Thursday, December 18, 2008

Merry Christmas, etc.

I really wanted to finish my next post about Tomasello’s newest book before I went home over the Christmas break but I just didn’t get round to it.
Anyway, I’ll start posting again at the end of the second week of January and I really hope I’ll have more time to blog regularly.

For the German readers: Here is a nice little report on work done by linguistis at the Max-Planck-Institute for evolutionary anthropology on the identification of and research into African click languages:

Link: Phonetiklabor - Die Sprachen mit dem besonderen Klick

And here's an interesting/weird/funny self-experiment combining music, electrodes, and neurology:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Belated Birthday Wishes & Free Will

Well, that angle give the sentence "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to forget about your birthday" a whole new meaning doesn't it?

Anyway, Happy Birthday Noam Chomsky!

He turned 80 two days ago and he's still very much alive and kicking, at least judging from this furious rebuttal of Margaret Boden's portrayal of him from last year.

Hat tip: Bremer Sprachblog

There's also a cool episode featuring Will Wilkinson and Paul Bloom.

Hat tip: Gene Expression

Monday, December 1, 2008

Michael Tomasello - The Origins of Human Communication (summary pt. 1)

A pretty long time ago – before I went to Nottingham for my year abroad – I announced that I would write some more about Michael Tomasello's new (2008) book The Origins of Human Communication.

Although I haven't finished the book yet, and I don't know if I can really contribute something not already covered in Edmund Blair Bolles' interesting multi-part book review over at Babel's Dawn (see here, here, here, and here), I thought I'd still give it a go and see how it turns out.

I hope the next few posts will at some point intersect with a post about Tomasello's arguments against linguistic innateness and his view of language acquisition (e.g. Tomasello 2003), which I have been meaning to write for ages.

Tomasello's main interest in this book is to flesh out “the social-cognitive and social-motivational infrastructure” (2) that enables modern human communication. He also tries to present a plausible evolutionary scenario of how we arrived at this point.

His hypothesis is that “the first uniquely human forms of communication were pointing and pantomiming.” (2)

Social Cognition

In a close analysis of pointing and pantomiming in infancy Tomasello arrives at the conclusion that they already embody
“most of the uniquely human forms of social cognition and motivation required” (2) for full-blown linguistic communication. They are thus perfect candidates for “the critical transition points in the evolution of human communication” (2)
The reason why Tomasello sees pointing as the primordial form of human communication is the following:

Imagine we are walking to the library and I point out some bicycles leaned against the wall to you. Without “context” this would be entirely meaningless. However, if we share some kind of “common ground”, some kind of previous knowledge or past experience the otherwise empty gesture suddenly can be 'filled' with a variety of meanings. “By itself, pointing means nothing," but if we both have knowledge of the fact that one of the bikes is your ex-boyfriend's, with whom you just had a nasty break-up, or if one of the bikes was the one stolen to you some days ago, you are suddenly able to interpret my gesture in a meaningful way. You are thus able to answer to the question.
“what is his intention in directing my attention in this way?” (4)
This example leads Tomasello to the conclusion that
“The ability to create common conceptual ground— joint attention, shared experience, common cultural knowledge—is an absolutely critical dimension of all human communication.” (5).
This enables a richness of meaning and reference all other forms of primate communication lack.

Social Motivation

As Tomasello remarks the second important and unique aspect is the prosocial motivation of the pointing example. In this example and in dozens of other examples from early infancy on, there is no ulterior motive to somebody pointing other than to simply being helpful and cooperative. Apes on the other hand, usually don't point in natural contexts, and they never point cooperatively just to inform somebody of something.

In contrast, there is evidence of infants as young as 12 months pointing for others just to share attention or inform them of something.
Here's one of the examples Tomasello (2008: 114f.) mentions, which is taken from a study by Carptenter et al. (in prep.)
"At age 13.5 months, while Mom is looking for a missing refrigerator magnet, L points to a basket of fruit where it is (hidden under the fruit). Gloss: Attend to the basket of fruit; it’s there."
Another example particularly fitting for this season is reported by Tomasello (2008: 114):
“At age 13 months, J watches as Dad arranges the Christmas tree; when Grandpa enters the room J points to tree for him and vocalizes. Gloss: Attend to the Christmas tree; isn’t it great?”
These cooperative capacities form the ability often called “shared intentionality.”

In general,
"shared intentionality is what is necessary for engaging in uniquely human forms of collaborative activity in which a plural subject “we” is involved: joint goals, joint intentions, mutual knowledge, shared beliefs—all in the context of various cooperative motives” (6f.)
The key aspect of human communication is thus that it is
“a fundamentally cooperative enterprise, operating most naturally and smoothly within the context of (1) mutually assumed common conceptual ground, and (2) mutually assumed cooperative communicative motives.” (6)
Following these assumptions, Tomasello then sets out to identify “the species-unique features of human communication and their ontogenetic and phylogenetic roots.” (11)

I'll write more about this in my next post.


Tomasello, Michael (2003): Constructing A Language. A Usage-Based Approach. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2008): The Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA; London, England: MIT Press.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Some Interesting Links

There are some very cool posts I've stumbled upon in the last week.

- First, the lates Four Stone Hearth carnival is hosted over at Ionian Enchantment

- Second Greg Downey over at Neuroanthropology has an interesting post on a new paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society by philosophers Michael Wheeler and Andy Clark. The paper focusses on the relationship between culture, embodiment and genes and Downey does a nice job of putting it into a broader context amd extracting the key issues.

Here's the abstract:
"Much recent work stresses the role of embodiment and action in thought and reason, and celebrates the power of transmitted cultural and environmental structures to transform the problem-solving activity required of individual brains. By apparent contrast, much work in evolutionary psychology has stressed the selective fit of the biological brain to an ancestral environment of evolutionary adaptedness, with an attendant stress upon the limitations and cognitive biases that result. On the face of it, this suggests either a tension or, at least, a mismatch, with the symbiotic dyad of cultural evolution and embodied cognition. In what follows, we explore this mismatch by focusing on three key ideas: cognitive niche construction; cognitive modularity; and the existence (or otherwise) of an evolved universal human nature. An appreciation of the power and scope of the first, combined with consequently more nuanced visions of the latter two, allow us to begin to glimpse a much richer vision of the combined interactive potency of biological and cultural evolution for active, embodied agents."
- There's also an interesting guest post by Robert Logan, author of the book the "The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture" - which I have mentioned briefly in the past- in which Logan sums up the main issues of his book.

-Simon Greenhill of Henry links to an interesting post in the Times Higher Education about the great divide in modern anthropology:

"Today, anthropology is at war with itself. The discipline has divided into two schools of thought - the social anthropologists and the evolutionary anthropologists. The schism between the two is simple but deeply ingrained. Academics in the subject clearly align themselves with one side or the other; once that choice is made it defines their career."
- Then, Kambiz Kamrani of, announces that he will stop posting because he's going to medical school. I found his posts interesting and informative and will miss this great blog.

- Lastly, John Hawks sets right some of the myths about Neanderthals, such as "[They'd] probably grow up into a kick ass middle linebacker.", or "Would Neanderthals be allowed to compete in the Olympics? There are events such as fencing where they would do exceptionally poorly, but there are other events such as weight lifting where humans would have no chance." which makes for a very interesting read.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Orignally I just wanted to write about an article in the November 14th issue of Science about describing The „Biolinguistic Agenda“ by Marc Hauser and Thomas Bever, but as it seems it has already been covered by Edmund Blair Bolles over at Babel's Dawn.

Bolles is very critical of the generative enterprise and also seems to be rather unhappy with Hauser & Bever's (2008) article. He writes:

the paper […] shows where riders in biolinguistic's conservative caboose think the train is going, and for the way it clarifies how much our present-day understanding has changed from what it was in the recent past.

Although I share many of the problems he has with the generative enterprise, I still think he is a bit hard on Hauser & Bever. To elaborate on what is meant by biolinguistics, I'll refer to an article published in the foundational issue of the journal “Biolinguistics” called “The Biolinguistics Manifesto” by Cedrick Boeckx and Kleanthes K. Grohmann.

Bolles criticizes the definition of biolinguistics that Hauser & Bever give, which as he rightly points out, is a bit technical. They simply gloss it as the

“ study of the computational systems inherent to language.”

Bolles argues that biolinguistics would be better and simpler defined as “the study of how human brains produce language.” But what he seems to forget is that biolinguistics is a term most often used by researchers in a Chomskyan vein to refer to biological and cognitively but at the same time often Chomskyan and formally oriented studies of human language.

They use this term to differentiate themselves from other biologically and cognitively oriented branches of linguistics such as Cognitive Linguistics or the neurobiological study of language, neurolinguistics. On the other hand, they also use the term

to highlight the commitment of the generative enterprise to the biological foundations of language, and to emphasize the necessarily interdisciplinary character of such enterprise” (Boeckx & Grohmann 2007 : 2)

Thus the journal Biolinguistics primarily publishes articles written in a Chomskyan vein (some of them seeming quite opaque and fanciful to the informed layman, such as articles on the Optimal Growth in Phrase Structure or the Combinatorics for Metrical Feet) but also critical commentaries, for example by Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd.

According to Boeckx & Grohmann (2007) biolinguistics, sees “the study of the language faculty as a branch of biology, at a suitable level of abstraction" and focuses on the following questions:

"1. What is knowledge of language?

2. How is that knowledge acquired?

3. How is that knowledge put to use?

4. How is that knowledge implemented in the brain?

5. How did that knowledge emerge in the species"

Hauser & Bever (2008): write that

"to fulfill a biolinguistic agenda [...] we must address the rules and constraints that underlie a mature speaker's knowledge of language; how these rules and constraints are acquired; and whether they are mediated by language-specific mechanisms. We also need to distinguish which rules and constraints are shared with other animals and how they evolved, and to ask how knowledge of language is used in communicative expressions.”

Bolles rightly remarks that the definition of Hauser & Bever (2008):

catches the flow only in one direction, from rules in the brain to external "instantiation" of the rule. It ignores the way language can reflect many other things.”

In my opinion Boeckx & Grohmann 's (2007) questions of How knowledge is acquired and implemented in the brain seems to be open to all kinds of external factors and two-way processes people like Morten Christensen, Nick Chater, Simon Kirby, and others focus on.

And though the biolinguistic agenda is of course incomplete, I think the problem has to be approached from both sides.

Boeckx & Grohmann (2007) note this by quoting the earliest known definition of researchers in a biolinguistic paradigma. They saw themselves as looking

upon language study […] as a natural science, and hence regard[ing] language as an integrated group of biological processes“ and seeking „an explanation of all language phenomena in the functional integration of tissue and environment” (Meader & Muyskens 1950: 9).“

As Bolles writes, biolinguistics is not able to answer all of the questions that come up when studying language, and its an open questions which questions are the most important ones.

But if they hold up their end in finding out more about the internal nature of what „differentiates my granddaughter from rocks, bees, cats and chimpanzees” (Chomsky 2002), when they are all placed in the same environment, maybe researchers from other directions are better able to flesh out what external factors contribute to the wonderful phenomenon of language.


Boeckx, Cedrick and Kleanthes K. Grohmann (2007): The Biolinguistics Manifesto. Biolinguistics 1. 1-8.

Chomsky, Noam (2000): Chomsky, Noam (2000) The Architecture of Language, edited by Nirmalanshu Mukherji, Bibudhendra Narayan Patnaik, and Rama Kant Agnihotri. Oxford University Press.

Hauser, Marc & Thomas Bever (2008): A Biolinguistic Agenda. Science 322, 1057 – 1059.

Meader, Clarence L. & John H. Muyskens. )(1950). Handbook of Biolinguistics. Toledo: H.C. Weller

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I'm back! (of course with a piece on the evolution of language)

After a long and excruciating period of having no proper access to the internet I am finally back online.

It seems as if I missed quite a lot of interesting things while I was away, and I only just began to put all my favorite blogs into my new newsreader (I really really love the Opera newsreader function), but I'll try to start posting on a weekly basis again. I'm almost done reading Michael Tomasello's (2008) new book, “The Origins of Human Communication.

But for starters, here are some interesting recent things that caught my eyes when I first browsed the blogosphere yesterday after my long hiatus (well, at least, it felt like a pretty long time to me):

Deric Bownds linked to an interesting essay in Nature by Eörs Szathmáry & Szabolcs Számadó on the evolution of language.

Szathmàry is an interesting figure. Although he is a biochemist, he often explores interdisciplinary culture-related issues from the perspective of theoretical evolutionary biology. In his 1997 book “The Major Transitions in Evolution”, which he coauthored with the famous biologist John Maynard Smith, he

set out 8 “major transitions” in the evolution of life. These are events in the history of our planet that signal radical changes in the way evolution works. They start with a change in the way molecules replicate in the very earliest stages of the origins of life, through the emergence of DNA, and go on to include larger-scale later phenomena like the evolution of colonies where once there were only solitary individuals. What makes the work of these two eminent evolutionary biologists so interesting for us is their inclusion of the most recent evolutionary transition: the emergence of language” (Kirby 2007)

(taken from Kirby 2007)

So that's the context for his current essay. In it Szathmáry & Számadó delve a bit more into the details of language evolution and place of language in the “suite” of interconnected higher-order cognitive traits.

They argue that

we shouldn't be trying to understand one characteristically human trait in isolation from the others. Moreover, instead of the brain being a collection of separate modules, each dedicated to a specific trait or capacity, humans are likely to have a complex cognitive architecture that is highly interconnected on multiple levels.” (Szathmáry & Számadó 2008).

They speculate that language might have helped early humans to hunt large game in the Late Pleistocene 120,000 years ago, and was only later co-opted for other functions.

As many researchers do, they also stress that language probably

evolved in a highly social, potentially cooperative context, involving and requiring at least three attributes: shared attention, shared intentionality and theory of mind. In other words, individuals would have been able to pay attention to the same scene or object as others; be aware that they must act as a group in order to achieve a common goal; and attribute mental states to others as well as to themselves.” (Szathmáry & Számadó 2008)

This of course refers to the line of research done by Michael Tomasello an others, who have tried to pry out exactly these socio-cognitive traits that enable the unique form of human communication.

But Szathmáry & Számadó give this whole field of research an interesting spine when they consider the relationship between genetics and the “suite” of social, linguistic or tool-use-related cognitive traits.

If one gene plays a part in many traits, its evolution consequently affects not only the traits that it was originally selected for, but also many others. This that means if one gene changes because it increases, for example, tool-use proficiency, it might also affect, say, the development of language capacities, because it is involved in their expression as well.

Genes that evolved for different functions thus might form

“a network of interacting effects, in which evolution in one trait builds on an attribute already modified as a by-product of selection acting on another. The nature of the gene networks underpinning complex behaviour suggests that several genes will have been selected for because they enhanced proficiency in a range of tasks.”

Studying whether genes involved in one trait, like cooperation, also have an influence on other traits in the human cognitive suite opens up a new and exciting field of research.

They also propose a new metaphor for viewing the human mind:

The distinct gene networks and brain regions underpinning each trait can be likened to the separate towers of a castle, which are connected by common rooms and corridors.” (Szathmáry & Számadó 2008)

Szathmáry & Számadó go on to cite some interesting parallels between several kinds of cognitive/linguistic proficiencies and deficiencies, lending support to the view that many cognitive traits are functionally interconnected.

One example I particularly liked was that

“as shown by people with syntax deficiencies being poor at drawing hierarchical structures, capacities can be synergistic, where proficiency in one domain means proficiency in another.”
I especially liked this example because it directly relates to Ray Jackendoff's (e.g. 2007) theory that one of the major building blocks of our linguistic capacities is the ability to process, create and store in mind pieces of combinatorial hierarchical structures of different formats. Here's his take on the issue:
“Evidence is mounting that much temporally sequenced hierarchical structure is constructed by the same part of the brain [...] whether the material being assembled is language, dance [...], hand movements [...], or music […].
Language use [...] requires temporal sequencing and the online construction of hierarchical structure, both of which appear also in motor control, the planning of action [...], and probably visual action perception – not to mention music.
Thus all higher mental capacities make use of the same sorts of basic machinery: memory, attention, and the construction of structure. What differentiates these capacities from each other, however, is the character of the structures they build and how these structures interact with the rest of the mind. (Jackendoff 2007: 388)”

The implications of Szathmáry & Számadó's article to research done by people like Ray Jackendoff and Michael Tomasello are at the moment quite fuzzy but I think that it would be very interesting trying to integrate these approaches and see where this would be heading. Also, there are a lot more interesting things I've found on the internet, especially a couple of quite nice articles in the current issue of Science magazine, but I'll write more about that in my next post.


Jackendoff, Ray (2007): Linguistics in Cognitive Science: The State of the Art, The Linguistic Review 24, 347-401.

Kirby, S. (2007). The evolution of language. In Dunbar, R. and Barrett, L., editors, Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, pages 669-681. Oxford University Press.

Maynard-Smith, J. and Szathmáry, E. (1997). The Major Transitions in Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Szathmáry, Eörs & Szabolcs Számadó (2008): Being Human: Language: a social history of words Nature 456, 40-41.

Tomasello, Michael (2008): The Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA; London, England: MIT Press.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Proof of Life and some thoughts on human uniqueness

In the next few days I’ll be getting a new laptop and then I’ll finally have access to the internet again. I will try posting on a weekly basis about things going on the blogosphere and about my own attempts at writing my (or rather something equivalent to) my M.A. Thesis.

Right now, I’m reading Marc Hauser’s (2001) “Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think” and Michael Tomasello’s (2003) “Constructing A Language” but I managed to buy Tomasello’s new book, The Origins of Human Communication, have followed Edmund Blair Bolles’ multi-part review with much interest, and when I’m done with the two other books I’ll start with Tomasello’s new one.

As Sandy G. of The Mouse Trap I’m especially interested in Tomasello’s idea of shared intentionality as it unfolds in a joint attentional frame in a rich social interactional setting. But what I am interested in is fleshing out the kind of perspectival cognitive representations that allows us to navigate successfully in social, linguistic, as well as spatial settings.

Apparently, Tomasello again only hints at how such a system might look like, but I share the hunch is that that it has something to do with Bühlerian “coordinate system awareness” and the ability to locate yourself and others in a dynamic shared frame of reference (see also the interesting work of Stephen Levinson)

An abstract frame of reference also seems to be a key issue for our ability of “higher order, abstract, role-governed, relational reasoning” which, according to Penn et al. 2008 (see also here and here) s the core system responsible for setting human cognition apart from the cognitive systems of other animals.

Povinelli et al.’s explanation that the cognitive discontinuity between human and nonhuman cognition arises from our ability of “relational reinterpretation”, i.e. the ability to reinterpret and encode perceptually-based experiences in an abstract and symbolic fashion, still sounds pretty good to me. But their claim rests on the assumption that nonhuman animals aren’t able to build up representations of more abstract frames of references at all, but that that their behaviour can be explained in terms of reinforcement history and perceptually-based strategies, and the evidence cited by them is clearly in favour of their view.

But in Marc Hauser’s 2001 book I’ve read about Clark’s Nutcracker, a food storing bird that can hide up to 33,000 seeds in more than six thousand locations and is able to retrieve most of them months later. Hauser reports on experiments done by Alan Kamil and Juli Jones, who trained the birds to at a point in the middle of two landmarks. After that, the experimenters varied the distance between the landmarks, and the tested Clark’s nutcrackers were successful in generalizing the location of the food to the new geometric situation and retrieved it successfully at the new midway point. Hauser concludes that “these data show that nutcrackers form a representation of the geometric relationship among landmarks – something like the middle – and use this to find stored food” (Hauser 2001: 89).

To me this looks like an instance of relational reinterpretation, reinterpreting the specific perceptually-based spatial location of two landmarks in terms of a higher-order abstract geometrical system, but I would be very interested what other people think about this experiment.


Penn, Derek C, Keith J. Holyoak. and Daniel J. Povinelli (2008): Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 109-130.

Monday, September 29, 2008

No Internet

Unfortunately I don't have internet access here in Nottingham. Although the Hall of Residence I am in provides internet acess, my laptop seems to be only one unable to connect to the internet, no matter what I try or how often I call the helpline.
In addition, at the moment everything here is quite stressful and tiring, so that I have hardly the time and energy to read anything. Also, I'm not sure if I'll be able to afford Tomasello's new book (But check Edmund Blair Bolles' great first post about it)

I wasn't even able to register for any extraordinary seminars (but at least next year I'll have one on the philosophical implications of Darwinism and one about Darwinism and Creationism in America), so I'm not too enthusiastic about the whole situation at the moment.

The only thing I'm really looking forward to at the moment (apart from my laptop working again, but this hope i fear is illusory) is cognitive linguist Bregette Nerlich's inaugural talk on October 30.

I'll post again when I've settled better and have access to the internet at least on a regular basis.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Off to Nottingham

Tomorrow I'll be starting my year abroad at the University of Nottingham. Interestingly, the flight from Frankfurt Airport to London Heathrow will take only and hour and forty, but the coach travel to Notts will take 3 1/2 hours + the obligatory traffic jam on the M1. If nothing goes wrong, I'll have acess to the internet and will be able to post about Tomasello's arguments against innateness and other interesting (well, to me at least ;-) ) topics.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Social Cognition and Linguistic Innateness I

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Laughing Man of Complex Adaptive Systems has asked an interesting question regarding my post announcing that Michael Tomasello had published a new book on “The Origins of Human Communication:”

A point I don't get: How does this argument (Gricean maxims of cooperation evolved from general cooperative human structure) criticise Chomsky's innateness theory?”

He refers to the following passage from the book description:

“Challenging the Chomskian view that linguistic knowledge is innate, Tomasello proposes instead that the most fundamental aspects of uniquely human communication are biological adaptations for cooperative social interaction in general and that the purely linguistic dimensions of human communication are cultural conventions and constructions created by and passed along within particular cultural groups”

As Laughing Man rightly points out, the evolutionary priority of cooperative, social-communicative capacities to our capacity for linguistic communication is in principle compatible with an innatist position regarding language acquisition. A generativist more interested in interdisciplinary matters than Chomsky, as for example, Ray Jackendoff, would be sure to agree with the importance of social interaction for language acquisition.

However, Tomasello’s argument goes further than that. He claims that general skills of social interaction such as human intention-reading skills, along with primate pattern finding skills, are all what is needed for a child to be able to learn a language when placed in the right environment. I haven’t looked at Tomasello’s newest work, but in his previous books “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (1999), and “Constructing A Language” (2003), he makes a strong case why we needn’t postulate a language-specific, innate “Universal Grammar” specifying the architecture and input conditions of a domain-specific language system.

In Contrast, here’s Ray Jackendoff’s opinion on the relationship between social cognition and an inbuilt specialized linguistic toolkit:

“Language acquisition of course rests on social skills such as theory of mind (rudimentary in chimpanzees) and understanding pointing (not found in chimpanzees), as well as on more general perceptual machinery such as attention. These provide scaffolding for language acquisition but do not themselves provide the material out of which knowledge of language is built. “

Language also relies on many other domain-general cognitive capacities, but

“what is special about language is the collection of mental structures it employs – phonology and syntax – and the interfaces between them and conceptual structure. The processing and acquisition of these structures may be accomplished by brain-general mechanisms of long-term memory, integration in working memory, learning (including statistically-based learning), and attention, and may rely as well on understanding of social interaction and theory of mind. But unless the specific unique building blocks for phonology, syntax, and their connection to concepts are present, language and language acquisition are not possible. It is these building blocks that constitute the narrow language faculty.” (Jackendoff 2007: 388f.)


Jackendoff, Ray (2007): Linguistics in Cognitive Science: The State of the Art, The Linguistic Review 24, 347-401.

Tomasello, Michael (1999): The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2003): Constructing A Language. A Usage-Based Approach. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tomasello - The Origins of Human Communication

I just noticed that Michael Tomasello’s new book „The Origins of Human Communication” is out. The book is based on his Jean Nicod Lectures, which were delivered in Paris in the Spring of 2006 (you can watch the videos here. although the quality isn’t great, the talks are still fun to watch because they feature a lot of videos of the experiments with non-human primates and human children done by Tomasello and his colleagues).

“The Jean Nicod Lectures are delivered annually in Paris by a leading philosopher of mind or philosophically oriented cognitive scientist” and have featured, among others, Jerry Fodor, Donald Davidson, John Searle, Dan Dennett, and Ray Jackendoff.

(It’s interesting to see that the prizes were often given to people who are known to have the exact opposite stance than a previous prize winner. There have been controversies, for example, between Searle and Davidson, and between Dennett and Fodor – see for example here. So one could say that there seems to be some kind of attempt of establishing an equilibrium in regards of who is awarded the prize. So after someone from the nativist/generativist/formalist camp has received the prize a couple of years ago, it was time for an enemy of this position.
But there are various reasons to doubt this line of reasoning: firstly, my argument was intended mostly as a joke, secondly there are a lot of prize winners who cannot be clearly be put into camps that are diametrically opposed to one another (of course, in fact almost nobody can), and my controversy-examples are very bad, given that Davidson and Fodor seem to have a gripe with about practically everyone in the cognitive sciences, philosophy of mind, and other related disciplines.

But most importantly, Michael Tomasello is a great scientist whose works is absolutely fantastic, and he definitely deserves all the prizes he can get. /end of rambling)

Here’s the description over at The MIT Press site:

„Human communication is grounded in fundamentally cooperative, even shared, intentions. In this original and provocative account of the evolutionary origins of human communication, Michael Tomasello connects the fundamentally cooperative structure of human communication (initially discovered by Paul Grice) to the especially cooperative structure of human (as opposed to other primate) social interaction.

Tomasello argues that human cooperative communication rests on a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality (joint attention, common ground), evolved originally for collaboration and culture more generally. The basic motives of the infrastructure are helping and sharing: humans communicate to request help, inform others of things helpfully, and share attitudes as a way of bonding within the cultural group. These cooperative motives each
created different functional pressures for conventionalizing grammatical constructions. Requesting help in the immediate you-and-me and here-and-now, for example, required very little grammar, but informing and sharing required increasingly complex grammatical devices.

Drawing on empirical research into gestural and vocal communication by great apes and human infants (much of it conducted by his own research team), Tomasello argues further that humans' cooperative communication emerged first in the natural gestures of pointing and pantomiming. Conventional communication, first gestural and then vocal, evolved only after humans already possessed these natural gestures and their shared intentionality infrastructure along with skills of cultural learning for creating and passing along jointly understood communicative conventions. Challenging the Chomskian view that linguistic knowledge is innate, Tomasello proposes instead that the most fundamental aspects of uniquely human communication are biological adaptations for cooperative social interaction in general and that the purely linguistic dimensions of human communication are cultural conventions and constructions created by and passed along within particular cultural groups.“
I’m really looking forward to read his book. At the MIT Press site you can download the first chapter (here). I’ll have a look at it and maybe I’ll post about it later.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Some Interesting Links

Over at Language Log, there are two very interesting post regarding the evolution of language by Mark Liberman.
One regards the work of John Hawks on the evolution of hearing-related genes. Liberman quotes from an article about Hawks' work:

"It all points to the evolutionary sensitivity of at least one part of the human language system in the post–Stone Age world, Hawks reported in April in Columbus at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Language depends not just on a vocal tract capable of making certain speech sounds but on ears designed to hear particular sound frequencies, as well as on a variety of other brain and body features. Relatively recently in evolutionary history, genetic revisions within populations have upgraded ear structures needed for discerning what other people say, he proposes.
“It takes a long time for a biologically complex system like language to evolve,” Hawks says. “We’re still genetically adapting to language.”
His findings challenge the influential idea that the way humans now talk emerged full-blown about 50,000 years ago thanks to a single genetic mutation that improved vocal articulation. Hawks’ results instead play into a growing appreciation that rapid population growth toward the end of the Stone Age, followed by the rise of agriculture and village life around 10,000 years ago, triggered cultural changes that prompted genetic accommodation"

As Liberman observes, these findings are in accordance with the work of Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd. They foundthat there is a correlation between two versions of a gene (ASPM/ASPM-D and MCPH/MCPH-D, respectively) and whether people speak a tonal or a non-tona languagel. This and other considerations led them and others to conclude that there may be a range of small genetic biases that, together with cultural transmission, play an important role in language acquisition and evolution. (see for example here, here, here, and here)

Just as Dediu and Ladd propose that the main motor of selection for ASPM and MCPH probably wasn't language-related but some other function, Liberman speculates that the hearing related-genes Hawks identified may be involved in musical perception.
This all looks very interesting, but at the moment Hawk doesn't "have a lot else to say right now, because the work is still underway." (But check out this post about the relation between language and genetics)

In another post, Liberman anticipates the reaction to "a recent paper about cohesion in human/ape conversation"

Here's the abstract:
"Ape language research has primarily focused on specific isolated language features. In contrast, in research into human language, traditions such as conversational analysis and discourse analysis propose to study language as actual discourse. Consequently, repetitions are seen as accomplishing various discursive and pragmatic functions in human conversations, while in apes, repetitions are seen as rote imitations and as proof that apes do not exhibit language. Tools from discourse analysis are applied in this study to a conversation between a language-competent bonobo, Pan paniscus and a human. The hypothesis is that the bonobo may exhibit even larger linguistic competency in ordinary conversation than in controlled experimental settings. Despite her limited productive means, the bonobo Panbanisha competently engages in co-constructing the conversational turns. She uses shared knowledge and repetitions to achieve compliance with a request. This reveals a knowledge about socio-linguistic interactions which goes beyond the pure informational content of words."
I don't have access to the paper, but thankfully Liberman has reproduced the transcript of the conversation. Reading the transcript, I asked myself how much of a given linguistic utterance Panbanisha actually understood, given that her reaction could also be explained by appealing to standardized reactions to certain words/sounds. This is supported by the fact that at first glance, it seems that her communicative and interactional behavior can also be sufficiently explained if we only assume that she just reacted to the few words/sounds that were spoken hard or emphasized.

I must say that at first glance, Panbanisha's pragmatic competence also doesn't look all that impressive.
Stephen C. Levinson (2006) of the Max-Planck-Institue for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands, has proposed a human "interaction engine," a kind of core system including the universal principles of all human linguistic interactions across all cultures. Here are some of its universal properties:

"(1) Responses are to actions/intentions, not to behaviors (unlike e.g. the defensive reaction of a snake to someone who passes too close by). […]

(2) In interaction, a simulation of the other’s simulation of oneself is also involved. […]

(3) Although human interaction is dominated by the use of language, language does not actually code the crucial actions being performed – these are nearly always inferred, or indirectly conveyed. […]

(4) Interaction is by and large cooperative. […]

(5) Interaction is characterized by action-chains and sequences […] governed not by rule but by expectations. […]

(6) Interaction is characterized by the reciprocity of roles (e.g. speaker-addressee, giver-taker), and typically by an alternation of roles over time, yielding a turn-taking structure […]

(7) Interaction takes place within a (constantly modulating) participation structure (specifying who is participating, and in what role), which in turn presumes ratified mutual access […].

(8) Interaction is characterized by expectation of close timing – an action produced in an interactive context (say a hand wave) sets up an expectation for an immediate response.

(9) Face-to-face interaction is characterized by multi-modal signal streams – visual, auditory, haptic at the receiving end, and kinesic, vocal and motor /tactile at the producing end. […]

(10) Interaction appears to have detailed universal properties, even if little work has actually been done to establish this. What we do know is that for a wide range of features, from turn-taking, adjacency pairs (as in question-answer sequences), greetings, and repairs of interactional hitches and misunderstandings, the languages and cultural systems which have been studied reflect very similar, in some cases eerily similar, subsystems. "
It would be interesting to look which of these features also exist in Panbanisha's "enculturated bonobo interaction engine," but I have the impression that there is a gap in the interactional capacities of even very young human infants and Panbanisha. Judging from the transcript, I'm very skeptical of the claim that Panbanisha "competently engages in co-constructing the conversational turns." To me, it rather looks as if the human interactans are imposing a conversational structure on her and are assigning her a conversational roles she has to fulfil.
Thus I am not sure if Levinson's point (6),"the reciprocity of roles (e.g. speaker-addressee, giver-taker), and typically by an alternation of roles over time, yielding a turn-taking structure" really can be found in this conversational transcript. In fact I doubt it. I probably would have to look at the video to really be able to say something. But in general it seems as if participating in an imposed role-governed interactional structure isn't that much of a cognitive and pragmatic feat:

I'm really looking forward to Liberman's discussion of the issue

P.S: On a funnier note:

"Evolutionists Flock To Darwin-Shaped Wall Stain"
A steady stream of devoted evolutionists continued to gather in this small Tennessee town today to witness what many believe is an image of Charles Darwin—author of The Origin Of Species and founder of the modern evolutionary movement—made manifest on a concrete wall in downtown Dayton.
[hat tip: Evil Under the Sun, HENRY]

Monday, September 1, 2008

Thomas Hobbes on the Evolution of Language

During my research for my term paper on Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the evolution of language and consciousness I came across a very interesting German book on the debate about the origin of language in the 18th century by Cordula Neis (2003), who has also written an article on the topic in the 14 Volume Elsevier Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics (Neis 2006). In 1769 the Berlin Academy of Science issued a prize contest regarding the origin of language:

"After a long internal discussion, the Academy invited scholars from across Europe to submit their essays on the origin of language. As language was considered an essential component of the natural constitution of man, it was required to reveal how man might have invented it and whether he might have been able to create it on his own." (Neis 2006: 100)
"By announcing the prize topic as being the origin of language in 1769, the Berlin Academy endeavored to find a persuasive solution that defended the possibility of human invention. Scholars considered the question as highly important, 31 essays were submitted to the Academy, an unusually high number of entries." (Neis 2006: 101)

The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder won the contest, and as a result, was the only contributor whose name was made public so that most of the authors of the manuscripts are still unknown. Of the 31 anonymous contributions, only 24 still exist, but all reviews of the judges are still there. Still, posthumous identification is made extremely hard by the fact that contributions were sent in in three different languages (German, French, and Latin. Two contributions were even written in what Neis calls “Fantasy-French:” Due to the fact that French was maybe the most prestigious language at that time, the authors apparently felt obliged to sent in papers in French even if they couldn’t really speak the language…). Apart from that, sloppy 18th century handwriting is extremely hard to read (for me: absolutely impossible to read).:

Nevertheless, there are a lot of topics common to all the manuscripts, for example explicit or implicit references to the influential philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) (to whom I’ll maybe come back in a later post) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes is especially well known for his view of man as being “homo homini lupus” (man is the wolf of man) and his book “Leviathan” in which he argues that only if everybody adheres to a social contract and submits most of his freedom to the state can the natural “bellum omnium contra omnes” (the war of all against all) be stopped. Anyway, even though Hobbes was a man of his time and thus was a creationist who believed that “the first author of speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as He presented to his sight,” some of his thoughts on the topic of language evolution/origin/function are really interesting. Hobbes speculates that Adam couldn’t possibly have invented all words, especially as all speech was confounded after the Tower of Babel incident.

For Hobbes, language is adaptive in that it is shaped by what speakers and hearers need to communicate about:
“And being hereby forced to disperse themselves into several parts of the world, it must needs be that the diversity of tongues that now is, proceeded by degrees from them in such manner as need, the mother of all inventions, taught them, and in tract of time grew everywhere more copious. “
But what I find most interesting is Hobbes’ view of the function of language:
“The general use of speech is to transfer our mental discourse into verbal, or the train of our thoughts into a train of words, and that for two commodities; whereof one is the registering of the consequences of our thoughts, which being apt to slip out of our memory and put us to a new labour, may again be recalled by such words as they were marked by. So that the first use of names is to serve for marks or notes of remembrance. Another is when many use the same words to signify, by their connexion and order one to another, what they conceive or think of each matter; and also what they desire, fear, or have any other passion for. And for this use they are called signs”

Neis, Cordula (2003) Anthropologie im Sprachdenken des 18. Jahrhunderts ‑ Die Berliner Preisfrage nach dem Ursprung der Sprache (1771). New York: de Gruyter.

Neis, Cordula (2006): Origin of Language Debate. in: Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (ELL). Ed. By Keith Brown (Editor-in-Chief). Second edition. Oxford. Elsevier.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Back Home

I’m finally back home and having access to the internet again. At least till September 21, that is, which is when I will start my 10 months abroad in Nottingham

I'm still working on some term papers, for example, I'm just wrapping up a 27-Page Paper on Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of the evolution and function of consciousness.

Apart from that, there were about 550 posts in my RSS newsreader, and I still haven't managed to have a look at all of them.

Some very interesting things happened in the blogosphere while I was away, and I hope I will find the time to compile a small list of my favorite posts.

But for now, here's something funnny:

Richard Dawkins calls the view that evolution had a direction and reached some sort of climax in homo sapiens a "conceit of hindsight." As Steven Pinker observes, if Elephants were the most culturally advanced species on the planet, they would probably search for the evolutionary path that inevitably cumulated in the evolutionary optimum of trunkitude. The same idea could be applied to all other fictional and nonfictional organisms,

such as sea otters (spolier alert),

zombies, or:

[Hat Tip: Evil Under the Sun, PTET,]

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hiatus (+A Short Note on Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development)

It will be a while until I’ll be able to post again, because I’m at my fiancée’s parents’ home over the semester holidays and won’t have access to the internet. After that I’ll have to prepare for my year abroad in Nottingham, which starts mid-September, but I’ll try to post a bit more regularly starting late August.
Right now I’m busy writing a term paper on Nietzsche’s view on the evolution of language, but I also try to occasionally have a look at other texts that interest me. So here’s one interesting (well, at least I think it’s interesting…) thing:

Yesterday I’ve read the first chapter of “The Development of Children” by Michael Cole, Sheila Cole, and Cynthia Lightfoot.
There, they give a short overview over influential theories of human development. As already discussed on this blog, Jean Piaget is a very influential thinker on the topic of children’s conceptualizations of mental states and differing perspectives on the same event.
Piaget thinks that young children are self-centered and only see things from an egocentric perspective that they are unable to transcend. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a lot of evidence that this generalization is exaggerated, and that the ability to take other cognitive perspectives arises between the ages 4-5, an age much younger than Piaget hypothesised.
Another crucial assumption in Piaget’s theory is that there is a stage at which children’s understanding and experiencing the world fundamentally changes. Before this change, they conceive of thinking as a bodily process, for example, the act of speaking. Only older children conceive of thinking as something invisible and unobservable. According to Piaget, children’s conceptualization of thinking fundamentally changes about the age of 10 to 11. This is when children first become able to think about thinking as a mental process which cannot be seen. Piaget used clinical interviews as evidence for his theory. Here are two interviews he did with younger children (taken from Cole at al. 2005: 21f.):

Piaget:… You know what it means to think?
Child: Yes.
Piaget: Then think of your house. What do you think with?
Child: With the mouth”

Even when children get explicit hints, they aren’t able to think of mental states as internal processes:
Piaget: When you are in bed and you dream, where is the dream?
Child: In my bed, under the blanket.
Piaget: Is the dream there when you sleep?
Child: Yes, it is in my bed beside me.
[Piaget writes: “We tried suggestion:”]: Is the dream in you head?
[The child explicitly rejects the possibility]: It is I that am in the dream: it isn’t in my head.”

With older children that have reached the next developmental stage, however, the picture is quite different:
Piaget: Where is thought?
Child: In the head.
Piaget: If someone opened your head would he see your thought?
Child: No.
Piaget: What is a dream?
Child: It’s a thought
Piaget: Are the eyes open or shut?
Child: Shut.
Piaget: Where is the dream whilst you are dreaming?
Child: In the head
Piaget: Not in front of you?
Child: It’s as if (!) you could see it”

The evidence seems pretty straightforward.
However, often children are not fully able to express their thoughts and conceptualizations verbally, so a child’s practical understanding of mental processes might be different from what it says about them.
There is, for example, massive evidence that 4-5 year-old children are able to realize that other people have wrong representations of the world (i.e. that they have false beliefs). They are also able to attribute unobservable mental states like knowledge to others, that is, they have a Theory of Mind. At age 3, children are already able to grasp the fact that people have other desires and tastes as they have, for example, that someone else likes broccoli although they themselves don’t.
These facts made me a bit suspicious of the interviews Piaget reported, especially as I do not know how many children he actually asked. So I asked my fiancée’s little brother, who is much much younger than her: 4. (4,11 to be precise)
So here is my first informal interview (translated from German):

Me: Can you actually think?
Child: Well um yes
Me: Then think of a house. What do you think with?
Child (points at his forehead): Umm… With the brain!”

So what’s the explanation? Even though my fiancée’s brother is a bright kid, it’s improbable that he bridged a developmental gap of 6 years. And I have a hunch that although not as many kids at his age would have answered with “the brain”, still a lot would have said that thoughts are in the head.

To see how sophisticated his conceptualization really was, I tried to replicate Piaget’s Interview with the 11-year-old kid:

Me: Do you know what a thought is?
Child: Yes.
Me: Where is thought?
Child: In the brain.
Me: If someone opened your head would he see your thought?
Child: No.
Me: Do you know what a dream is?
Child: Yes.
Me: Are the eyes open or shut?
Child: Shut.
Me: Where is the dream whilst you are dreaming?
Child: In the brain.
Me: Not in front of you?
Child: No.

One possible explanation is a cultural-historical one. Piaget’s interviews are more than 80 years old and the culture and developmental environment of Germany in the year 2008 is certainly different from that of France in the 1920ies. There are of course social factors involved and it would be interesting to check for variation if more kids were interviewed.
One could also argue that my fiancée’s brother’s comprehension of mental states is still a mechanistic, bodily one. Instead of the physical organ of the mouth, the thinking is done with another physical organ: the brain. But then this would surely also be the answer of many adults. Furthermore, in his conceptualization a thought isn’t located in the brain in a trivial way: even if you opened his head, you couldn’t see it. Interestingly, as I remarked that it was pretty cool that he thought that thoughts are being produced by the brain, he said: “What else should I think with…? …the head?!”, something which indicates that he didn’t get behind the metaphorical link between the head and a mental states, and thus maybe didn’t see my questions as aiming at invisible processes of the mental world, but being directed at the factual/physical domain, but I’m not so sure about that.

To end this post with a provocative question: could his answer imply the death of folk dualism? With increasing education and the all-pervasiveness of biological talk in the media (Think of the press coverage fMRI studies receive) and in everyday speech, the view that the mind is what the brain does might become a new common place folk theory and might be acquired at ever younger ages.

There is no question that the children of today will grow up in a fundamentally different world than even I did, but the really interesting question is how this growing up in a hypertechnological, hypermedial, hyperbiological (given the dominance of neuroscientific genetic and medical discussions in the public sphere) and often reductionist world will change and influence their folk theories of how the world works as well as their cognitive conceptualizations. I’m really looking forward to the future.
See you in late August.