Herbert S. Terrace


On his book Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can

Cover Interview of October 02, 2019


There are two major implications I would like the reader to draw from my book. The first is the importance of non-verbal experiences that an infant shares with their parents. The other is how to overcome the weakness of Chomsky’s theory of the evolution of language.

Now that intersubjectivity and joint attention have been well documented by developmental psychologists, we need to learn more about their antecedents. For example, the renowned anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, has suggested that Homo erectus benefited from cooperation instilled by collective breeding, the practice of sharing the care of infants with relatives. Unlike a chimpanzee mother, who won’t allow anyone to approach a newborn infant for six months, there is evidence that Homo erectus’ infants were raised by “alloparents” in addition to their own mothers. Satisfying alloparents is presumed to strengthen intersubjectivity which, in turn, facilitates cooperation.

Recent advances in technology allow researchers to detect the focus of attention of a parent and their infant over long intervals of time. Such data will, for the first time, allow investigators to measure joint attention precisely in a variety of situations.

Chomsky’s prominence as a linguist is based on his concept of a Universal Grammar that can generate any of the languages that people speak. Those models have transformed linguistics and have contributed significantly to cognitive psychology. Chomsky’s anti-behaviorist stance has served him well in developing models of grammar. The same cannot be said for his treatment of words. Although Chomsky believes that grammar is innate and that it resulted from a mutation, the same cannot be said of words. Words have obvious behavioral origins, origins that are clearly social. The challenge is to determine those origins. If I were starting out as a graduate student and needed a field of inquiry to study, that would be my focus.

Given our current technological sophistication, I anticipate important discoveries about how language not only began but how it has also thrived. Words provide the glue that allows for and preserves learning, intelligence, knowledge, invention, discovery, understanding, wisdom, and love.