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.