do" phrase structure grammar, in part because "computing phrase structure rules" is not a primitive.

i am (naively) optimistic that progress can be made, but i reserve the right to remain skeptical until i see a few results that show the linking hypotheses from neuronal circuit to elementary computation to linguistic representation to 'general principles of physics and biology'. until then, there is lots of rhetoric but there is no there there.

Anonymous said...

This post is a few months old, but it's still online, so why not a new comment?

I'm a mere linguist, not a biologist, but I too have long been bugged by the term "biolinguistics", since it seems like seriously misleading advertising. Rather than a subject matter, it's a hypothesis - and not only a vague one, but one that's highly idiosyncratic given the bulk of day-to-day research in both linguistics and biology.

I've been reading Lee Smolin's and Peter Woit's recent pop science books critiquing string theory, and the parallels seem kinda obvious to me: tightly knit groups of people obsessed with beauty-as-truth and not so much with actual evidence. But besides Pinker & Jackendoff's stuff in Cognition, has there been any other serious attempts to do a Smolin or Woit with biolinguistics?

But I dunno - my understanding is that the term "psycholinguistics" started in a similar way, as code for "experiments testing generative syntax", but the term quickly got away from its creators. Maybe the same will happen with "biolinguistics".

[James Myers - not anonymous - I just don't want to sign up with Google/Blogger]