Sergio Balari and Guillermo Lorenzo have a paper in the current volume of Biolinguistics, which is dedicated to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language. The paper includes a number of unusual claims about computational approaches to neurobiology which I want to briefly address here.
They begin their discussion of neuolinguistics by claiming that “it is our contention that most self-declared biolinguistic approaches … have systematically misapplied the [Marrian] notion of ‘level’ in their attempts at solving the unification problem [of unifying linguistic computation with neurobiology]”. They claim that the connectome (the set of neural connections) and dynome/oscillome (brain dynamics) “are clearly not levels in any possible sense” purely because there is an ongoing project (that the authors are not involved in) to map how brain regions are dynamically connected. But this project crucially is far from over, and so even though at some point direct connectome-oscillome connections should be made, at the moment they clearly are fundamentally distinct levels of description – unless Balari and Lorenzo can explain how they are unified.
The following four paragraphs proceed to repeat the claim that we do not currently understand neural computation. This is true, but only insofar as a physics paper containing four paragraphs lamenting the lack of a Grand Unified Theory is also true. It is common knowledge in the field that neural computation is not understood, yet there are in fact a number of theoretical attempts to solve this conundrum, which Balari and Lorenzo do not critically engage with but rather dismiss out of hand:
“We raise these issues hopefully not for provoking a paralyzing effect, but to caution against an excessively enthusiastic reading of certain recent proposals concerning the computational character of brain oscillations (e.g., those of Murphy 2015, 2016) which do not seem to have taken into account the complications we just alluded to. To repeat, this is not to deny the potential relevance of brain oscillations in an eventual account of neural computation, but evidence so far is only correlational, in the sense that oscillations do play some role in linguistic tasks (e.g., Lewis et al. 2015, Lewis & Bastiaansen 2015, Ding et al. 2016), but we have so far been unable to disentangle the computational role they purportedly play.”
Had they read the papers they cite, they would have found that Murphy (2016a: 16) provides precisely the kind of analysis they claim is lacking in the field, discussing recent indications that oscillations play a causal role in the perceptual segregation of sound patterns – a topic expanded on in Murphy (2016b) which explores other recent tACS experiments into the theta-gamma code for working memory lending these oscillations a causal role in explaining the physical limitations of cognition. Citing existing work into the causal role of oscillations in behaviour is not an “excessively enthusiastic” thing to do, it is simply a way of providing evidence for one’s claims, a procedure seemingly alien to the authors.
More generally, as Uriagereka has already pointed out, expecting a one-to-one mapping between higher-order computational or psycholinguistic theories and neurobiology is similar to expecting a one-to-one mapping between cosmic background radiation and the Big Bang – certainly possible, but highly unlikely, and not even the goal of the neurolinguist attempting to rebuild our understanding of linguistic computation from the bottom-up.
In short, Balari and Lorenzo claim to provide a bold critique of the oscillation literature but in fact do no such thing.
Cedric Boeckx has a new paper out in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, “A conjecture about the neural basis of recursion in light of descent with modification”. The central thesis is summarised as follows: “I argue that the expansion of the parietal region associated with the globularization of the neurocranium in our species contributed to the transformation of the connection between Broca’s and Wernicke’s region via Geschwind’s territory, and enabled the pairing of evolutionary ancient networks that together became capable of constructing and processing not just sequences, but sequences of sequences”.
Boeckx writes that recursion “rests firmly on primate cognition and neural circuitry”. More precisely, the paper claims that “the neuroanatomical reconfiguration of the parietal lobe brought about by globularization extended the Broca-Wernicke connection (to be precise, its dorsal dimension) into “Geschwind’s territory”, forming a fronto-parieto-temporal circuit that provides the basis for richer representational capacities, viz. recursive capacities”.
Here, he discusses and agrees with the Friederici-inspired story that the development of the fronto-temporal dorsal stream somehow brought about a shift from single-instance concatenation operations to hierarchically organised sequences. The additional detail Boeckx provides is to claim that the expansion of the parietal lobe – a consequence of a more globularised braincase – served to bring about the strengthening of dorsal stream connections. This in turn resulted in “the pairing of two evolutionary ancient networks (one fronto-parietal, the other fronto-temporal), both of which build and process sequences”. This idea has been expressed in Berwick and Chomsky’s recent book Why Only Us, and who were themselves re-articulating the findings of primatologists from the past couple of years. However, this story says nothing about how the brain actually implements what Boeckx refers to as “the nature of the computation (and algorithm) involved”.
Boeckx goes on to claim that this pairing of two streams (each capable of finite-state computations) “could have the effect of boosting computational possibilities. Instead of operating on one-dimensional sequences, one now operates on two-dimensional, ‘tree’ representations”. Boeckx believes that if the fronto-parietal dorsal stream were to be “combined (integrated) with another sequencing machine, sequences of sequences would naturally emerge as a result”. But this appears to be something of a magic step: Pairing two finite-state machines does not produce a higher-order device, and pairing a sequence with another sequence does not necessarily produce “sequences of sequences”. While it may be true that syntactic labeling plus a form of “spell-out” provides the human-specific features of language, and that both labeling and spell-out can be loosely (but only partly) attributed to the hierarchically organised fronto-parietal structures and the fronto-temporal loop connections to externalisation, the jump from single-instance concatenation to recursion likely required more than the pairing of two sequence processors.
Still, the paper is filled with attractive ideas, such as the following: “Perhaps the fact that the parietal lobe has long been associated with numerosity … may help us understand why syntactic structures exhibit a spontaneous ‘logicality’ … intimately related to quantification, processed by the fronto-parietal network”. There is almost certainly something to this, and as Boeckx is well aware the field could certainly do with more of these sorts of multidisciplinary gestures.
There are some very concrete proposals about the neurocomputational properties of brain waves with respect to language, for instance here, here, here and here. There does, however, seem to be much confusion concerning this oscillatory approach to language. Goucha, Zaccarella and Friederici (2016), for instance, make the following claim:
“Alternative mechanisms based on brain oscillations have been proposed as a crucial element for the emergence of language (Murphy, 2015b) … However, those mechanisms seem to already be in place in other species. For example, despite the crucial brain expansion that took place in primates and especially humans compared to other mammals, the rhythmical hierarchy of oscillations is mainly kept unchanged (Buzsáki et al., 2013). As Friederici and Singer (2015) pinpoint, the basic neural mechanisms behind cognition through the hierarchical embedding of oscillations are transversal across animals.”
However, while the hierarchy of brain rhythms themselves may be preserved, it is crucially their cross-frequency coupling relations which are human-specific – a major topic for future research.
Goucha, T., Zaccarella, E., & Friederici, A.D. 2016. A revival of the homo loquens as a builder of labeled structures: neurocognitive considerations. Ms. Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Germany.
The American political activist and journalist Chris Hedges believes that corporate executives, and the ‘armies of bureaucrats’ and ‘careerists’ which serve them, are ‘cold and disconnected’, ‘docile’, ‘compliant’, and ‘assure themselves of their own goodness through their private acts as husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers … It is moral schizophrenia. They erect the walls to create an isolated consciousness. They make the lethal goals of ExxonMobil or Goldman Sachs or Raytheon or insurance companies possible’.[i] Erich Fromm’s classic 1956 study The Art of Loving argued that capitalism – and, we might add, the arms trade – ‘needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience – yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim – expect the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead’.[ii]
Joining one of many such armies, University College London Provost Malcolm Grant visited the Arab Spring nations with David Cameron in 2011 to (primarily) sell arms during the ongoing forms of state terror. Grant’s decision followed an interesting and remarkable history, little-known on UCL’s campus today and rarely discussed at the time.
After a two year student campaign, on January 1st 2009 UCL implemented an ethical investment policy, ensuring divestment from the arms firm Cobham PLC, a major supplier of Israeli arms and whose Hellfire missiles were regularly used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cobham also manufactured parts of weapons system used by Israel in its bombing raids in Lebanon in 2006. After a freedom of information request revealed that UCL had £900,000 invested in Cobham (total assets invested: £92.3m; arms shares as percentage of total investments: 0.9) and £746,000 invested in Smiths Group (which contributed to the manufacturing of Apaches and F16s), the ‘Disarm UCL’ campaign was formed, which rapidly became extremely popular on campus, both with students and later with the university’s ethical investment review committee.[iii] The university even ran a unique, exciting degree course for students to take, an MSc in Systems Engineering Management, ‘a joint development between BAE SYSTEMS and University College London to produce a programme which combines academic rigour and practical experience in the Aerospace and Defence Industry’.[iv] Extracting this from the standardised and scrupulously misleading rhetoric of ‘excellence’ and so forth, this translates into ‘a course which funnels resources and ingenuity straight into the coffers of a private arms manufacturer’. UCL soon became known as ‘the Gower Street gunrunners’, and Disarm UCL campaigners were often seen in the Main Quad on campus. Around the same time, St Andrews, Goldsmiths and SOAS all made steps towards cutting ties with the arms trade. With UCL’s admirable history of opposing discrimination, its strong funding of human rights abuses came as something of a surprise to students and faculty. The university also seems to be regressing on a number of other fronts, failing to take action to stop modern-day slavery conditions in its international campus in Qatar, where migrant workers are paid less than £180 a month for 12-15-hour shifts and endure persistent human rights violations.[v]
In late May 2016, a Freedom of Information request of mine about UCL’s connections with the arms trade was been published.[vi] Despite the university implementing an ‘ethical investment’ policy from 2009 onwards as a result of Disarm UCL’s efforts, this only relates to stocks and shares and it currently seems to apply far less stringent ethical criteria when deciding on research and consultancy contracts, enjoying links with a large number of the UK’s (and some of the US’s) arms companies. The response to the FOI request was given by Spenser Crouch, Data Protection & Freedom of Information Administrator at UCL. Crouch’s response included funds received over the last five financial years from arms organisations. In addition: ‘Non-MoD funders include overseas Governmental Defence Agencies, notably Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For example the DARPA make up 50% of the non MoD-related income reported here, however £1.25m (70%) of this is for research into brain function relating to injury recovery’. Finally: ‘The data covers 126 projects (including Mod-related), 57% of which are studentships. Studentships account for 55% of the MoD-related income overall, and 15% of the income from the other funders including the large DARPA projects’.
The files revealed that from 2010-15, UCL had received over £1.3m from the Ministry of Defence and related departments for various projects, with £340,000 coming from the Atomic Weapons Establishment, £880,000 from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), and £70,000 from the MoD.
During the same period, UCL received an astonishing £3.6m from the arms trade, bringing the total military-related funding to £4.9m. More worryingly, the amount has in fact increased annually from 2010, beginning at £623,000 in 2010-11, then rising to £881,000 in 2011-12, £1.02m in 2012-13, £1.14m in 2013-14, and £1.28m in 2014-15. The companies funding the university include Aeroflex, Airbus Defence & Space, Airbus Weapons Establishment, Babcock, BAE Systems (including BAE Systems Marine Ltd, BAE Systems Surface Ships Ltd), BMT Defence Services Limited, EADS, Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce Power Engineering, Thales (including Thales Uk Ltd, Thales Netherland B.V.), and TRL Technology. From 2010-15, UCL received £195,000 from BAE Systems, £1.8m from DARPA, £67,000 from Airbus, £19,000 from Halliburton (which works closely with the arms industry), £236,000 from Lockheed Martin, and £625,000 from Thales.
The FOI request included the following statement: ‘I would wholeheartedly encourage the university to adopt an ethical investment policy that excludes the arms trade, and would appreciate it if you could tell me if this is something that the university is working towards’. UCL’s response included no comment to this effect.
As countless other examples reveal, the modern university is concerned above all else with profit, and is more than willing to align itself with abusive regimes and rogue corporations, supporting unethical firms through investment, research, recruitment and inviting representatives to give talks on campus. Universities are increasingly becoming militarised spaces. University career services – those stale and intensely unhelpful entities – promote arms companies and invite them to careers fairs, ‘advising’ students away from applying their skills in more ethical, renewal job markets. Universities invest their financial reserves and endowment funds, either by buying shares directly or investing in funds. Through either of these means, their funds are often invested in arms companies, supporting them financially while also giving the arms trade something of a ‘social license’, since universities are typically well-respected (quasi-)public bodies.
Not only does investment in the arms trade have nothing at all to do with education, but ethical investment funds have been shown to be more profitable. Throughout the 2000s, the Church of England’s £4.3 billion ethical fund was the second best performers out of over 1,000 funds.