MENSCH: a good person, someone who is kind, helpful, generous, like Noam Chomsky. In 1981, I read Noam’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. The criticisms were simple, elegant, and devastating. It immediately attracted me to the study of language and to Noam’s ideas. It wasn’t until 1998 that I had the opportunity to hear Noam speak, an opportunity that opened the door to our collaboration, and perhaps more importantly, our friendship. These are my memories of this initial opportunity and what transpired.
Noam was giving a university-wide lecture on “Brain and Language.” I was somewhat intrigued by the “brain” insertion into the title, expecting “mind” instead. I recruited many of my students and we made the trek to MIT. Noam started out the lecture by saying he would discuss three ideas related to brain and language: modularity (Fodor), computation (Gallistel), and to my surprise, the Tinbergian approach to communication and language that I had laid out in my book The Evolution of Communication. Noam was both supportive of the ideas, and powerfully critical in ways that I appreciated. One comment stood out, one classically, trenchantly Noam: if honeybees have a dance language, even if it’s not like ours, what is known about the neurobiology underlying this system? The answer, he stated with force: “Nothing at all!” And, so he continued, given the poverty of our understanding of bees, how can we possibly hope to understand the neurobiology of human language, let alone its evolution? What a challenge, one that intrigued me. We started talking, over email and in person. I started to realize, along with my post-doc Tecumseh Fitch, that many of our ideas were sympatico. This was surprising, initially, because so many had painted Noam as anti-evolution. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Ultimately, our ideas were put into print. Little did we know that it would ignite somewhat of a firestorm, one that has continued into the present. So too have our correspondences and collaborations, each one pushing me to clarify my own understanding and ideas. What a gift.
So here’s to you, Noam, on your 90th birthday. Your insights, our collaboration, and friendship mean a great deal to me. You define mensch, and of course, much more.