Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


30th Annual Convention; Boston, MA; 2004

Event Details

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Invited Paper Session #88
CE Offered: None

The FOXP2 "Language" Gene and Chomsky's Mythical "Universal Grammar"

Saturday, May 29, 2004
4:30 PM–5:20 PM
Independence West
Area: VRB; Domain: Applied Research
CE Instructor: Ted Schoneberger, Psy.D.
Chair: Ted Schoneberger (California State University, Stanislaus)
PHILIP LIEBERMAN (Brown University)
Philip Lieberman studied at MIT where he was one of the four students in the first class that Noam Chomsky taught. He received a PhD in linguistics, as well as degrees in electrical engineering, which entails the development of devices that actually work. His dissertation, “Intonation, Perception and Language” was one of the first books published by the MIT Press. In his 1984 book, The Biology and Evolution of Language, he noted the biological implausibility of Chomsky’s theories. Lieberman’s research on the evolution of human speech anatomy demonstrated its species-specific nature and the central linguistic role of speech. His subsequent research has focused on the subcortical basal ganglia structures of the brain that regulate motor control, syntax, and human cognitive ability. His most recent book, Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain: The Subcortical Bases of Speech, Syntax and Thought, presents the case for subcortical neural structures playing a central role in the neural circuits that confer the qualities that differentiate human beings from other species. He holds the Fred M. Seed chair as Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences at Brown University, where he also is a Professor of Anthropology. His other interests include the photographic documentation of Tibetan culture and art in the Himalaya.

Noam Chomskys followers claimed that the discovery of the FOXP2 language gene showed that human brain had a genetically transmitted, innate Universal Grammar that specified the syntax of all human languages. The real facts refute this claim. A syndrome a set of behavioral deficits that transcends language characterizes the deficits of the members of the extended family KE who have an anomalous version of this gene. These individuals are unable to sequence simple tongue and lip maneuvers, repeat two word sequences, comprehend sentences that have complex syntax, and many display cognitive inflexibility. Studies of mice and humans show that FOXP2 and similar genes govern the development of neural structures that play a critical role in regulating motor control, language and cognition. There can be no difference in the physiologic activity of these neural structures when a person acquires a complex motor act such as shifting the gears of a car, or the linguistic rules for English passive sentences. Neurophysiologic data show that we and other animals acquire motor skills by means of general cognitive processes such as associative learning and imitation. Syntax must be learned by the same means. Universal Grammar is a fable it has the same status as an innate capacity for driving a car.




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