Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Periodic Problem in the History of Science

I think this problem can be properly placed within Thomas Kuhn's overall conceptual scheme about revolutions in science. I will attempt to discuss two recent instances that seem isomorphic, but the details of each story are more interesting. To add: I will try to make this brief.

Both instances - or scientific narratives - were ones I encountered recently in my reading; it seems there are numerous similar examples. But I want to address two of my favorite ideas - ideas any Generalist probably finds of exceeding interest: 1.) the evolution of language, and 2.) the philosophical meanings of the quantum theory.

I was re-reading a tremendously well-done work in the popularization of recent linguistics, Christine Kenneally's The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (2007), and I can't recommend it highly enough if you have even a passing interest in the subject. There were many "theories" (loosest sense of the term) about the origin of human language, but things began to heat up in European universities around the 1770s, especially with philosophers like Rousseau. When Darwin enters the scene, the biologists get white-hot about language. Of course, in 1870, one can only speculate enough on the topic before one has concocted something of a Just-So story. As Keanneally writes:

"Biological evolution proved to be an excellent analogy for language change, and linguists took up the evolutionary analogy with such enthusiasm that they began to treat natural selection as a literal account of language change rather than a helpful analogy, applying the idea of survival of the fittest  to such phenomena as the way speech sounds change over long periods of time (how, for example, a distinct sound like f might become s). Ironically, linguists still regarded speculating on the origins of language to be an unscientific problem, and it remained controversial to adopt Darwin's theory for that purpose. So while Darwin himself freely considered the origins of language, linguists did anything but."

Indeed, the Societe de Linguistique of Paris banned talking about the subject in the nineteenth century. I guess it seemed too distracting. Their official statement read:"The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language." What a bunch of killjoys! In 1872, Kenneally tells us, the London Philological Society also closed off the Question.

                          Christine Kenneally, Linguistics PhD from Cambridge,
                            author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins 
                          of Language

For 100 years, linguists who were interested in the question were marginalized. It was a disreputable thing to let on that it was one of your bailiwicks. If you wanted to discuss the topic, you'd better do it in secret, or the guardians of the discipline might hear about it and prevent you from getting a decent job. Nevertheless there were always little groundswells of interest.

For about 45 years of Noam Chomsky's career as a linguist he pretty much dodged questions of language evolution. One can find him saying we can't know such things, so why even try. It left many of us to ponder, "Does Chomsky think his Cartesian perfect system of syntax just appeared suddenly one day, like fundamentalist Christians think God made the world in seven days, then rested? Human language is a miracle!" (<---I said something like this to a friend not long ago, when we were talking about Chomsky.) Chomsky went on and on about the innateness of language, which would seem to suggest an inquiry into genetics and evolution, but Noam apparently had his reasons? (Some other blogpost...or have I already covered this? I write too much, too quickly and haphazardly, and forget!)

Quick side-trip regarding Chomsky: when he first began teaching linguistics at M.I.T.  (around 1959 or so, I'm too lazy to look it up, frankly), he had an Engineering student named Philip Lieberman in his class. Lieberman loved Chomsky's ideas and decided to pursue linguistics himself. But in a recurring story with Chomsky and brilliant ex-students, Kenneally writes, "There is no interaction between them now. Both men are famously combative, and they have taken opposite positions on the subject of the evolution of language." Lieberman went on to do fantastic work on Parkinson's patients, which strongly suggested that syntax was intimately related to the basal ganglia and motor cortex. He examined skulls, listened to apes, tested brains, did all sorts of creative lab research. (The idea of doing linguistics in this way seems to literally disgust Chomsky.) In 1984, Lieberman produced The Biology and Evolution of Language, a Darwinian view. He thought Chomsky had the wrong metaphor: a computer. Rather, it's evolution, which has a logic all its own, a logic we don't really understand. For Lieberman, it seems we must start with this knowledge. For Noam Chomsky, it's absurd: we already have the innate capacity for Cartesian common sense, endowed by...uhh...never mind.

Kenneally: "According to Lieberman, the analogy between the computer and the brain prevents a true understanding of language. Even though formulas can describe a set of sentences, they don't have much to do with how language is produced by the brain or how the brain and language evolved. 'Syntax is not the touchstone of human language, and evolution is not logical,' declared Lieberman. 'Evolution doesn't give a damn about formal elegance.'"

I guess Chomsky saw his version was ridiculous, so in 2002 his name appeared on a paper with Marc Hauser (recently resigned from Harvard for faking research), and Tecumseh Fitch, called "The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?" But I will leave it to readers of linguistics or of Kenneally's book just how much we think Chomsky was interested in the question.

Anyway, the topic is hot again, and there are all kinds of research projects that are leading us towards an understanding, not only of the origin of language in humans, but animal communication systems, the relation of music to language, and the deep levels of our mathematical faculty.


In a deliriously spellbinding recent book (for my nervous system, at least), How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival, by M.I.T. professor David Kaiser, he tells the story of Einstein, Schrodinger, Born, Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg, et.al and their development of the quantum theory between 1900 and 1926...and then how Einstein thought the theory must be wrong, because it suggested a philosophically messy picture of Nature, and that God didn't play dice with the universe, etc. (Niels Bohr didn't have a problem with the oddities of the theory.) Einstein's and Bohr's colleagues were all deeply fascinated or appalled or in some way philosophically fixated on what this very successful theory meant about how nature works. They discussed it for days on end with each other. Then the second half of the Hot War between the years 1914-1945 flared again, and then most of them fled to the US.

In the Manhattan Project and after the war, the US government hothoused enormous numbers of physics students in order to "win" the physics war with the USSR. Kaiser is very engaging as he describes the radical shift to "just shut up and calculate" from "what do the equations mean?" Any physics student in the US (and most of Europe, although it wasn't nearly as pronounced there) were considered flaky if they asked their professor what the equations meant about how strange nature seems at subatomic levels. Like the origin of language question for 100 years, here was a fascinating question that had been deemed as frivolous by the leaders of physics, from roughly 1941 to around 1975-80, when suddenly, the US government became somewhat paranoid that the USSR might be ahead of the US in telepathy, or other outre ideas.

Funding for physicists had been cut drastically by the early 1970s, so many PhDs had no jobs. But all along there were physicists who had been fascinated by Einstein's thought experiments that might show that the quantum theory was flawed, and there was a Deeper Reality. In 1964, one of those physicists, John S. Bell, devised a theorem that, if it were to be tested - and it seemed more testable than the Einstein, Rosen, and Podolsky thought experiment - it might show that Einstein was right: there were hidden variables, or...something that could show the quantum theory was incomplete.

      Left to right: Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag*, Nick Herbert, and in the right corner, Fred Alan Wolf, all PhDs in physics, all fascinated by the implications of Bell's Theorem, all stoners and scientific revolutionaries.

I don't want to ruin a good read, but the Berkeley-based hippie physicists played a huge role in getting physics back to its philosophical roots. And it led to a revolution in quantum information science, quantum computing, and quantum encryption techniques. One of the developers of quantum encryption, Stephen Wiesner, is quoted by Kaiser as saying this in 2009: "We need some periods of anarchy when new or irreverent thoughts and changes can come forward."

Whether we're discussing the ban on openly talking about the origin of language or of the philosophical roots of the quantum theory, in both historical stories we see very intricate reasons why perennial questions get dampened, and also institutional reasons why they come back. The foremost "experts" during the times of the bans thought they were "correct:" that such questions were frivolous; we've moved beyond that; these are not the kinds of questions "serious scientists" ask. And how utterly wrong they were!

Hoo-kay! Sorry I was so brief!

*- I have awarded Saul-Paul Sirag the PhD but he doesn't have one; he has been published on quantum theory in the world-leading journal Nature twice. As David Kaiser writes, "Most PhD physicists who pursue ordinary academic careers never manage to get even one of their research articles through the rigorous peer-review at Nature."-p.243


Rev. TaiPing Monkey said...

Michael, this post reminds me of a chapter in RAW's *Right Where You are Sitting Now* where he compares the scientific community's approach to to parapsychology to their earlier denial of the existence of meteorites. It also makes me think of the tension in almost every religious tradition between the mystics and the institutionalists, both of whom make very real contributions based on the contexts of the times and circumstances.

michael said...

@Rev: I think some of RAW has wormed its way into a few shelves on my chromosomes, and it's maybe something of a "saving grace"?

I'm glad you made those connections, and I'm gratified to have a few very insightful readers.

Further: RAW still seems in the avant in pointing out dogmatic attitudes among some in the scientific community. "The Citadel"

The millennia of rifts between mystics and institutionalists is covered in a different but interesting way in the work of sociologist Peter Berger.

All of this seems isomorphic to the tensions between the Few neophiles and the Many neophobes.