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Sibyl Fendley
Sibyl Fendley

The Cambridge Handbook Of Biolinguistics


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The Cambridge Handbook Of Biolinguistics


While it is true that biolinguistics has remained an obscure or largely rhetorical field during the last half century or so, it is also true that the early 21st century has spawned an unprecedented number of publications, conferences, and other initiatives that highlight the importance of biology for the study of language. This has not been by chance, for there are a number of factors that can explain why this has happened only at the turn of the century.


Biolinguistics is better characterized as an approach, rather than a field. This is because one of the goals of biolinguistics is very much a methodological one: to bring together insights and discoveries from various fields productively. To achieve this, more than vague acquaintance with the fields mentioned thus far is necessary. A biolinguist must be well-versed in the biological literature, and must seek collaboration with other researchers who are experts on biological sub-fields. It is important to resist vague mentions of other fields without really exploring the issues they are concerned with; the latter is more likely to alienate those fields, as is so often the case. This endeavor must also rely on encouragement and resources made available to young researchers who are interested in the biology of language, from exposure to different perspectives to the culture of the fields in the life sciences that offer them, which function very differently from linguistics (e.g., reading or publishing a biology paper is quite a different experience when compared to a linguistics paper). If research takes the biolinguist there, the biolinguist should not be surprised to study something that apparently has little to do with language as traditionally conceived, and should welcome the study of other domains and other species entirely (e.g., birdsong or primate tool use). This does not mean coming up with analogies of what those species are doing and language (as is common in media reports, but also in the technical literature). Instead, it means decomposing and making sense of language in an evolutionary context. Doing so will reinvigorate the work of a researcher of language: it opens up immense possibilities of what can be studied, where one can go to study it, and where it can be shared with the scientific community.


After five decades of biolinguistics, a point has been reached where testable hypotheses about the nature and evolution of language can be formulated. Language has become a subject not only of linguistics, but crucially of a number of different disciplines as well, working in tandem. Much work needs to be done, and methodological barriers pose serious challenges, but as researchers progressively learn to bring these disciplines together, the study of language becomes a much larger enterprise, and new avenues of research open up. At the same time, uncovering the roles of hitherto-ignored factors in the shaping of the language faculty results in the reduction of what is to be explained, bringing us closer to the goal of discovering what is unique about our species.


Biolinguistics is a term which broadly characterises a particular naturalistic approach to the study of language. Its precise methodological and ontological nature is the topic of the present article. In fact, my aim is both descriptive and normative. In so far as biolinguistics hopes to exemplify a strong analogy with biology, I argue it needs to embrace a different path from what linguists have generally taken the field to be. In fact, Sect. 2 attempts to both disambiguate the different possible senses of the aforementioned term within the extant literature and also align the most plausible instantiation with its most prominent framework: the Minimalist Program (Chomsky 1995). In Sect. 3, I provide arguments against this conception of biolinguistics on the grounds that it fails to properly connect to the biological sciences. Finally, in Sect. 4, I present a novel interpretation of biolinguistics in terms of systems biology and thus an ontological picture of natural language as a complex biological system. The resulting programmatic suggestion, I call the Maximalist Program.


There have been a number of articles questioning the philosophical foundations of biolinguistics (Lappin et al. 2000; Behme 2015; Levine 2018). However, what sets the current work apart from these largely negative critiques is that I focus exclusively on the biological claims made by biolinguists and in addition I offer a novel path to underpinning the field within the biological sciences and complex systems analysis alike.


In the neurobiology of language, biology has a strong foothold but linguistic theory does not share an equal or even required position in the broader research enterprise. Although neurolinguistics is a thriving field of inquiry, biolinguistics cannot be identified with it on pain of losing the essence of linguistic explanation. This does not mean that linguistics and biology cannot fruitfully collaborate. But it does indicate a clear separation in methodology and present ontology.


As an approach that respects both linguistic theory and aspects of the biological sciences, the second grade of involvement is still the best candidate for biolinguistics. Despite this, I hope to show in the next section, that biolinguistics qua minimalism fares less favourably upon closer inspection.


In this section, I focus my attention on incongruities between biolinguistics (under minimalism) and the biological sciences. The aim is to show that MP is not the only instantiation of the second grade of involvement, and given the complexities of language evolution specifically, other approaches might fare better with relation to explanatory depth.


Thus, biolinguistics starts with a very controversial assumption, namely that its actual target is biologically anomalous. This might indeed be the case, but I do not believe that the biological resources were exhausted prior to this determination. In fact, as I will show, the allegedly biological anomaly of natural language draws from a controversial claim about its emergence or evolution.Footnote 17


The last advantage already indicated by the myriad possible theoretical convergences of systems biolinguistics is the methodological pluralism this perspective forces into linguistics. What were considered rival theoretical and formal frameworks such as Lexical Functional Grammar, Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Dependency Grammar, Construction Grammar, Probabilistic Linguistics and more semantic approaches like Dynamic Syntax all have a place within MP+. Synchronous grammars, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, social cognition, and neurobiology are especially important for systems biolinguistics, as I have described it, more specifically. But the possibilities extend beyond traditional avenues of connection. By adding natural language to the established list of complex systems examples such as brains, economies, climates, eusocial insects, the Internet and the universe itself, we open ourselves up to analogies and models drawn from these well-studied phenomena no longer relegating the study of language to the realm of the biologically unique.


In terms of the complex systems features in use in systems biolinguistics, this view would aim to incorporate (1) numerosity, (2) feedback, (7) robustness, (8) nested structure and modularity, (9) history and memory, and (10) adaptive behaviour into the study of language. We have mostly seen snapshots of (1), (7), (8), and (10) here. Of course, future work would precisify these aims but for now the chief goal is to present an argument for a Maximalist approach to language sciences as a means of capturing the true essence of a viable biolinguistics.


In this article, I have had a number of related goals, primary among them has been to provide a sound scientific and biological basis for biolinguistics. I developed and argued for a Maximalist Program in contrast to the Minimalism of contemporary biolinguistics. MP+ is a complexity science and my specific take on biolinguistics involves a shift to systems biology. I showed that there are already accounts which might fit into it before offering a sketch of my own systems biolinguistic approach.


If one does not share the general framework of biolinguistics, then they will perhaps be unconvinced by the argument from linguistics above. The design-features argument, on the other hand, has much wider scope and is not entirely dependent upon a particular linguistics school of thought. By design features I mean the kind of features one discovers upon investigating language as a system in its own right. Such features include, amongst many others, displacement, linear order, agreement, and anaphora. One may then investigate the communicative and computational efficiency of these features as