New study on co-evolution of language and tool-making

There’s an interesting new study in PLOS One, ‘Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study‘ (Uomini and Meyer 2013) with evidence that potentially bears on questions relating to the co-evolution of linguistic capacities and stone tool-making (for a useful summary, see Michael Balter’s news article in Wired).   The authors scanned the brains of expert flint-knappers both during knapping activities and during a standard linguistic task, showing that the parts of the brain that are activated are common to both activities among the participants.   This is one small piece of a much larger general argument that sees language capacities as much older than many linguists have traditionally accepted, co-evolving along with the Acheulean tool tradition (up to 1.75 million years ago).  In contrast, when I was a student, we all learned without much debate that the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ of 35,000-40,000 years ago was the dividing line for language origins.   Research on Paleolithic language ranges from the utterly wonderful to the utterly ridiculous, mostly because there is no agreement as to what sorts of evidence can be reasonably brought forward in support of different hypotheses, and because all the evidence is, by necessity, inferential rather than direct.  So we will see.

Language evolution lecture

I’m here at the Society for Cross-Cultural Research / Society for Anthropological Sciences joint meetings in Albuquerque, NM. Tonight we will have a keynote address by Nobel laureate / polymath Murray Gell-Mann on ‘The Evolution of Languages’. I’ll be very interested to see what Gell-Mann has to say on this issue that is close to some of my own research interests. Stay tuned.

Thanksgiving link roundup

Today, most of my colleagues are toiling away in an attempt to cook and carve some sort of fowl. Me, well, I’m Canadian, and even though I work over in the Dark Nether Reaches and get to enjoy its three-day week, I live over here in Canada’s Deep South and get to … have a flu shot and catch up on posting some links of interest?

I don’t have much to add about the sad passing of Dell Hymes last week. I didn’t know him but I know many people who did, and no one who purports to be a linguistic anthropologist (or sociolinguist … or anthropological linguist … or …) can possibly be ignorant of his work. The NYT description of him as a “Linguist with a Wide Net” is utterly evocative and has me imagining it literally. He will be missed, but his legacy on the discipline will remain vital for decades.

While Turkey officially switched from the Arabic to the Roman alphabet in the 1920s, at the same time it prohibited the use of letters not used to represent Turkish – which includes the ‘ordinary’ Roman letters Q, W, and X. While sometimes portrayed as a ban on those letters specifically, it is a more general ban on non-Turkish characters, as far as I can tell, which would seem to prohibit all sorts of texts. Ostensibly designed to promote national unity and secular rule, the law has only been applied to Turks of Kurdish descent. As someone who until last year was a resident of a region where texts written in my native language are under severe legal constraints, this has been a matter of some interest and concern to me for a few years now. Mark Liberman tells us more over at Language Log.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are investigating the cultural evolution of language, arguing that language change is patterned by the biological constraints of the human brain – in other words, language changes to accomodate itself to the sorts of brains we possess. They are examining this idea experimentally using an artificial language of simple syllables used to describe alien-looking fruit … which is not as bizarre as I may have made it sound. Edinburgh is doing a lot of exciting work these days in linguistics, what with Jim Hurford, Simon Kirby, and Geoff Pullum (among others) housed there.

Relatedly, Marc Changizi claims (following up on work he has been doing for the past several years) that there are strong cognitive / evolutionary constraints on the graphemes (discrete written units) of writing systems, creating similiarites across writing systems that reflect the cultural evolution of graphemes to accomodate the needs and capacities of the human brain. I have more doubts about this one, which I may talk about in more detail – basically my concern is that the cross-cultural analysis is weak and inadequately accounts for borrowing (Galton’s problem). But it’s interesting work that deserves some attention. Hat tip to The Lousy Linguist for both this item and the previous one).

Lastly, Alun Salt has recently published a very interesting paper, ‘The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples‘ arguing for a more rigorous statistical approach to archaeoastronomy and establishing solar orientations. He’s not the first to use statistical analysis in archaeoastronomy but he does note with some dismay that there is generally insufficient concern with quantitative reasoning among archaeoastronomers to be able to apply statistical tests effectively. Salt highlights some of the complexities in making these determinations – leap second daters, take note! More important than the article itself, though, is its venue, the open-access PLoS ONE. Although ‘cheap’ by open-access standards, the fact that authors must pay ‘only’ $1350 to cover publication costs is, I think, problematic in humanities and social science disciplines where grants are small and getting proportionally smaller.

To my American friends, good luck with your birds, and thanks for reading!

Ig Nobel 2009

The annual Ig Nobel awards “for achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think” were given out last night, and once again, anthropology has been well-represented. Catherine Bertenshaw Douglas and Peter Rowlinson won the award for veterinary medicine for their demonstration that cows that are humanized by giving them names produce more milk than those that remain, uh, anonymous. Although they are veterinary scientists their work appears in the interdisciplinary anthropological journal Anthrozoös. Meanwhile, the Ig Nobel for physics went to the biological anthropologists Katherine Whitcome, Liza Shapiro and Daniel Lieberman for their work (which appeared in Nature a couple of years ago) explaining why pregnant women don’t tip over. This is extremely important as it bears directly on the evolutionary costs and benefits of bipedalism, among other issues.

See the full list of winners here.

Bertenshaw, Catherine and Peter Rowlinson. 2009. Exploring Stock Managers’ Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production. Anthrozoös, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 59-69.
Whitcome, Katherine, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman. 2007. Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins. Nature, vol. 450, 1075-1078.

Steve #1032

I am extraordinarily pleased to announce that I have been officially inducted into the roster of Steves at Project Steve, maintained by the National Center for Science Education. As Steve #1032, I join at least 1031 of my peers who, in addition to holding doctorates in fields related to evolution, are named Steve, Stephen, Steven, Esteban, Stephanie, etc. My sole duty as a member of this illustrious society is to promote, through undogmatic scientific inquiry, teaching and research about the origin and evolution of life. To which end, I can do no better than to quote from the NCSE itself:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools. (NCSE, 2008)

What happens in Vegas

In a couple of hours I’m off to Las Vegas for the 2009 Society for Anthropological Sciences conference, where I’m presenting a paper entitled, “Frequency dependent biases in the transmission of communication technologies”. If any of my readers are going to be there (unlikely though that may be), it’ll be … well, it will be more compelling than the abstract that follows below makes it seem:


Frequency dependent biases in the transmission of communication technologies

Frequency dependent bias is a form of horizontal cultural transmission bias in which the frequency of a cultural trait influences the likelihood that others will adopt it. Previously seen as a unitary phenomenon, frequency dependence in fact consists of three separate types, each involving distinct decision-making processes and having different patterns of acceptance, retention, and abandonment. In particular, communication technologies, whose popularity determines their utility, exhibit unusual characteristics of cultural transmission. A brief case study from the phylogenetic history of written numerals demonstrates the usefulness of considering the different effects of frequency for the adoption of new communication technologies. More broadly, the prevalence of frequency dependent phenomena in various cultural evolutionary contexts suggests the need to evaluate decision-making processes more rigorously when evaluating the adoption and retention of cultural traits.

I’ll try to put together something interesting in the way of a blog post while I’m away, provided I don’t get sucked in by the charms of the city. Catch you on the flipside!

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin

As you probably know if you are reading this blog, today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, FRS (1809 – 1882), probably the finest naturalist of his age and the originator of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. In my evolutionary anthropology and history of anthropology classes I always start by asking how many people have heard of Darwin – of course every student raises their hand – and follow that up by asking how many of them have actually read Darwin, at which point the crickets start chirping. For the anthropologist, The Origin of Species isn’t especially interesting, given that Darwin only alludes to the probability of human evolution in the final pages of that expansive volume. For me, the more interesting text is The Descent of Man (1871), which neatly adumbrates virtually every significant debate in evolutionary anthropology, including many in linguistic anthropology. This is not to say that Darwin was always right, or that nothing has happened in the past 125 years. But he was asking the right questions, many of the same questions with which we still struggle, and I can think of no better tribute than to discuss his work in the context of those questions. I present a selection of quotations from the Project Gutenberg e-text of the 1874 second edition of the Descent, followed by questions and citations to recent literature dealing with these issues.

One can hardly doubt, that a man-like animal who possessed a hand and arm sufficiently perfect to throw a stone with precision, or to form a flint into a rude tool, could, with sufficient practice, as far as mechanical skill alone is concerned, make almost anything which a civilised man can make. The structure of the hand in this respect may be compared with that of the vocal organs, which in the apes are used for uttering various signal-cries, or, as in one genus, musical cadences; but in man the closely similar vocal organs have become adapted through the inherited effects of use for the utterance of articulate language.

- What is the relationship between tool manufacture and the use of language? (Stout et al. 2008)
– To what extent is ape vocalization a precursor to, or analogous to, human speech? (Arbib et al. 2008)

The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel. But we can trace the formation of many words further back than that of species, for we can perceive how they actually arose from the imitation of various sounds. We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation. The manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. We have in both cases the reduplication of parts, the effects of long-continued use, and so forth.

Languages, like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups; and they can be classed either naturally according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never, as Sir C. Lyell remarks, reappears. The same language never has two birth-places. Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together.

- How closely can the analogy between linguistic and biological change be drawn? (Chater et al. 2009)
– To what extent is linguistic change phylogenetic? (Gray et al. 2009)
– Should language change and language death be seen as parallel to biological extinction? (Mufwene 2004)

From the fundamental differences between certain languages, some philologists have inferred that when man first became widely diffused, he was not a speaking animal; but it may be suspected that languages, far less perfect than any now spoken, aided by gestures, might have been used, and yet have left no traces on subsequent and more highly-developed tongues. Without the use of some language, however imperfect, it appears doubtful whether man’s intellect could have risen to the standard implied by his dominant position at an early period.

- What is the relationship between the evolution of language and the evolution of modern human cognitive capacities? (Coward and Gamble 2008)
– What is the nature and structure of ‘proto-language’? (Botha 2008)

With respect to perfection, the following illustration will best shew how easily we may err: a Crinoid sometimes consists of no less than 150,000 pieces of shell, all arranged with perfect symmetry in radiating lines; but a naturalist does not consider an animal of this kind as more perfect than a bilateral one with comparatively few parts, and with none of these parts alike, excepting on the opposite sides of the body. He justly considers the differentiation and specialisation of organs as the test of perfection. So with languages: the most symmetrical and complex ought not to be ranked above irregular, abbreviated, and bastardised languages, which have borrowed expressive words and useful forms of construction from various conquering, conquered, or immigrant races.

- Is it possible to classify languages according to principles of regularity or purity, and is it worthwhile to do so? (Hoffman 2008)
– What is the role of migration, warfare and cultural contact in understanding the evolution of languages? (Nichols 2008)

One can only imagine that Darwin would be pleased to see such active and interesting research being done so long after his own seminal efforts. Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin.

Works cited

Arbib, M. A., K. Liebal, S. Pika, M. C. Corballis, C. Knight, D. A. Leavens, D. Maestripieri, J. E. Tanner, M. A. Arbib, and K. Liebal. 2008. Primate Vocalization, Gesture, and the Evolution of Human Language. Current Anthropology 49, no. 6: 1053-1076.
Botha, R. 2008. Prehistoric shell beads as a window on language evolution. Language and Communication 28, no. 3: 197-212.
Chater, Nick, Florencia Reali, and Morten H. Christiansen. 2009. Restrictions on biological adaptation in language evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 4 (January 27): 1015-1020.
Coward, F., and C. Gamble. 2008. Big brains, small worlds: material culture and the evolution of the mind. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1499: 1969-1979.
Gray, R. D., A. J. Drummond, and S. J. Greenhill. 2009. Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement. Science 323, no. 5913 (January 23): 479-483.
Hoffman, K. E. 2008. Purity and Contamination: Language Ideologies in French Colonial Native Policy in Morocco. Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, no. 03: 724-752.
Mufwene, S. S. 2004. Language birth and death. Annual Review of Anthropology 33, no. 1: 201-222.
Nichols, Johanna. 2008. Language Spread Rates and Prehistoric American Migration Rates. Current Anthropology 49, no. 6 (December 1): 1109-1117.
Stout, D., N. Toth, K. Schick, and T. Chaminade. 2008. Neural correlates of Early Stone Age toolmaking: technology, language and cognition in human evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1499: 1939-1949.

and of course …

Darwin, C. 1871. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray.