Book Review: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

The following is a book review and the first post in a series. This post discusses Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. The second post discusses Geoffrey Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate, which is a critique of Pinker’s book. The third post will discuss some of the critics and reviews of Sampson’s book.

In order to talk about Steven Pinker and linguistics, I first have to explain a bit about Noam Chomsky and linguistics. Chomsky started writing about linguistics in the 1950s and through sheer force became a major player in the field. This did not, however, mean that any of Chomsky’s theories carried weight. On the contrary, they were highly speculative and devoid of empirical evidence. Chomsky is the armchair linguist extraordinaire. The audacity of his theory, however, was that it proposed humans are born with something called Universal Grammar, an innate genetic trait that interprets the common underlying structure of all languages and allows us to effortlessly learn our first language. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but it’s been over 50 years and the evidence has never come. On top of that, the linguist John McWhorter (who partly inspired this series of posts) has said that “There is an extent to which any scientific movement is partly a religion and that is definitely true of the Chomskyans.” As we’ll see, the analogy runs much deeper than that.

What you need to know for this review is that Steven Pinker is a Chomskyan. Therefore, this post will discuss not only The Language Instinct, but also the general theories behind it, since Pinker’s book is at the forefront of carrying on the (misguided) notions of Chomskyan linguistics. It’s not going to be pretty, but trust me, I know what I’m doing. To make things a bit easier on us all, instead of referring to Chomsky and Pinker and their cult followers separately, I’m going to call them Chomskers. (LOLcat says “meow”?).

Steven Pinker has got a bridge to sell you

On page 18, Pinker contrasts an innate origin of language with a cultural origin to define what he means by a language “instinct”:

Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term ‘instinct.’ It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs.

It’s possible to deconstruct the incongruities of that passage, but that’s a job for another post (specifically, the one right after this, Sampson’s critique of Pinker). For now, just replace “language” in that passage with “making a sandwich” because to most linguists, the idea that our ability to make a sandwich is a “distinct piece of biological makeup of our brains” makes just as much sense as Pinker’s notion about language. So… Great argument, let’s eat!

Instead of focusing on the logical arguments that refute Pinker’s theory, what I want to discuss here is the frustration that comes from reading The Language Instinct and Chomskers literature when you know there are other more tenable theories out there.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

The first problem has to do with what I’ll call the Chomskers’ Leap of Faith. This involves the theory that there is an underlying structure common to all languages and that its form and reasoning is innate to the human brain. It is called Universal Grammar. In a sense, our brains give us a basic language structure that we can then extrapolate to our mother tongue, whatever that may be. To Chomskers, that is how people learn how to speak so quickly – they already have the fundamental tool, or language instinct, needed to develop language.

How did Chomskers arrive at such a theory, you ask? Simple, they made it up. Universal Grammar was conjured out of thin air (i.e. Chomsky’s mind) and after five decades there is still no solid evidence of its existence. This is the leap of faith I’m talking about. A good example of it comes from two bullet points on page 409:

  • Under the microscope, the babel of languages no longer appear to vary in arbitrary ways and without limit. One now sees a common design to the machinery underlying the world’s languages, a Universal Grammar.
  • Unless this basic design is built in to the mechanism that learns a particular grammar, learning would be impossible. There are many possible ways of generalizing from parents’ speech to the language as a whole, and children home in on the right ones, fast.

These ideas are completely speculative (also known as – “pure bullshit”), but they illustrate Pinker’s leap of faith and circular logic. He thinks that because kids speak, they must have Universal Grammar and because they have Universal Grammar, they must speak. Chomskers love circular logic. It’s what their temple is built on. Pinker’s The Language Instinct is 450 pages of that kind of reasoning. Nothing in the 400 pages leading up to those bullets requires a belief in Universal Grammar. It’s just cherry-picked, misleading, or outright refuted studies.

And the Lord said unto Chomskers…

Another infuriating aspect of reading Chomskers is the pretentiousness of their prose. One gets the feeling that they are reading the Word of God (Noam Chomsky, to the Chomskers) sent down from on high. Instead of taking other theories into account, or even trying to prove why other theories are wrong, they simply dismiss them presumptuously. And they lead unsuspecting readers to do the same. Take this quote from page 39:

First, let’s do away with the folklore that parents teach their children language. No one supposes that parents provide explicit grammar lessons, of course, but many parents (and some child psychologists who should know better) think that mothers provide children with implicit lessons […] called Motherese.

Calling “Motherese” – which is a seriously studied and empirically proven phenomenon – “folklore” doesn’t make it so. Why Pinker would do such a thing seems strange at first, but you have to realize that that’s what Chomskers do. That is how they deal with other solid linguistic studies that have the possibility of refuting their claims (which, remember, have no empirical evidence). The attitude of contempt didn’t work for Noam Chomsky and it’s not going to work for Steven Pinker.

So why does he do it? As the linguist Pieter A. Seuren wrote in Western Linguistics: An Historical Inroduction:

Frequently one finds [Chomsky] use the term ‘exotic’ when referring to proposals or theories that he wishes to reject, whereas anything proposed by himself or his followers is ‘natural’ or ‘standard’. […]
One further, particularly striking feature of the Chomsky school must be mentioned in this context, the curious habit of referring to and quoting only members of the same school, ignoring all other linguists except when they have been long dead. The fact that the Chomsky school forms a close and entirely inward looking citation community has made some authors compare it to a religious sect or, less damningly, a village parish. No doubt there is a point to this kind of comparison, but one should realize that political considerations probably play a larger part in Chomskyan linguistics than is customary in either sects or village parishes. (525)

The problem again lays in Chomskers’ impression that only their theory exists. The bored, novice, or uncritical reader – and, you know, anyone being tested on this book – is liable to take Pinker at face value. In Chapter 8, aptly titled “The Tower of Babel,” Pinker really lays on the God-given truth of Universal Grammar. He writes

What is most striking of all is that we can look at a randomly picked language and find things that can sensibly be called subjects, objects, and verbs to begin with. After all, if we were asked to look for the order of subject, object, and verb in musical notation, or in the computer programming language FORTRAN, or in Morse code, or in arithmetic, we would protest that the very idea is nonsensical. It would be like assembling a representative collection of the world’s cultures from the six continents and trying to survey the colors of their hockey team jerseys or the form of their harakiri rituals. We should be impressed, first and foremost, that research on universals of grammar is even possible!

Except we shouldn’t. Chomskers have been pulling their “theories” out of your collective asses for decades now. Why would anyone be impressed that “research” on something they made up is “possible?” Are you impressed with people in tin foil hats researching UFO landings? That’s not to mention the fact that we invented the concepts of “subject” and “verb” to apply to language, just like we invented “base 10” and “base 60” to apply to arithmetic. Looking for those in language would be nonsensical. But looking for something that could sensibly be called a base in any randomly picked counting system would be – shock! awe! – possible and completely unimpressive. Pinker does a disservice to the reader by equating the existence of something like nouns in all of the world’s languages to the “existence” of Universal Grammar. There is evidence for one, not the other. The Bible tells us that the world was created. That is a fact. The Bible also tells us that God created the world. That is a statement of belief.

In a footnote, Seuren quotes Pinker’s admiration for Chomsky and then says “It seems that Pinker forgot to take into account the possibility that there may also be valid professional reasons for uttering severe criticisms vis-à-vis Chomsky.” (526) In the same way that a Catholic priest is unlikely to quote from the Koran in his sermon, Chomskers will not address any other theories in their writing. That’s alright for a parish, it’s not alright for academia.

At this point you may be wondering how the Chomskers’ theories have survived for so long. It has to do with their outlandishness and their unwillingness to engage with critics. As Seuren notes, “And since no other school of linguistics would be prepared to venture into areas of theorizing so far removed from verifiable facts and possible falsification, the Chomskyan proposals could be made to appear unchallenged.” (284) By the time other linguists took note of what the Chomskers were up to, it was too late. They had already established their old boys club. What’s interesting is that linguists need not bother trying to tear down the Chomskers, since books like The Language Instinct demonstrate that the closer Chomskers try to bring their theory to verifiable facts, the more they falsify it. I don’t know if Pinker realized this, but writing about shit as if it were Shinola has never been a problem for Chomskers. In a subsection titled No arguments were produced, just rhetoric Seuren writes,

Despite twenty-odd years of disparagement from the side of Chomsky and his followers, one has to face the astonishing fact that not a single actual argument was produced during that period to support the attitude of dismissal and even contempt that one finds expressed, as a matter of routine, in the relevant Chomsky-inspired literature. Quasi-arguments, on the contrary, abounded. (514)

Linguistics does not work that way. Good night!

I told you the religion analogy was going to be more appropriate than it seemed at first. Belief in Universal Grammar is very much like belief in a god – you can’t see it, but it’s there. But that’s not science! To some people, the sunrise is proof that god exists. To astronomers, the sun does not actually “rise”. To Chomskers, speech is proof that Universal Gammar exists. To linguists, speech does not require such a leap of faith.

With his hawkish proclamations of the existence of Universal Grammar and his complete dismissal of any criticism, Noam Chomsky has done more harm than good to linguistics. Seuren says that “this behavior on Chomsky’s part has caused great harm to linguistics. Largely as a result of Chomsky’s actions, linguistics is now sociologically in a very unhealthy state. It has, moreover, lost most of the prestige and appeal it commanded forty years ago.” (526)

In an ironic turn of events considering his liberal political leanings, Chomsky and his ilk have become the Fox News of linguistics – they pull their theories out of thin air, shout them at the top of their lungs, and ridicule any who say otherwise. And just like the scare tactics of Fox News, the idea of a language instinct sells. McWhorter quite politely explains the Chomskers’ zealotry by saying “they want to find [a language instinct], they’re stimulated by this idea – as far as the counter evidence, most of them are too busy writing grants to pay much attention.” But that’s being too kind. If you ask me, bullshitting is their business… and business is good.

All this is unfortunate

To sum up, is there a language instinct? Maybe. Does Steven Pinker present a valid case for a language instinct? No.

To return to our religious analogy, you can believe in the Christian god, or in Buddha, or in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can’t prove any of these gods exist (apologies to the Pastafarians, who have presented some very compelling evidence). Neither can Chomskers prove that a language instinct exists. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with believing it does, but you better have some facts to back up your theory if you want others to follow. Smoke and mirrors are interesting when used in magic shows, but infuriating when used in academic prose.

With a sly patronizing of those who cannot put up with Chomsky’s dense prose and a crafty acknowledgement of Chomsky’s intellectual superiority, Pinker writes

And who can blame the grammarphobe, when a typical passage from one of Chomsky’s technical works reads as follows? […quotes some mumbo jumbo from Chomksy…] All this is unfortunate […] Chomsky’s theory […] is a set of discoveries about the design of language that can be appreciated intuitively if one first understands the problems to which the theory provides solutions. (104)

Pinker complains about others who seem to have not read Chomsky, but I get the sense that Chomsky is the only linguist Pinker has ever read. Because either Pinker knows of other linguistic theories and he’s not telling (i.e., he’s being deceptive) or he doesn’t know of them at all (i.e., he’s hasn’t done his research). Either way, it’s poor scholarship. As we’ll see in the next post, Pinker knows of Sampson’s theory and he uses examples from Sampson’s book without acknowledgment. That’s also poor scholarship, but of the kind that is common to Chomskers.


McWhorter, John. 2004. “When Language Began”. The Story of Human Language. The Great Courses: The Teaching Company. Course No. 1600.

Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. Penguin Group: London.

Seuren, Pieter A. M. 2004 (1998). Western Linguistics: an Historical Introduction. Oxford; Malden (MA): Blackwell.




Up next: A review of The Language Instinct Debate by Geoffrey Sampson.

[Update – This post originally had Noam Chomsky’s name written as “Chompsky”. Oops. Hehe. A word to the wise: Before adding words to your word processor’s dictionary, make sure they’re spelled correctly. Hat tip to Angela for pointing out the mistake.]

Whatever Happened to Innovation in the USA?

Or, why the difference between innovation from above and innovation from below matters

In a recent interview on NPR’s Science Friday program, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist* Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about innovation. Tyson has written a new book which discusses, among other things, the way that society benefited from innovation in the space race of the 1960s. With this post I want to tell you about my own experience with innovation in the USA and the two different types of innovation there are, an idea that should be raised more often.

Tyson argues that the innovation needed in space travel – the innovation needed to go farther and farther every single day – brought untold benefits to society through the engineers it needed, the products it created (which were applied elsewhere), through the economy it stimulated, etc. He has a point, but I’m interested to see if he mentions that the reason society benefits from such innovation is because it is the type of innovation that is writ large over society. The space race was innovation on a large scale. It was the driving force (and in some ways the weapon) of the Cold War. Hence everyone in society was indebted to this large scale innovation. When everyone has a stake in the innovation of a country, as they did in the space race, there is a collective agreement of the benefit of innovation. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it is innovative.

Innovation on a small scale, however, is a different story. Innovation from below, as it could be called, takes a entirely different mind set. In business, it sometimes comes out of necessity – innovate or go bust. This is similar to the innovation of the space race. But micro-innovation (let’s settle on this term, shall we?) also comes about unforced. Sometimes a clever person, whose business is more or less fine the way it is, recognizes the benefits of an innovative idea and, to use the official business-speak term, capitalizes on it. More often than not, however, micro-innovation is passed over. Allow me to offer an example.

I used to work for a company in the US. This company had a program to welcome new employees into the fold. The program was called something like Welcome, New Employees, Into The Fold™. In this program, new employees were asked to read a chapter from a best-selling business how-to manifesto. The chapter talked about the real-life innovative leader who built an innovative tech company on innovation. Naturally, I assumed the take-away message was supposed to be “Innovation. We like. So should you.” I was informed later that it was “Do as we say, not as our favorite manifesto chapter tells you.” Makes you wonder why they bothered to waste the paper, but then again, that’s what manifestos are all about.

Shortly after I left this company (on good terms), I offered them an innovative way to increase their sales. I would use my training in linguistics to study their marketing campaigns and I would to do it for free. The benefit for me was that my research would allow me to write my master’s thesis. It was a win-win. (I’m intentionally being vague about my master’s thesis since, so far as I can tell, it really is innovative. It’s at least the kind of research that could launch a career in either business or academia, depending on the results. Interested parties can feel free to contact me.)

And yet, like most micro-innovation cases, my idea was denied. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are some obvious answers as to why. First, business professionals are a cautious to cowardly bunch. If you told them of the chances that they would be killed in a car accident on the way to work, they would find a reason to work from home. So when faced with the opportunity to increase their sales by doing nothing but allowing a post grad student to analyze their marketing texts, they find ways to say no, to brush it off, or to disregard it. Creating one’s own misfortune is not unheard of, even in the business world.

A second reason why my idea was turned down has to do with the “business as usual” mind set. My former employer makes millions each year, They fear change because they assume it’s going to be change for the worse. More importantly, while there’s no telling what kind of profit my innovation could have brought them, it’s safe to assume it would have been in the thousands of dollars. That’s chump change for mid-sized American companies. Why should they take on my idea when business as usual is already bringing in millions?

Finally, and most relevant to the macro-innovation that Mr. Tyson talked about, is the fact that micro-innovation is not established in the US. There is no culture of post graduate students doing research for companies to complete their degree. There is a culture of small innovations making big waves, but these are all either start-ups or internal happenings at large companies (like 3M). There is no zeitgeist of micro-innovation, no pressure from society on creating it day after day, and no agreement that it brings untold benefits to those who seize it. Yet it comes up all the time.

This last notion is related to the type of micro-innovation that comes out of necessity because companies can live or die on it. Most people with an innovative idea have a very good reason for why it will be successful. If they are declined by one company, they are not likely to give up on the idea. They are simply going to move on to the next company. And that spells danger for the companies who passed on the innovation. So instead of companies living by the “be innovative or die” motto, there are also those remembered by the “we died because we were not innovative” warning.

And nobody writes chapters in business books about those companies.

* Except maybe this guy.

Feminist Criticism – You’re doing it wrong

Lisa Rowe Faustino’s critique of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (PDF) is an amazing example of how very poorly an academic article can be written. The article appeared in the bookYou Are What You Eat: Literary Probes into the Palate and was called At the Core of The Giving Tree‘s Signifying Apples.

I’m assuming most of you have read The Giving Tree. If not, you should. But in case you don’t have it on hand, allow me to quote the synopsis from Wikipedia in full (it’s pretty quick and it won’t spoil anything for you since the book tells the story much, much better):

The Giving Tree is a tale about a relationship between a young boy and a tree. The tree always provides the boy with what he wants: branches on which to swing, shade in which to sit and apples to eat. As the boy grows older, he requires more and more of the tree. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him anything he asks for. In an ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the tree lets the boy cut it down so the boy can build a boat in which he can sail. The boy leaves the tree, now a stump. Many years later, the boy, now an old man, returns, and the tree sadly says: “I’m sorry, boy… but I have nothing left to give you.” But the boy replies: “I do not need much now, just a quiet place to sit and rest.” The tree then says, “Well, an old tree stump is a good place for sitting and resting. Come, boy, sit down and rest.” The boy obliges and the tree was very happy. (link)

Fraustino’s article is so fraught with error that I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose I’ll take it from the top. Page numbers are references to her article, which again, can be found as a .pdf here.

Fraustino’s starts off fine by making references to philosophical and psychological thoughts about how important food and mothering is in a child’s world. This is good because it forms the basis of her essay, which the introduction to You Are What Eat says is an examination of “how food is used [in The Giving Tree], both literally and metaphorically, in the reproduction of mothering ideology as defined by feminist theorists.”

But things quickly unravel from there. Fraustino is not wrong in reading Tree as sexist. That can be done and she’s not the first to do it. But her article takes so many cheap shots that it’s hard to give her any praise. I’ll just run through what is so upsetting.

Fraustino notes that some people read Tree as an allegory for God or Jesus and quickly points out how mistaken such a view is. But then she uses that view to take the first cheap shot at Silverstein for having published in Playboy and written “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash. In Fraustino’s view, anyone who writes for Playboy can’t be anything but sexist – a “man’s man,” as she calls Sliverstein (p288, emphasis hers). I wonder what Fraustino thinks of the other writers that have been published in Playboy, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Jack Kerouac, and Margaret Atwood. Are they sexist too?

Fraustino sneaks this Playboy admonishment into her text, but I don’t think she’s trying to be deceptively clever. Her contempt for Silverstein and The Giving Tree is plainly evident and yet that’s another reason why her article is so confounding. Her arguments reach too deep with little or nothing to back them up.

Fraustino then launches into a confusing and convoluted account of the views of mothers by many writers including Eric Neumann, Kate Kane, Ellen Handler Spitz, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Jessica Benjamin, and more. Her idea seems to be that Tree somehow perpetuates the sexist ways that mothers are treated in society, but she never really explains what she means besides noting that in the story, the tree acts like a nourishing mother to the boy. She just reiterates a bunch of interesting but out of context quotes from each author. Fraustino has a problem with the notion of “the mother-child relationship [which] is intense, one-on-one, all-consuming” for the mother. She writes, “there’s no career for the woman, no interest in non-domestic activities” (p292) and she lists a few best-selling children’s books that feature this relationship. I can understand the problems this idea has for adults, but we’re talking about the relationship between a parent and their child. All children, male and female, are incredibly self-absorbed for at least the first three years of their lives. Is it so wrong to tell them that their mother is only concerned with them? The points Fraustino makes are good but irrelevant to the topic at hand, which is supposed to be The Giving Tree.

Fraustino then comes back to Neumann and his philosophy about spirit mothers, which forms the basis of most of her reasoning about Tree, but again she fails to make any convincing analogy between Neumann and Silverstein’s books.

Another aspect of Fraustino’s article which really irritated me was her use of snide comments at the end of paragraphs. Here are two examples, which have to be quoted in full (bolding mine):

The Giving Tree’s little “king of the forest” “would sleep in her shade,” between her roots drawn in lines that hold him like a Great Motherly lap, cores of her eaten apples in the foreground. In the end he is enthroned on her stump. Some king. (p295)

Adults feed children the same lessons they were fed, often without critical awareness, and often out of a misguided sense that “it’s just for kids” and “those books didn’t affect me,” as my college students often claim. “You’re reading too much into it,” they say. Even college professors to whom I have presented my research findings sometimes require lengthy proofs to see the problem of the Feminine in The Giving Tree. Tellingly, the most ardent defenders of the book in academic settings have been male; in fact, to them I owe the inspiration to write this essay because they have led me to think about the text in multiple ways and expand my arguments. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to one education professor who immediately after my presentation emailed me a web page about The Giving Tree that linked to other web pages describing the book’s many uses. He continues to defend the story as flexible, all interpretations as equally valid. As I recall the discussion, he was one of several male professors at my talk who expressed admiration for the tree as the kind of mother they have and that their wives are – the tree women ought to be. And these are smart men. (p297)

The second example above is particularly telling of the way Fraustino writes – “Tellingly, the most ardent defenders of the book in academic settings have been male.” Anything to back that up? No. Fraustino is “tellingly” telling us that. She doesn’t take the hint from students or colleagues that she’s “reading too much into it,” nor does she take the hint that the story is “flexible” and that “all interpretations [are] equally valid.” To her, only her interpretation is valid.

Fraustino goes on to cite a survey of readers aged eight to twenty which found that readers view The Giving Tree as “good and bad examples of giving and taking, development and change, love and materialism, [but] with no basis in gender.” (p298) Fraustino uses this as proof that people just aren’t getting it – “it” meaning her reading of the book of course. But all she had me wondering was perhaps her article and other critics are over-complicating matters or misunderstanding people’s ability to read Tree as a lesson in giving and taking. She quotes Spitz as saying Tree “perpetuates the myth of the selfless, all-giving mother,” but the reader survey perhaps just shows that they are able to see the negative implications of this myth. Or, perhaps the genders in Tree are meaningless and/or superfluous. I know this is anathema to gender scholars, but maybe the readers are able to see through the genders and the gender stereotypes. If they see it as a lesson into how love and giving should be, especially in a parent/child relationship, is making the tree a woman so bad?

I only have two final points to make about Fraustino’s article. The first is that I was dumbfounded by an appraisal Fraustino makes of two scholars. She says that Jacqueline Jackson and Carol Dell countered,

the profundity [of The Giving Tree] with a parody of the story that they use in classrooms to trigger critical discussion. Their version introduces the character of a second tree next to the Giving Tree. The second tree does give apples for the boy to sell when he asks but refuses all of the boy’s other requests until finally, in the end, the old boy gets hot sitting on the stump and asks to sit in the shade. The second tree agrees, ‘and the stump wept.’ (p298)

What the fuck is this? How is this OK? Are we just rewriting stories now to better fit our readings of them? Or just to totally fuck with children? I thought T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral was shit, but I didn’t fill it with a bunch of other characters to force other people to see things my way. Just the thought of doing so is obnoxious. Give me any story – any story at all – and I can do this by rewriting it. I could make the Bible seem pro-atheist if I was allowed to rewrite it. What if I were to add a few things to Fraustino’s article to make it conform to the views of all those “smart men”? Would she be OK with that? How Fraustino expects her readers to take her seriously after this is beyond me.

The second point I have to make is about one of her final paragraphs. She writes,

Notice: [the boy] does not fare well in the deal, either, as he winds up alone at the end of his life. Where are the wife and kids for whom he needed the house? Why did he have to sail away in a boat? “The result of this ‘giving mother’ is kids who themselves will make poor husbands, wives, and parents,” Strandburg and Livo point out. Only the primary bond remains to a boy who expects a Giving Tree wife. Had the all-giving Feminine ever given him some tough love instead of all her apples, perhaps he would have learned to make some real connections rather than having to revert to the symbolic primal womb.

Never mind the fact that this is offensive by implying that parents and spouses who like The Giving Tree are poor parents and spouses. What I wonder is whether Faustino knows that everyone dies alone? Going back to the tree is not reverting to the “symbolic primal womb.” It’s returning to a friend at a time when the boy needs a friend. It doesn’t mean the wife and kids are gone or that having to sail away was bad. It just means that the boy needs a friend. Apparently, Silverstein himself only thought of the book as “about two people; one gives and the other takes.”

Feminist criticism… you’re doing it wrong, Lisa.