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Conversation with Michael C. Corballis

di Marcello Ienca

Durante la conferenza internazionale "Language and Recursion" presso l'Università di Mons, Michael Corballis, uno dei più importanti scienziati cognitivi viventi, discute con Marcello Ienca alcuni temi tratti dal suo recente testo The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization, pubblicato nel maggio 2011 dalla Princeton University Press. Si sofferma in particolare sulla propria teoria glottogenetica e sullo stato di salute attuale dello studio del linguaggio umano in chiave bioevolutiva.

1. Professor Corballis, you are part of that group of scientists who, in recent times, have tried to bring the question of the phylogenetic origin of language within the range of positive science. What do you think has changed today compared to 1866, and so at the time of the statutory veto of the Linguistics Society of Paris?

MC. I think it took a long time after the veto for scientists to address the problem of language evolution. Another more recent factor was the powerful influence of Noam Chomsky, the most prominent linguist of the past 50 years. Chomsky has argued that language could not have evolved through natural selection, but must have emerged as the result of a sudden, fortuitous "rewiring" of the brain, probably within the past 100, 000 years. This was challenged by Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom in an influential article published in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1990. While they agreed with most of Chomsky's ideas about language, they argued that it must have evolved gradually, through natural selection. I think this article was very influential in reviving interest in the evolution of language. It led to a series of biennial conferences on language evolution, in which many different disciplines were involved, and also led to a general increase in published articles and books on language evolution. Besides linguists, psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, philosophers, biologists, computer scientists, and neuroscientists all became involved. Inevitably this led to a more empirical, biological approach.

2. According to you, does this new approach depend only on the increase of empirical evidence or even on a "paradigm shift" within the sciences of the mind?

MC. I think it depends both on the increase of empirical evidence, as well as on a paradigm shift away from the Cartesian approach of Chomsky, with its dualistic undertones, toward a more monist, scientific approach.

3. Glottogenetic studies require, perhaps more than any other scientific problem, a multidisciplinary approach. With which research areas are you most in touch, and from which science do you expect more contributions?

MC. Language as a whole, and not just glottogenesis, now requires a multidisciplinary approach. I expect more contributions from archaeology, with the discovery of new fossils, and from genetics – especially the analysis of ancient DNA from Neanderthal and other hominid fossils. Glottogenesis is important for the understanding of how speech might have evolved, but language is not simply a matter of speech. I think language evolved first as a gestural system.

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