Language Innateness: BBS Call for Commentators

Stevan Harnad (
Sat, 28 Oct 1995 18:06:05 GMT

This article has been accepted for publication in Behavioral and Brain
Sciences (BBS), an international, interdisciplinary journal providing
Open Peer Commentary on important and controversial current research in
the biobehavioral and cognitive sciences.

Commentators must be current BBS Associates or nominated by a current
BBS Associate. To be considered as a commentator for this article, to
suggest other appropriate commentators, or for information about how to
become a BBS Associate, please send email to: or write to:

Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Department of Psychology
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

To help us put together a balanced list of commentators, please give
some indication of the aspects of the topic on which you would bring
your areas of expertise to bear if you were selected as a commentator.
An electronic draft of the full text is available for inspection by
anonymous ftp (or gopher or world-wide-web) according to the
instructions that follow after the abstract.

Ralph-Axel Mueller
PET Center,
Children's Hospital of Michigan,
Wayne State University,
Detroit MI 48201-2196,

KEYWORDS: brain development, dissociations, distributive
representations, epigenesis, evolution, functional
localization, individual variation, innateness, language.

ABSTRACT: The concepts of the innateness, universality,
species-specificity, and autonomy of the human language
capacity have had an extreme impact on the psycholinguistic
debate for over thirty years. These concepts are evaluated from
several neurobiological perspectives, with an emphasis on the
emergence of language and its decay due to brain lesion and
progressive brain disease.

Evidence of perceptuomotor homologies and preadaptations for
human language in nonhuman primates suggests a gradual
emergence of language during hominid evolution. Regarding
ontogeny, the innate component of language capacity is likely
to be polygenic and shared with other developmental domains.
Dissociations between verbal and nonverbal development are
probably rooted in the perceptuomotor specializations of neural
substrates rather than the autonomy of a grammar module.
Aphasiological data often assumed to suggest modular linguistic
subsystems can be accounted for in terms of a neurofunctional
model incorporating perceptuomotor-based regional
specializations and distributivity of representations. Thus,
dissociations between grammatical functors and content words
are due to different conditions of acquisition and resulting
differences in neural representation. Since human brains are
characterized by multifactorial interindividual variability,
strict universality of functional organization is biologically

A theoretical alternative is proposed according to which (a)
linguistic specialization of brain areas is due to epigenetic
and probabilistic maturational events, not to genetic
'hard-wiring', and (b) linguistic knowledge is neurally
represented in distributed cell assemblies whose topography
reflects the perceptuomotor modalities involved in the
acquisition and use of a given item of knowledge.

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bbs.mueller). Please do not prepare a commentary on this draft.
Just let us know, after having inspected it, what relevant expertise
you feel you would bring to bear on what aspect of the article.
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