Chomsky and Skinner – Wilson and Gould – A New Theory of Evolution

Scientific theories are sometimes contested within the scientific community and the ensuing debates are heated and polarized.  Historically, there have been times when two leading figures took what appeared to be mutually exclusive views of the world.  The 20th century had two such classic debates; one of the debates concerned the process of language acquisition and the other dealt with the process of evolutionary change.  Noam Chomsky is a linguistic theorist, Chomsky believes that humans, and only humans, have a built-in, hard-wired and genetic language/grammar capacity.  No other species is wired or capable of language as we know it.  His opponent across the room, B. F. Skinner believed that all human behavior was learned, including and especially language.  Skinner also thought it might be possible to teach other animals language, if the method of instruction was based on his theories of  behavioral modification and learning.

E. O. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who studies ants; Wilson believes that evolution is a long slow process wherein change happens in very small increments over vast periods of time.  Those tiny changes and vast periods of time can and do lead to new species.  On the other side of that ring is Stephen Jay Gould; Gould believes in punctuated equilibrium.  In punctuated equilibrium theory, things remain pretty much the same – stasis – until some unusual, life-changing event takes place; like the famous meteor that wiped out the giant dinosaurs and made room for small, warm-blooded mammals like you and me.

The two debates are ongoing, and probably will be for a long time.  Neither Chomsky or Skinner account for all of the evidence or indeed in some cases the lack of evidence; each has a piece of the truth, but not the whole truth.  The same is true of Wilson and Gould.  The study of evolution is based on the evidence we can find, but that leaves huge gaps in the evidence; all of the things we cannot find.  In language and in biological evolution, there are some very big gaps – spaces where there is simply no evidence to support any existing theory.  That makes it very exciting each time new evidence is found.  The new evidence, a fossil or skeleton,  gives us a chance to fill in the gaps and fill out the theories.

I am very excited.  I think I found some evidence that could create a whole new theory of human evolution: primitive, early humans mated with chimpanzees.  I found the evidence, a tiny scrap, a mere sentence or two, hidden in the Chomsky-Skinner debate.  In the 1970s, friends of Skinner began an experiment trying to teach language to a chimpanzee. The chimp was named Nim Chimpsky after the famous linguist. In the introduction to a book on the experiment, the author mentions in passing that humans and chimps had mated eons ago.

The resulting offspring, if male, would have been sterile; but, if female, would been able to reproduce  with another chimp as a mate.  Therefore they could not create a species by themselves; the author called it an evolutionary blind alley.  But wait, if the chimp had a girl and the man with his species-wife had a boy those two could mate.  And if, in every subsequent generation, those two strains got mated, wouldn’t that produce over time, deep time, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years, a new species?  Now all we need is an earthquake, a volcanic eruption or a meteor to wipe out the competition and the new species stands alone on the plains of Africa, ready to start its march to you and me.

Well, now that we know the answer to beginning of the human race, we can go to work on language.  Could our human-chimp ancestor talk?  We don’t know, but we do know that over time somebody, an ancestor did start to talk.  Was it learned or did he just activate the inborn language/grammar gene he had been carrying for who knows how long?  There are still many gaps in our knowledge; we are waiting for evidence as to where, when and how language began.  Possibly the chimp knows, should we ask him?

1 Response to “Chomsky and Skinner – Wilson and Gould – A New Theory of Evolution”

  1. 1 Lynne Rosner March 3, 2014 at 7:39 am

    How can you forget Richard Leakey and the bank his father owned in Kenya?

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