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5 june 2008

For Chomsky as for many other left-wing intellectuals, the human capacity for language is the surest sign of our absolute, innate equality with one another. The human child's capacity to learn any language, and the equality of all world languages, is central to the assertion of the equality of all world cultures. Anything that smacks of invidious distinction among human groups – anything eugenic, racialist, or biologically determinist – is anathema to this slice of the left. And not just because of political prejudice, but because the human capacity for language truly does appear universal. Much more unites us linguistically than separates us. Differences in language and dialect are all on the linguistic surface.

Puzzlingly, this is where far left and certain ranges of the far right converge, in resisting the cruder ranges of social Darwinism (the right objects to Darwin at all, the left to the social misapplication of Darwin). Seen in some lights, the Chomskyan insistence on the gift-like appearance of language in the hominid lineage looks almost like the hand of God touching the clay of Adam, whereupon Adam up and started naming everything.

One might identify four approaches to evolutionary thought about human nature. Take a social issue like the lack of women in engineering. First, a conservative religious approach might simply say that women aren't good at math and technology because God wanted them to nurture male engineers: no problem. Second, a conservative secular approach might say that women (according to whatever just-so story is in vogue) evolved non-tech brains, and therefore can't cut it with a slide rule; too bad, but no problem. Third, a Chomskyan leftist approach (which he might share with Simone de Beauvoir and even with his own archenemy B.F. Skinner) might say nonsense; women have brains identical to men's, and it's only socialization and prejudice that keep them out of engineering fields.

The fourth, however, is trickier, and belongs to a school which I will associate with Steven Pinker (because it takes up so much of his attention in The Blank Slate [2002]). It's what one might call a functionalist-libertarian position, informed by evolutionary psychology (or what, in its salad days, was called sociobiology). The functionalist-libertarian genuinely deplores sexism. If a woman is a great engineer, she should have every chance to rise to the top of her profession. That's the libertarian aspect of the thought, but functionalism and biology have their say as well. Why have few women risen to the top of the engineering world? Our economy and society have evolved toward functional perfection, so it would be absurd to think that large pools of female talent are being ignored by engineering schools and firms. It's likelier that women have evolved slightly differently than men – not in being absolutely unable to take on engineering tasks, but in having a differently overlapping range of capacities. And truth be told, women are probably happier in the aggregate at home nurturing and nesting; biological imperatives make them the more risk-averse sex, after all. A functionalist-libertarian believes in absolute equality of opportunity in an ideal world, suspects that we've pretty much achieved that ideal, and can never forget for a moment that males, with their countless billions of spermatazoa, have evolved a different, more adventurous outlook on life than females with their few vulnerable eggs. So, says the functionalist-libertarian who's into evolutionary psychology, don't fret about sexual imbalances in the world: everyone's happier with a little imbalance.

You see the implications for language. In a Chomskyan linguistics, every speaker is equal to every other speaker. From a functionalist-libertarian evolutionary-psychologist's perspective, every speaker has equal rights, but they may just not have equal capacities, and we have to deal with those inequalities. Of course, in a matter like women in engineering, we are talking about some pretty tangible implications of theory, among them the problem that engineers get paid a lot more than elementary-school teachers (tough toenails, Pinker would say: supply and demand in a perfect labor market just happen to pay the mostly-male pocket-protector set what they deserve).

In linguistics, the stakes are not so high. The assertion that evolutionary psychology might cleave apart populations that have ergative languages from those that have accusative languages is in fact ridiculous, for instance, and nobody, least of all Steven Pinker, is making it. For one thing, children of any human ethnicity appear to learn the languages of any other ethnicity with equal rapidity and competence.

But the assertion that linguistic abilities, and hence differential linguistic abilities, may have roots in natural selection, is a kind of camel's-nose under the flap of the left-egalitarian tent. What about those barely-contacted Amazonian tribes, for instance? Their language probably lacks a word for any number greater than two. Is their cognition radically different from ours? Could they even conceive of engineering? If populations are in Darwinian struggle for reproductive success, and language is a factor therein, then aren't some of us succeeding at the cost of others because our language, thought, and innate ability to cope with manipulating the world are simply better-adapted?

Well, as I said, Christine Kenneally doesn't worry much about any of this. She is telling a brisker and happier story of the triumph of a scientific idea. But it's important to understand why people get inflamed over such ideas. Particularly hard, given the monolithic nature of the God/Darwin debate in America, is the understanding that two secular perspectives (Chomsky and Pinker) could so conflict with each other over the significance of basic research in evolutionary linguistics. But the debate is only partly over the facts, and partly (if often tacitly) over their political implications.

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Kenneally, Christine. The First Word. 2007. New York: Penguin, 2008.