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.

No comments: