Re: sci.anthro ???

Norman Sides (
20 Aug 1995 21:42:17 -0700

Rusty Rae ( wrote:

: Instead of posting a wish list for everyone to fulfill, how
: 'bout you choose a subject and ask the ones who responded to you on
: this thread to help you out to get something started. Choose even an
: ill-formed question. The nice thing about living the culture is that
: you don't have to be perfect here.

: Sheila

Your challenge is fair I suppose, but my "wish list" did
contain questions that could spark discussion if anyone is
interested. I asked about the existence of a language
instinct, for example. In another post I'm asking Marc
Tyrrell if anthropologists are considering the question of a
language instinct in human beings. My question was prompted
by a reading of Steven Pinker's _The Language Instinct_.

The question seems basic to an understanding of human
nature. As Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead demonstrated,
human nature seems highly plastic in some ways. But
Benedict, Mead and other followers of Boas undoubtedly
exaggerated the extent of this plasticity when they
suggested that virtually all of human behavior is culturally
determined. This may have been partly a response to
biological determinists who claimed much of human behavior
is instinctive. You had the biological determinists on the
one hand and the cultural determinists on the other, each
claiming to have the whole truth. But Noam Chompsky, in the
early sixties, produced evidence that an innate learning
mechanism contributes to children's ability to acquire
language. Pinker, a linguist who has been highly influenced
by Chompsky's thought, comes right out and calls this
mechanism an instinct.

Actually it's been a while since I read the book and I'd
have to look up his exact wording, but he keeps pretty close
to most of Chompsky's original thought except in his use of
the term "instinct". If we do have a language instinct it's
quite unlike the old biologically deterministic notions of
what an instinct is, and the idea ought to be compatible
with anthropological thought. I do recall that Pinker
critcized people who loosely transported Chompsky's term
"deep structure" to nonlinguistic contexts, but it seems
natural to generalize upon psycholinguistic findings if the
data support such generalization. I was wondering if there
is any kind of consensus on these issues within
anthropology, or what kind of research is being done. This
also seems an area where many nonanthropologists could have
input because you don't have to go to some distant land to
see and hear children acquiring language.

Norman Sides