Liberman on Uriagereka and FOXP2

Having aired my grievances about New Scientist (here, here and here), about Wired (here and over here) and about Time (yup, here), I was wondering when I’d get a chance to complain about Seed. This morning, Mark Liberman provides the necessary gripe-fodder, poking a big, sharp stick at Juan Uriagereka’s “The Evolution of Language” (25 September 2007).

Unlike much of the science writing that gets a blogospheric assault, today’s target involves a researcher stepping off into sheer speculation, rather than a journalist oversimplifying or seeking a false “balance.”

According to Liberman, Uriagereka “combines some important themes with what seem to me to be some bizarre fantasies.” Specifically, Liberman takes issue with the assertion that finches must have the same neural “parser” as humans do; while transmitting and receiving birdsong may well have general principles in common with transmitting and receiving human language, saying that the two must rely upon the same “parser” is going a measure too far.

Furthermore, Liberman says,

But I’m not aware of any evidence that birdsong grammars involve long-distance dependencies, or clausal structures, or any number of other characteristic properties of human syntax; nor do I know of any evidence that birds “parse” these behavioral sequences, in any way beyond the neural equivalent of transition-matrix probabilities. Perhaps they do, but simple assertion doesn’t make it so. […] [T]o reify human speech and language abilities as a “parser” located in the caudate nucleus, regulated by FOXP2 and shared with finches — well, speculation is fun, but this is like the kind of too-specific science fiction that’s out of date by the time it’s published, and seems merely quaint within a few years.

As Alec MacAndrew pointed out, most popular reports about the FOXP2 gene have been sensationalized and oversimplified, calling this transcription factor the “language gene” or even the “grammar gene.” Uriagereka’s essay does us the favor of tearing down that particular fallacy, although its conclusion appears to step off into the fog.

4 thoughts on “Liberman on Uriagereka and FOXP2”

  1. I’m about half an hours travel from my copy of Seed at the moment, but wasn’t the article in question clearly flagged as being speculative?

  2. I didn’t see any specific markers on the online version (the print version may of course be different). It’s categorized under “Brain & Behavior,” nothing more.

    I’m not as upset as I could be, since the essay does become more plainly speculative towards the end, but earlier pieces of it present ideas as factual when they, too, should be classified as speculative. (My limited knowledge of the field may, naturally, be leading me into error, but hey, blame Mark Liberman too!)

  3. Me and my copy are reunited now. The reason I remembered it as being marked as speculative is that it’s in the magazine in the “Big Idea” slot, which is usually quite out-there.

    Having re-read it, I agree about the tone of the article; it does seem a little too sure of itself. Of course, I know less about FOXP2 and finches than I do about spoken dialects of 17th century Chinese.

    Which is not a lot.

  4. Thanks for the extra info. It would be nice if they provided that same classification data on the online version, too; it’s sort of puzzling, since my impression has been that Seed has generally been fairly Net-savvy.

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