Some Problems for Biolinguistics


  • Derek Bickerton


Biolinguistics will have to face and resolve several problems before it can achieve a pivotal position in the human sciences. Its relationship to the Minimalist Program is ambiguous, creating doubts as to whether it is a genuine subdiscipline or merely another name for a particular linguistic theory. Equally ambiguous is the relationship it assumes between ‘knowledge of language’ and the neural mechanisms that actually construct sentences. The latter issue raises serious questions about the validity of covert syntactic operations. Further problems arise from the attitudes of many biolinguists towards natural selection and evo-devo: The first they misunderstand, the second they both misunderstand and overestimate. One consequence is a one-sided approach to language evolution crucially involving linguistic ‘precursors’ and the protolanguage hypothesis. Most of these problems arise through the identification of biolinguistics with internalist and essentialist approaches to language, thereby simultaneously narrowing its scope and hindering its acceptance by biologists.

Author Biography

Derek Bickerton, University of Hawaii
Professor emeritus, linguistics