I just finished the article. I agree that it is a really good one, interesting, informative, and very balanced.
I do not, however, think that Piraha poses a serious challenge to the theory of Chomskyan universal grammar, at least not yet. It is, however, a very interesting anomaly that deserves more research.
More likely, the researchers that think it does pose a challenge to Chomsky and that it is evidence in support of Sapir-Whorf are simply wrong. Almost everything we know of Piraha comes from a single, husband-wife team of researchers, the Everetts. It seems to me that it is far more likely that the Everett is simply misunderstanding something about the Piraha and their culture and is admitting bias into the interpretation of his results. It’s also interesting that Everett has had one complete change of heart about Piraha. His early research indicated that it supported Chomsky’s ideas. Is this a case of a researcher changing his mind as he gathers more evidence? Or is it a case of first impressions being right? (Also, the preliminary results of Fitch’s--the researcher with the grammar tests on his computer--seem to indicate that Everett is wrong; caveat being that Fitch hasn’t published yet.)
We also can’t dismiss the possibility of a hoax. I doubt that Everett would deliberately falsify his results--he’s too well credentialed and respected for that to benefit him. But there is a long and sordid history of aboriginal people playing fast ones on anthropologists just for giggles. And Everett even admitted in the article that the Piraha will try to give results that please the researcher (a natural tendency).
But even if Everett’s observations are correct, this does not mean that universal grammar is under serious challenge. After all, out of the 6,000-odd known dialects, we have 5,999 dialects that are consistent with Chomsky and one that is not. This would appear to be a classic “exception that proves the rule.”
First, is there some physiological reason for the Piraha’s behavior? The article went to great lengths to emphasize that the Piraha did not have sub-normal intelligence, but that does not mean that there may not be some genetic factor that is inhibiting abstract thought. The article did not indicate that any physiological or genetic testing of the Piraha had been done.
Second, is there a developmental factor that we don’t understand. Perhaps, like language, the capacity for abstract thought develops at a certain stage of growth. Perhaps some cultural factor is inhibiting the development of abstract thought. In such a case, testing adults may very well show that they are not capable of abstraction. Some of Fitch’s tests were with teens. It would be interesting to see if results varied with age. (From the article, it did not seem likely that Fitch’s samples were large enough to extrapolate such results, though.)
Third, and perhaps most likely, the researchers could just be asking the wrong questions. Using the wrong kind of tests to elicit abstract thought from the Piraha. The article makes this point explicitly.
Finally, one does not have to disbelieve universal grammar to think that Chomsky may be inhibiting research through excessive orthodoxy or cult status. It is quite common for senior scientists who have long dominated a field to do so. For example, Lord Kelvin (a.k.a. William Thomson) went to his deathbed in 1907 denying that the earth was over 100 million years old, denying that radioactive decay existed, and stating that powered flight was impossible. He was enormously influential and through control of funding and tenure decisions probably set back the field of nuclear physics by some decades. Yet, from his early work he is known as one of the greats of physics, not some crank.
[Edited to remove stupid error regarding the verb “deny"]