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and shared with finches — well, speculation is fun, but this is like the kind of too-specific science fiction that’s out of date by the time it’s published, and seems merely quaint within a few years.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.