Arika Okrent in Aeon:
Science is a messy business, but just like everything with loose ends and ragged edges, we tend to understand it by resorting to ideal types. On the one hand, there’s the archetype of the scientific method: a means of accounting for observations, generating precise, testable predictions, and yielding new discoveries about the natural consequences of natural laws. On the other, there’s our ever-replenishing font of story archetypes: the accidental event that results in a sudden clarifying insight; the hero who pursues the truth in the face of resistance or even danger; the surprising fact that challenges the dominant theory and brings it toppling to the ground.
The interplay of these archetypes has produced a spirited, long-running controversy about the nature and origins of language. Recently, it’s been flung back into public awareness following the publication of Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech (2016).
In Wolfe’s breathless re-telling, the dominant scientific theory is Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’ – the idea that all languages share a deep underlying structure that’s almost certainly baked into our biology by evolution. The crucial hypothesis is that its core, essential feature is recursion, the capacity to embed phrases within phrases ad infinitum, and so express complex relations between ideas (such as ‘Tom says that Dan claims that Noam believes that…’). And the challenging fact is the discovery of an Amazonian language, Pirahã, that does not have recursion. The scientific debate plays out as a classic David-and-Goliath story, with Chomsky as a famous, ivory-tower intellectual whose grand armchair proclamations are challenged by a rugged, lowly field linguist and former Christian missionary named Daniel Everett.