Re: Instincts and Bioprograms

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 19:15:42 -0400

In message <> Jesse S. Cook III writes:

> First, I think, maybe, the word "trigger" is inappropriate for that which it
> is being used. It seems to me that "a social and liguistic context" is not
> a "trigger". That is to say, a context is not a trigger. A context is a
> context. A trigger is something that sets off something else. A context is
> something within which something else happens.
> Language is acquired within "a social and linguistic context" through some
> unknown means *during a certain period of time*. It is part of a normal
> development process; and, if there is a "trigger", it is time, not the
> context wihtin which it takes place.

Apparently it is not time, by itself, that triggers normal linguistic
development. There has to be language happening and it has to be happening in
the social environment of children. When I get to my office (perhaps tomorrow)
I can give you some specific references on this issue, if anyone wants them.

> Second, what makes you (or Bickerton, for that matter) think that insticts
> "require no such triggers"? It seems to me that the word "trigger" is more
> appropriately applied with reference to instincts than it is with reference
> to language acquisition.

The distinction is that an instinctive behavior does not acquire a trigger for
ACQUISITION. Of course, a specific instinctive response is usually triggered by
something, but it's there, fully formed, waiting for the first stimulus to bring
it out. If language were like that, the first time you said something to your
kid they would answer you back.

> Third, I agree that it is inappropriate to call language an instinct.

All right!!!

> Fourth, what "elements" of culture "appear to be innate and yet...require a
> social context for acquisition" besides language?

Culture in general requires a social context for acquisition, doesn't it? As
for the innate part, here I get to go out on my limb a bit (Warning!!).

I assume that language and culture are biologically based systems. It seems
clear that there is an innate biological infrastructure to language (Chomsky's
universal grammar, Bickerton's bioprogram, whatever we end up calling it) which
is innate in Homo sapiens sapiens. A good deal of this has been spelled out in
the form of (at least) plausible hypotheses, one of which includes the notion of
biologically given principles and culturally set parameters. It is mostly
non-anthropological linguists who are working on this, by the way, which is NOT
as it should be, but that's probably another thread.

Anyway, I assume further that eventually, when cultural anthropologists stop
being biophobes, we will be able to do the same thing for culture in general.
(Roger Brown, to throw in one reference, makes a nice start in his book "Human
Universals".) The task, to analogize a bit from language, will be to find
principles which are given, a part of the bioprogram (or whatever), but which
allow for parameterized setting within a particular socio-cultural context.
Mating might be one such principle; another might be those dreaded kinship
systems. I'm not saying that I(!!) can do it right now but I think if we are
ever going to have a theory of H. sapiens these things will have to be in there.

Ron Kephart