Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain
William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton, 298 pp The MIT Press, 2000.

     William H. Calvin is a theoretical neurophysiologist and Derek Bickerton is a Cartesian linguist, both have written extensively on language evolution from opposite standpoints. They have met at Villa Serbelloni on Como's Lake in Italy to write this book. Calvin is the author of "The throwing Madonna" (Mc Graw Hill, 1983) and twenty years later he is still persuaded of his theory: the link between protolanguage and the emergence of syntax is throwing.
     Throwing -Calvin suggests- evolved in the hominid line in part as a consequence of bipedalism and alterations of the hand. The theory is introduced as a response to Bickerton. In fact each chapter is written by just one of the authors, with occasional interpositions from the other. Bickerton is well known for his theory of the emergence of syntax: a kind of "big bang". Explaining the origins of the construction of phrases and clauses, Bickerton introduces a concept, often used in the past as an argument for intelligent design over natural selection: "the irreducible complexity". Bickerton maintains that the essence of syntax may be discerned in reciprocal altruism among apes.
     At this point the Calvin's throwing takes place. Even if Calvin recognises that throwing was not the only activity that drove the changes necessary to generate syntax, and higher intellectual functions were probably involved, his central assumption remains that throwing has a hierarchical tree structure analogous to that of a sentence, neglecting a lot of reasonable intermediate links such as manual gesture with its intrinsic syntax. The book goes on, and it is worthy of a reading, but we find the description of the cortex as a "Darwin Machine" an over-simplification, may be for a poorly understood Edelman's theory, and the metonymy of throwing is a clear example of mistaking the effect for the cause. "Cause" being the neurological substrate in constant dynamic change for phyletic and ontogenetic learning.
     Moreover Bickerton considers the recent Chomsky's Minimalist Program, neglecting the theory of deep and surface structure, as well as the complex transformational rules. In conclusion we don't think Darwin and Chomsky needed such a reconciliation with the Human Brain.

Brian L. Roberts