Attention Steven Pinker: Look out for Creationists

PZ Myers just posted an interesting little story:

If you’ve ever been curious about the intelligent design of language, here’s a new one for you: Edenics.

Here you will discover that ALL human words contain forms of the Edenic roots within them. These proto-Semitic or early Biblical Hebrew words were programmed into our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, before the language dispersion, or babble at the Tower of Babel — which kickstarted multi-national human history.

Oh, joy. They’re after all of our sciences.

In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker has a chapter entitled The Tower of Babel, in which he discusses linguistic diversity and the mutual unintelligibility of different languages despite their structural similarities. To introduce this topic, Pinker opened the chapter with a brief discussion of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. I bet he never expected that his cultural competitors, the Creationists, would become his scientific theoretical opposition. When reading through this chapter introduction a few years ago I remember just kind of reading along, not really thinking much of it. How astonished I would have been had I known that there are people who actually take the story literally!

This story draws to mind a few personal connections. Toward the end of my undergrad at the University of Toronto I became very interested in language acquisition as a direct consequence of reading and writing on The Language Instinct. While I later came to adopt a different perspective on language acquisition than Pinker presented in his 1994 book—in Pinker’s defense, a lot of important research had been done in the 10 years after his book came out—I credit him for turning my general fascination with how infants acquire language from a simple fascination to wonderful intellectual adventure. This story brought to mind my first foray into the amazing world of the cognitive science of language acquisition.

The second thing brought to mind by this story was an incident that occurred to me in Boston. I had just arrived in the city, having traveled from Rutgers University in New Jersey where I was a Cognitive Psychology graduate student studying language and social cognitive development, for the Boston University Conference on Language Development. So I was on the bus and a woman asked me for directions. Upon telling her that I’m from out of town and so couldn’t be of much help, she asked me what I was in town for. When I told her that I was attending a conference on language development she recommended that I consult the Bible as it gives a historical account on the origin of language. Yeah. I’ll get right on it, right after I finish reading Genesis to brush up on my biology.

As soberingly ridiculous as this story is, it was nice to be reminded of pleasant memories of my first plunge into the world of the rational study of language acquisition and a very enjoyable trip to the beautiful city of Boston for a very enjoyable conference. Thanks, Biblical literalism!

4 Responses to “Attention Steven Pinker: Look out for Creationists”
  1. Colin says:

    I was shocked how quickly my kids learned Japanese when we lived there. Within a week of starting in a Japanese kindergarten, my daughter (6 at the time) started making what I could only describe as Japanese ‘baby sounds’. She was babbling but the sounds were very definitely Japanese. Within about 5 months, she was able to speak with her peers on a conversational level. Now, two years later and back in Canada, she started in Grade 3 and we warned her teacher that her English was below grade-level. We were kinda brushed off, but it wasn’t long before she was taking part in ESL classes. Now about 4 months later, she is almost caught up.

    I am still trying to learn the Japanese syllabaries…youth is wasted on the young.

    • phoenixtorte says:

      Yeah. I’m studying Japanese and picking it up pretty well (I’m 21) but I wish I learned more languages when I was a kid. I feel really behind when I’m talking to a friend from India who can speak three or more languages. I can only speak one really well, and that’s my native language. Then I have a little Spanish and the Japanese I’m trying to learn now.

  2. ronbrown says:

    Yeah, language acquisition is honestly mindblowing. When you get into the cogsci of it it becomes even more so. It’s not just “the kid starts with no language and then it picks it up”, which in itself is just out of this world, but it’s so much more than that. Within language there’s so much they have to do. They have to understand that language is language: that people are communicating intentions. They have to understand that people even have intentions/minds in the first place. They have to be able to figure out what people are referring to in a given situation–if I say “rabbit” as a rabbit hops by am I referring to this rabbit as if by name, rabbits generally, animals generally, the act of hopping, the act of hoping on the grass, the act of hoping on the grass that is directly in front of us, am I talking about the rabbit at all? They have to figure out where the syllables, words and phrases are within utterances….

    The whole process depends on so many cognitive systems, e.g., social cognition, wordly concepts such as object, movement, colour, apple, etc., pattern recognition, recursion, etc.

    As you alluded to, it’s amazing how amazing the infant is. People used to think that they were just blank slates waiting for input, but they have all of this structure ready to interpret and learn about the world with.

  3. ronbrown says:

    Oh, and yeah, I agree that youth is wasted on youth. You don’t realize what amazing opportunities you had to pick up so many things until it’s years too late… And when you try to encourage your kids to pursue these things, they’ll often just say no, they want to play. Can’t blame’em.

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