Chomsky’s Language Module

I greatly admire Noam Chomsky. While his political theories border on the zany, he is a first rate researcher and a first rate scientist. He is justly viewed as a founding father of cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, and sociobiology. Berk, in chapter 6, does a competent job of outlining the basics of the universal grammar module. However, Berk’s criticism are off base (or at least incomplete). Her attempt to paint a balanced picture of Chomsky instead outlines a caricature of modularity.


Berk states that “critics of Chomsky’s theory doubt one set of rules can account for all grammatical forms.” However, such a list is unneeded. A genetic factor would only need to account for all behavior within a domain if the claim was that the behavior is ruled entirely by genetics. Yet the list of such thing is vanishingly small. Chomsky and other modular theorists argue for a “G X E” view in which both genetics and environment are independent variables in behavior. This should not be confused with the “interactionist” perspective Berk outlines immediately following the Chomsky sections. While the interactionists maintain that a sort of massive, parrallal, distributed computer exists in the mind and learns modules based on statistical input and perhaps some seed variables, modularists like Chomsky argue that the modules are pre-programmed, and only have to be evoked.

Likewise, as I mentioned in a previous reaction paper, a nativist view does not imply the sort of stability that Berk seems to assume. Modules may be programmed to be evoked in time, and indeed the language module may be composed of several interrelated modules that are naturally evoked at different ages (much as your computer, when it first starts, perhaps loads your web browser first, and then your wireless Internet connection, and only then does the “email module” appear).

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