Steven Pinker's misinterpretation of chimp language

William Beeman (William_Beeman@BROWN.EDU)
Fri, 1 Mar 1996 07:49:13 -0500

The following is taken from the primate-talk list. I thought it would
be of interest to Anthro-l readers.
From: (Iain Davidson)
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 1996 09:03:24 +1100
Subject: Re: pinker & apes

>(from [ King Barbara J___ ])
>Dear PT,
>I am reading Steven Pinker's _The Language Instinct_ which includes a
>chapter that discusses evolution of language, including ape-
>language research. I disagree with many of Pinker's interpretations
>of the ape-language research, and am wondering if any of you a) know
>of published book reviews or commentaries that speak to his treatment
>of ape-language research or b) have any opinions on this topic
>yourselves that you would be willing to share with me.
>The one useful book-review essay that I do have is by Michael
>Tomasello: Language is not an instinct. Cognitive Development 10:131-
>156. (1995)

I am very happy to see that Pinker is finally getting something other than
praise. This is, in my opinion, a pretty ordinary book (a rash statement
from an author). In all of the cases where he asserts the innateness of
language the argument is completely fudged. On child languae acquisition I
became more and more certain that he did not have children himself, until
he confirmed it. Does Chomsky have children? I would say, too, that he
has never seen Kanzi or Panbanisha or even the video evidence of how they

My favourite moment is when he suggests that archaeologists actually
looking for evidence of language origins is like a drunk looking for his
keys under a lamppost. To which my reply is that, provided the lamppost is
in the vicinity of the car and the pub this may be the best place to start
looking. Pinker would take a taxi back home (assuming he has any money
left) ignoring the history of how he got to the pub in the first place.
This is one of many instances of people speculating about language origins
fearless of the possibility that there might be evidence that gets in the
way of their story.

Iain Davidson
Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology
University of New England
Armidale, NSW 2351
Tel +61 +67 732 441
Fax +61 +67 732 526

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has commentary on Pinker's work in her own extreemly
important book, _Kanzi: the ape at the brink of the human mind_ (Wiley, NY,
William O. Beeman
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology
Brown University
Box 1921 Brown Station
Providence, RI 02912

Tel. (401) 863-3251
Fax: (401) 863-7588
Office Hours Jan-June 1996 Wednesday 1-3.