Educating Eve, by Geoffrey Sampson

In which the author sets out to refute the "nativist" view put forward by Chomsky, Pinker et al that language is an innate ability, which is biologically built in to the human brain.

Having read parts of Pinker's "The Language Instinct", and seen it and Chomsky referenced in many places, I had assumed that there was little ongoing debate on this subject. At least, this is the first book I've read I think seriously questions the nativist view. But Sampson puts forward a very persuasive set of arguments to show that Chomsky and his followers are by no means beyond criticism. As well as advancing his own view (that language is a skill which everyone must learn from scratch), he approaches the issue a bit like I think Feynman would, by checking out the evidence put forward by the nativists. He claims that most people have not actually read and checked out what Chomsky says (partly because it is difficult to read) because if they did they'd see flaws in the argument, and find that many of Chomsky's copious references (although they look impressive) do not support his position. And he does seem to be able to come up with an awful lot of examples which contradict what you'd expect to find if you accept the nativist point of view.

Sampson praises Pinker for his ability to write clearly, and finds no fault with much of what Pinker says in "The Language Instinct", but on the subject of nativism, he claims that Pinker too is arguing from a rather shaky position.

The book is very easy to read (apart from the last section where he gets into a discussion about human creativity, Popper and dualism which he says he feels he has to include to pre-empt criticism that it was something he hadn't considered) and is frequently quite funny. For example he says [p133] that Pinker describes English as having a "fixed rule" which will prohibit certain types of sentence. To check this out, he looks through a corpus for a counter-example and finds one in the second sentence of the corpus. I've just checked the Pinker book, and I don't think Pinker actually says "fixed rule" but that does seem to be the general implication of what he's saying. At any rate, the sentence Sampson quotes does seem a convincing refutation of Pinker's point.

Some other things I noted as being interesting:

It's hard to read this book and remain entirely convinced by Pinker et al. It would be interesting to see a comprehensive response by him to this book. But at the least it is a sobering lesson in checking out facts rather than accepting them because they're the current fashionable theory.

Geoffrey Sampson has a website which looks like it has a few useful pointers to linguistics related stuff

Completed : 23-Feb-2004

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