The biolinguistic thesis states that language is a biological system internal to an individual of the species Homo sapiens sapiens for generating structured linguistic expressions over a potentially unbounded range; the design of the system is determined by a genetic endowment, external stimuli, and natural laws. With such an expansive scope, the thesis can be thoroughly explored only through interdisciplinary enterprises—the organization of which is the desideratum of the Cambridge Biolinguistics Initiative (CBI). We welcome you to participate in this most exciting endeavor. (Continue this manifesto.)

03 February 2012

Meeting Monday 6th February (6:15PM)

For the first meeting of Lent term, we will be considering a recent paper by John Mikhail which summarises research into universal moral grammar, an approach that takes the methodology of generative biolinguistics and applies it to moral judgements. While such proposals often have a tendency to be very speculative, Mikhail's analysis is suprisingly empirical, thus making an interesting case for UMG. Thanks to Michelle Sheehan for suggesting this reading!

As noted above, we will be meeting on Monday 6th February at 6:15PM - this will be in the Munby room of King's college which can be found on the second floor of the King's A staircase.

26 January 2012

Meeting Monday 28th November

For our final meeting of term, we discussed possible correlates of phonology in animals, considering a recent paper on this topic by Samuels, Hauser, and Boeckx. Thanks to Iain Mobbs and Alison Biggs for suggesting this reading!

Meeting Monday 14th November

For our fifth meeting of term, instead of considering the theoretical issues surrounding linguistic nativism, which were the focus of the previous three weeks, we examined the link between genes and complex cognition. Any claim of nativism is presumably also a claim of genetic specification, but as we saw, the link between a gene and a cognitive phenotype is by no means simple. The paper for discussion was Simon Fisher's 2006 paper "Tangled Webs: Tracing the connections between genes and cognition," which considers, among other cases, the much reported FOXP2 gene, demonstrating that its link to language is nowhere near as straightforward as reported in the popular press. Thus the paper served as an introduction to modern genetic theory, and what it can and cannot tell us about cognition.

Meeting Monday 7th November

Taking a tangent from poverty of the stimulus arguments, this week we discussed mathematical models of learnability, in particular Gold's theorem, including how it does and doesn't relate to the logical problem of language acquisition. Along with Gold's original 1967 paper, we considered Osherson et al.'s later results in learning theory, but focused mainly on Johnson's 2004 accessible characterisation of Gold's theorem and its relevance to cognitive science. Thanks to George Walkden for suggesting these readings!

Meeting Monday 31st October

This week we continued our discussions of poverty of the stimulus arguments, focusing on Jerry Fodor's detailed review of Fiona Cowie's book "What's Within," where Fodor outlines his conception of these arguements in great detail. Thanks to Jeffrey Watumull for suggesting this reading!

Meeting Monday 24th October

For this session, we met to examine poverty of the stimulus arguments in generative grammar. In particular, we examined two recent papers on the topic - one by Perfors, Tenenbaum and Regier, and another by Berwick, Pietroski, Yankama and Chomsky, which differ in their support of the argument. Additionally, we began the session with a consideration of Plato's dialogue The Meno, which is perhaps the first argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus (thanks to Theresa Biberauer, Iain Mobbs and Ian Roberts for suggesting these readings).

13 October 2011

Meeting Monday 17th October (5:00PM)

We will be meeting from 5-6pm on Monday 17th October in room SR-14 of the English faculty building (on the second floor), and discussing thee three emailed articles. The first is a short yet insightful passage taken from The Descent of Man in which Darwin considers how language could have evolved, and whether any other organisms exhibit anything at all comparable. We then skip nearly 140 years into the future to Berwick and Chomsky, who outline the biolinguistic approach language from which CBI gets its name. And as a comparison, the final paper is by Chater and Christensen take a very different contemporary perspective, which is nonetheless grounded in Darwinian thought. The session on Monday will take the form of an open discussion, and we'll be considering the relation between these readings. It's therefore worth considering:

- Which aspects of Darwin's approach are now known to be incorrect?

- More interestingly, which apsects are known to be correct?

- Which aspects of his approach are used (if any) in each of the modern proposals?

- Are the modern approaches compatible to any extent, or completely in opposition to each other?

- Which is more plausible?