Skip navigation
Hardcover | Out of Print | 304 pp. | 6 x 9 in | February 2000 | ISBN: 9780262032735
Paperback | $5.75 Short | £4.95 | 304 pp. | 6 x 9 in | August 2001 | ISBN: 9780262531986
Mouseover for Online Attention Data

Lingua ex Machina

Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain


A machine for language? Certainly, say the neurophysiologists, busy studying the language specializations of the human brain and trying to identify their evolutionary antecedents. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky talk about machinelike "modules" in the brain for syntax, arguing that language is more an instinct (a complex behavior triggered by simple environmental stimuli) than an acquired skill like riding a bicycle.

But structured language presents the same evolutionary problems as feathered forelimbs for flight: you need a lot of specializations to fly even a little bit. How do you get them, if evolution has no foresight and the intermediate stages do not have intermediate payoffs? Some say that the Darwinian scheme for gradual species self-improvement cannot explain our most valued human capability, the one that sets us so far above the apes, language itself.

William Calvin and Derek Bickerton suggest that other evolutionary developments, not directly related to language, allowed language to evolve in a way that eventually promoted a Chomskian syntax. They compare these intermediate behaviors to the curb-cuts originally intended for wheelchair users. Their usefulness was soon discovered by users of strollers, shopping carts, rollerblades, and so on. The authors argue that reciprocal altruism and ballistic movement planning were "curb-cuts" that indirectly promoted the formation of structured language. Written in the form of a dialogue set in Bellagio, Italy, Lingua ex Machina presents an engaging challenge to those who view the human capacity for language as a winner-take-all war between Chomsky and Darwin.

About the Author

William H. Calvin is Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. His books include The Cerebral Code (MIT Press, 1996).


“This book is witty, opinionated and deeply clever, a wonderful introduction to one of the most controversial issues in the study of mind.”—The New York Times Book Review


“In Lingua ex Machina, Calvin and Bickerton, in a refreshing spirit of courage and wonder, advance directly and insightfully into the amazing details of the hardest question of language.”
Mark Turner, Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Doctoral Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science, University of Maryland, and author of The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language
“In a lively back-and-forth across disciplines, Calvin and Bickerton wrestle language to the mat in a way no single author could. Why did language evolve, and kind of existing blueprints in the brain did it enlist? Rather than depicting language as a stand-alone instinct, the authors see it as the culmination of many different developments, some of which started long before our species appeared on the planet, such as tit-for-tat cooperation. The result is a delightful introduction to the language origins debate-- Chomsky's agnosticism on the matter not withstanding--by two vetern debaters.”
Frans de Waal, author of Good Natured and Chimpanzee Politics
Lingua ex Machina is the result of a fascinating and unlikely collaboration between two highly original thinkers—a linguist and a theoretical neurophysiologist—who have spent their careers considering the evolution of the human mind from these very different perspectives. The result is something halfway between a synthesis and a dialogue, that leads the reader on a challenging ride through some of the most interesting and controversial topics in the science of mind.”
Terrence W. Deacon, Boston University