Derek’s kittens are displaying behaviour that seems to be hard wired. There is a huge range of examples of linguistic capabilities seeming to follow a strict developmental schedule — use of verbs, tenses or telegraphic speach all arrive at about the same age in children. Chomsky is the most famous linguist to claim that language, or core parts of it, are inate. His justification was that there appears to be a poverty of input in a child’s linguistic environment. Also he contended that there are syntactic regularities between far-flung languages. What it is that is inate was subject to debate though, and his proposal was that there was a deep structure to language that forms a syntactic/semantic foundation to all languages.
While this is very likely true, there is not a poverty of input — far from it. It is just not linguistic input. Reality itself is the input. This is not so far fetched as it seems. Languages are only useful if they are “representative”. They can only be that if they represent at some level the regularities that we can observe in nature. A simple example is that there is a flow of time in nature and in language. Causal structures are embedded in language, as they are in activities such as grasping and stepping. Since almost everything that we are and do must reflect the nature of reality I would guess that the deepest thing that must come hardwired is mechanism to test learned skills and capabilities against reality.
I think that there is a selective pressure on “representativeness” that applies at the core of all learning processes both physical and psychological.
A good book to read about this is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct.
My undergraduate dissertation was on linguistic development A topic I find quite fascinating. And if you’re willing to wade through some horrifically turgid prose, I also wrote a dissertation on evolution in linguistic development.
I’m looking forward to the arrival of The Three to observe it first-hand.