Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Combinatorial Structure in Monkey Vocalizations

Both John Hawks and Babel's Dawn link to an interesting article in the New York Times that reports on an as of yet unpublished paper by Klaus Zuberbühler and his colleagues on combinatorial (syntax-like) structure in the calls of Campbell's Monkeys:

"If the Zuberbühler team’s observations are correct, the Campbell’s monkeys can both vary the meaning of specific calls by adding suffixes and combine calls to generate a different meaning. Their call system, the researchers write, “may be the most complex example of ‘proto-syntax’ in animal communication known to date.”"

From Zuberbühler's previous work (e.g. Zuberbühler 2002, Zuberbühler 2006) it was already clear that some monkey species have very limited degree of flexibility in combining the vocalizations, but the fact that the combinatorics seem to be more complex than thought before seems quite interesting.

P.S.: Ed Yong also has a nice write-up

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Another Proof of Life & Links

I know it's been ages since I posted anything and one of my new years resolutions is definitely going to be to post regularly again, but this year it seems that I just don't find the time.
But a lot of really interesting stuff has happened and I'll just post some links that I found particularly interesting.

First of all, and although it's already old news, the papers on Ardipithecus Ramidus published in Science caused a lot of excitement. John Hawks has a very nice FAQ on the subject and Edmund Blair Bolles considers the implications these findings have for accounts of the evolution of language.

Chris of the Lousy Linguist nicely rebuts a very confused article claiming that according to new research using 'analytical language' automatically leads to healthier discussions between couples. In this post Chris also invents the great term "the Full Liberman" (see also this Language Log post) for debunking nonsensical articles about linguistic research findings.
He also reposted a nice piece on the great work by Simon Kirby and his colleagues at the Language Evolution and Computation Unit at Edinburgh University who try to 'grow' an artifical language in the lab in order to understand how language might have evolved.

So if you wanna know what's up with these strange fruit check out Chris' post (picture taken from the University of Edinburgh)

My favourite journal, the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, has also published a quite controversial article called "The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science." In this article, Nicholas Evans, a linguist at the Australian National University, and Stephen Levinson of The Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, argue that the Chomskyan and Generative approach fails in light of the stunning diversity of the world's languages. They argue that there are no real meaningful universals that can be found in all of the world's 6,000 to 8,000 languages. Instead, there are only "significant recurrent patterns in organization," but these "are better explained as stable engineering solutions satisfying multiple design constraints, reflecting both cultural-historical factors and the constraints of human cognition" than by innate language-specific capacities.

The article is accompanied by some 20+ commentaries by quite illustrious figures in linguistics and cognitive science, who weigh in on both sides of the issue. The commentators include, for example: Mark Baker, William Croft, Adele Goldberg, Martin Haspelmath, Michael Tomasello (who, unsurprisingly, argues that "Universal Gramar is Dead"), Steven Pinker & Ray Jackendoff, Geoffrey Pullum, Paul Smolensky, Derek Penn, Daniel Povinelli & Keith Holyoak, and others.

Last but not least, there is also a very interesting article by Joseph Henrich et al. coming out in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences sometime in the future. It is in a similar vein as the one of Evans and Levinson and is titled "The weirdest people in the world?" The authors argue that people living in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies differ quite a lot cognitively from the rest of the world and thus "are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans."
I'm not sure about the general claim but the paper definitely has the best opening paragraph of any scientific paper ever:

"In the tropical forests of New Guinea the Etoro believe that for a boy to achieve manhood he must ingest the semen of his elders. This is accomplished through ritualized rites of passage that require young male initiates to fellate a senior member (Herdt, 1984; Kelley, 1980). In contrast, the nearby Kaluli maintain that male initiation is only properly done by ritually delivering the semen through the initiate’s anus, not his mouth. The Etoro revile these Kaluli practices, finding them disgusting."

(Hat tip: Deric Bownds' Mindblog)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Links: God and Dead Salmon

I'm really sad that I just don't get around to post anything at the moment, but I'm currently recieving my practical training for my teacher's degree and it's quite a handful. I really hope to be able to blog again soon, but right now I just don't find the time.

But you should all check out Greg Downey's online version of his Presentation "‘Sympathy for Creationists, and Other Thoughts from a Sceptical Anthropologist,’" over at Neuroanthropology.net It has load of really cool and funny images and a lot of links as well

Downey's main point is that, although it is totally clear that Creationist arguments don't have any merit at all, "many ‘believers’ in evolutionary theory share some of the intellectual errors evidenced by Creationists. "
Downey argues that one of the main problems with evolutionary theory in general are our difficulties of conceptualizing and really grasping evolutionary processes and concepts properly. (This point is of course not new but it is still an important one to make - one nice proposal I think is the 'soap opera' view of evolution)

Another really entertaining and interesting topic are the many posts all over the blogosphere (e.g here and here) on an ingenious study that found neural activation for "emotional perspective-taking" in a brainscan of - wait for it - a dead atlantic salmon (for the poster, see here, some interesting comments by one of the authors of the study can be found here and here). The authors nevertheless try to make a serious point, namely that it is extremely important to find relaible methods that can control for and correct random noises and misleading correlations. Go check it out

P.S. Oh And I totally forgot: Edmund Blair Bolles is live-blogging like crazy from the "Ways to Protolanguage" conference that totally went under my radar.

His posts so far are:

Protolanguage builds on mimicry
Memes co-evolve
Simulation Suggests Steps to Speaking of the Unseen
Does the Recapitulation Principle Apply?
Protolanguage Was Symbolic
Five Ways to Investigate Speech Origins

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space (V): Comparing Different Species

As I’ve talked about in my last posts, different cultures employ different coordinate systems or Frames of References (FoR) "which serve to specify the directional relationships between objects in space, in reference to a shared referential anchor” (Haun et al. 2006: 17568) when talking about space. As shown in my last post these linguistic differences boil down to certain cognitive differences.
Whether speakers mainly use a relative, ego-based FoR, a cardinal-direction/or landmark-based absolute FoR, or an object-based, intrinsic based FoR, also influences how they solve and conceptualise spatial tasks.

In my last post I posed the question whether there is a cognitive “default setting” that we and the other great apes inherited from our last common ancestor that is only later overridden by cultural factors – and, crucially, which Frame of Reference is might be the default one?

Haun et al. (2006: 16570) argue that
"there has been a great deal of speculation about the inherited structure of spatial relational thought. Immanuel Kant argued that the human body provides the source of our basic intuitions about the nature of space. In agreement, many cognitive scientists hold the assumption that spatial cognition is fundamentally egocentric [references omitted].”
In the same vein, Dirven et al. (2007: 1213), point out that
“The principle of corporeal deixis [i.e. body-based or body-centric spatial reference] is even so self-evident that it has been considered by most linguists, including cognitive linguists, as the default case, if not the universal one (Talmy 1983).”
I myself also thought this way and found Karl Bühler’s (1934) notion of the ego-based “Here-Now-I”-origo quite self-evident. In Bühler’s view, this deictic centre is the origin of a “coordinate system of subjective orientation,” which builds the basis and referential anchoring for all communicative acts and all social interaction and coordination,

However, we can still see the egocentric frame of reference as the universal default case and see absolute frames of reference as being cultural variations that transform our innate frame of reference. This would thus still be in line with the paradigm mentioned above as well as with developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s central assumption that in cognitive development infants start with an egocentric perspective on the world and only later learns to coordinate multiple perspectives on the world.

To test whether this is really the case, Haun et al. used a similar but simplified setting like in their first experiment that I described in my last post, and tested gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and 4-year-old German children.

This time there were only 3 identical cups on the table so the object-centred and the geocentric conditions from the previous experiment were collapsed.
The subject was first shown where a reward is hidden
(X = Cups | = Screen E= Experimenter O=Hidden Object)
and was then rotated 180° and brought to an identical table behind the screen where they could then again locate the reward.

In the Relative condition the reward was in relation to the subject. If it was hidden to his left on table 1 it was also hidden to his left on table 2 :
In the Absolute condition “the hiding and finding cups maintained position Relative to the larger, surrounding environment” and also to “a salient landmark between the two tables, namely the screen or the experimenter” (Haun et al. 2006 : 17569).
It turned out that the great apes including the 4-year old children deployed an allocentric/environment-based layout more readily than an ego/self-based spatial strategy. At the very least, these data indicate that
“Despite common expectations, [...] Hominid spatial cognition is at least not always primarily egocentric“ (Haun et al. 2006: 15751).
To further corroborate this evidence, Haun et al. 2006 tried an even simpler version of this task on the non-human great apes as they are known to have problems with abstract rule-learning and generally scored quite low on the second experiment.

Thus, in a third experiment, the subjects were directed to the first table and in the baseline condition were rewarded for picking a cup no matter which it was for 10 times. The animals were then led to the table that was on the other side of the screen and the experimenter started to only reward one of the cups until the apes consistently picked a particular cup ten out of twelve times in a row. If they had succeeded in doing so, they were redirected to the original table and in the test trials were again rewarded for all of their ten choices.
In this way, the experimenters induced a “response” or “training bias” in the apes: In the test condition they tended to preferably pick the same cup as the one for which they were rewarded 10 times in a row in the training condition. That is, if they were rewarded for picking the middle cup in the training session, they also preferred to pick the middle cup when rotated 180° and brought back to the original table in the test condition.

The interesting question then is: If they were rewarded for picking say this cup:

in the training condition: which cup would they show the response bias for in the test condition? Would they interpret this as being ‘the cup to their left’? Or would they interpret it as being allocentrically/environmentally based?
As in the second experiment, great apes showed a preference for environmental cues as opposed to self-based cues. That is if they developed a preference for the cup in the upper illustration, they then preferred to pick the following cup in the rotated test condition.
Haun et al. (2006: 17572) conclude that gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and we all have inherited “preference for allocentric spatial strategies” from our shared ancestor.

“Based on this result, we argue that, at least for small-scale spatial relations, the inherited cognitive mode of operation is not, as argued by Kant and others, egocentric but preferably deploys environmental cues as common reference between object.”
I think this is a fascinating result and I find the argument very convincing. It is also strengthened by findings from cognitive and linguistic development: By 16 months, when they have become successful mobile navigators, children competently use non-egocentric cognitive strategies. 3- to 5-year old English-speaking children even appear to be “better at allocentric strategies than at egocentric ones.” Moreover, in cultures where an absolute frame of reference is the dominant one, children master “this system as early as 4 and certainly by 7 years of age.” Children who live in cultures that dominantly employ a relative frame of reference, on the other hand, do not seem to master the full use of a left and right system until about 11 years of age. (Haun et al. 17572).

At first sight, this might seem like quite a blow for embodiment theories in Cognitive Science and Cognitive Linguistics who see embodied, egocentric experience as our primary way of making sense of the world.
But as Dirven et al. (2007) point out, “given the universality of human bodily experience,” it would not be “astonishing” if corporeal deixis constituted “the default case” of spatial cognition,
“but as a more refined conception of embodiment, the notion of situated embodiment incorporates and integrates man’s physical and social environment in his or her holistic bodily experience” (Dirven et al. 2007: 1217).


Bühler, Karl. 1982. Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Stuttgart,
New York: Fischer (Uni-Taschenbücher 1159).

Dirven, René, Hans-Georg Wolf, and Frank Polzenhagen. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Cultural Studies.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1203-1221.

Haun, Daniel B. M., Christian J. Rapold, Josep Call, Gabriele Janzen, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2006. “Cognitive Cladistics and Cultural Override in Hominid Spatial Cognition.” In: PNAS 103: 17568–17573.

Levinson, Stephen C. 2003. Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, Stephen C., Sotaro Kita, Daniel B.M. Haun, Björn H. Rasch. 2002. “Returning the Tables: Language Affects Spatial Reasoning.” In: Cognition 84: 155–188.

Palmer, Gary B. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Anthropological Linguistics.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1045-1073.

Pederson, Eric. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Linguistic Relativity.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1012-1044.

Talmy, Leonard. 1983. “How Language Structures Space.” In: Spatial Orientation: Theory, Research and Application. ed. by Herbert L. Pick, Jr., and Linda P. Acredolo. New York: Plenum Books. 225–82.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space: (IV) Comparing Different Cultures.

I wanted to continue posting on Stephen Levinson’s 2003 book, but unfortunately, I only have very limited access to the internet right now, and as my year abroad at the University of Nottingham is over, I don’t have access to the e-book version anymore (The Library at the University of Heidelberg has a copy of the book but I’m currently at home and can’t get it from there either).

Instead, I’ll post about a fascinating study done by people from the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics (Nijmegen, Netherlands) and people from the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) that pretty much blew me away (quite literally so: it pretty much destroyed a central assumption of the received theory of cognitive perspective that I wanted to work on).

As I already said, work done by Stephen Levinson and others on how different cultures talk about and conceptualise space has shown that not all of them employ a bodily, egocentric frame of reference or coordinate system as their dominant organizing principle for their experiences and thoughts. Speakers of “several indigenous languages of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Nepal, and south West Africa,” in contrast, organize the axes of their dominant coordinate system by absolute principles such as fixed landmarks (e.g. uphill vs. downhill) or cardinal directions (e.g. move the chair to the north). In addition, there are also languages that primarily use “intrinsic,” object-centred Frames of References, such as in “The dog is at the front of the library.”
In a set of clever experiments Levinson and his colleagues have also shown that speakers of relative and absolute languages differ in how they solve non-linguistic spatial tasks. For example, in the “motion-maze task” (Pederson & Schmitt 1993) participants see a toy move on a table. They are then rotated 180° and asked to recognize, on a table with a maze-like diagram, the “the path traversed from within a maze-like diagram containing both absolute and relative possibilities“ (Levinson et al. 2002).

Interestingly, speakers of relative languages such as Dutch or Japanese recognize the path based on the relative frame of reference they employ in their language whereas speakers of absolute languages such as the Australian Aboriginal language Arrernte or Tzeltal recognize the path based on their absolute frame of reference (Levinson et al. 2002, Levinson 2003).
Results like this were achieved on a wide array of space-based tasks, so the overall findings that relative speakers prefer relative FoR in spatial tasks and that absolute speakers prefer absolute FoRs seems to be quite robust. (Haun et al. 2006).
In a recent set of experiments Haun et al. (2006) tested how soon a cognitive bias in spatial cognition manifests itself. They tested 7-11 age year old children from a Dutch village, who mainly use an egocentric FoR) and from a Khoisan hunter–gatherer community in Namibia called =/= Akhoe Hai||om (to be honest, I don’t have any idea how to pronounce this), who almost always use absolute spatial descriptions.
They also tested adults of both cultures “to see whether differences were not only initial variations of an emerging cognitive skill but were actually stable across the life span.”
What they did was the following: The subject was placed in front of a table on which there were five identical cups in a “five dice”-constellation:
(X = Cups | = Screen E= Experimenter O=Hidden Object)

They were then shown the location of an object that was hidden under one of the cups.

In the next step, the Subject was turned 180° and brought to an identical table behind the screen:

Then, and this is the crucial bit, they were asked to indicate the spot where they thought the object was hidden this time. In the experiment, there were three conditions. First, an egocentric one: if the object was hidden to the left of the subject, it was also hidden to the subject’s left after she was rotated to her new position.

Secondly, there was an object-centred condition in which the “hiding and finding cups maintained position in relation to a salient landmark between the two tables, namely the screen or the experimenter” (Haun et al. 2006 : 17659).

And finally, there was a geocentric condition where, if the hiding cup was to the north-west, it would also be the to the north-west in the rotated position.

After repeated trials on all the conditions the following picture emerged: Hai||om children and adults were faster to learn and made the fewest errors in the absolute condition and Dutch children and adults were best in the egocentric condition.
“This correlation is fully robust by age 8 and persists into adulthood. In sum, Dutch and Hai||om subjects varied in their preferred cognitive strategy to solve a spatial relational learning task, and their preference matched the preferred mode of description in their respective language” (Haun et al. 2006 : 17570).

Although it is quite difficult to interpret these results in terms of the relationship between language and thought (see e.g. Pederson 2007, Palmer 2007: 1059ff.), the results are certainly thrilling and give rise to a further question: which of these frames of reference is the primary and basic one that infants have? Is there a cognitive default setting that we and the other great apes inherited from our last common ancestor which is only later overridden by cultural factors?
I’ll return to this question in my next post tomorrow.


Haun, Daniel B. M., Christian J. Rapold, Josep Call, Gabriele Janzen, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2006. “Cognitive Cladistics and Cultural Override in Hominid Spatial Cognition.” In: PNAS 103: 17568–17573.

Levinson, Stephen C. 2003. Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, Stephen C., Sotaro Kita, Daniel B.M. Haun, Björn H. Rasch. 2002. “Returning the Tables: Language Affects Spatial Reasoning.” In: Cognition 84: 155–188.

Palmer, Gary B. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Anthropological Linguistics.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1045-1073.

Pederson, Eric. 2007. “Cognitive Linguistics and Linguistic Relativity.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1012-1044.

Pederson, Eric & B. Schmitt 1993. Eric’s maze task. In Cognition and Space Kit Version 1.0 (pp. 73–76).Nijmegen: Cognitive Anthropology Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space (III)

In the second chapter of his book, Stephen Levinson discusses a concept that has been crucial to this blog: frames of reference. (see e.g. these posts) The term as it is used today was coined by Gestalt theorists of perception in the 1920s and was used to signify the steady and constant background against which other objects could be made out and identified. It can be defined as “‘a unit or organization of units that collectively serve to identify a coordinate system with respect to which certain properties of objects, including the phenomenal self, are gauged’ (Rock 1992: 404, emphasis in Levinson 2003: 24).

Frames of references seem to be highly similar across modalities such as vision, touch, gesture, and language. Without these structural similarities (or ‘isomorphisms’) “we could not reach to what we see, or talk about what we feel with our hands, or give route descriptions in language and gesture.” (Levinson 2003: 25). There are, however, also differences: vision is viewer-centred, and touch and grasp are object-centred.

In general, frames of references can be classified by the following distinctions.
Absolute vs. Relative. Psychologically, the received view is that we organize our spatial thinking in relation to objects and ourselves. The frame of reference is thus relative to our own ego-centric bodily coordinates. An absolute frame of reference, on the other hand would consist of fixed angles with coordinates that do not depend on our personal egos as anchoring. And as we have seen, contrary to the received view, both kinds of frames of references are employed in the world’s languages. (Levinson 2003: 27f.).
Similar, but not completely identical is the differentiation between egocentric and allocentric frames of reference. This designates a difference
"between coordinate systems with origins within the subjective body frame of the organism, versus coordinate systems centred elsewhere (often unspecified).” (Levinson 2003: 28).

Our mental maps of our environment and our place are either egocentric or allocentric and landmark-based, including the relations, distances and angles between different landmarks, or allocentric and based on “fixed bearings.” These distinctions can not only be found in the world’s languages, but are also used by neuroscientists when they look at the mental map-building capacities of animals.
In studies of conceptual development it was also argued, following Jean Piaget, that for a long time ‘egocentric’ frames of reference are primary and that children switched to ego-centric frames of reference only to a much later date.

In studies of the visual system we often find a distinction between viewer-centred vs. object-centred. If we identify an object we are also able to mentally rotate it and imagine how it would look from another angle. This means that the retinal impression of the viewer gets interpreted and classified in a more abstract object-centred frame of reference during perception.
Another distinction made when looking at visual imagery and visual perception is that between orientation-bound vs. orientation-free. Orientation-bound information changes with perspective and change of location, whereas orientation-free information does not change. For example, when we rotate a d it can become a b, the information changes. But a ball looks the same from all perspectives and the information is thus orientation-free.
The most important distinction for psychology and language however, is the difference between
“viewer-centred frames, object-centred frames, and environment-centred frames of reference.Ina viewer-centred frame, objects are represented in a retinocentric, head-centric or body-centric coordinate system based on the perceiver’s perspective of the world. In an object-centred frame, objects are coded with respect to their intrinsic axes. In an environment-centred frame, objects are represented with respect to salient features of the environment, such as gravity or prominent visual landmarks. “ (Carlson-Radvansky & Irwin 1993: 224).
Levinson called these the relative, intrinsict and absolute frames of reference. (Levinson 2003: 33).

The distinctions made in various disciplines at times are quite confusing and there are many conflicting positions. However, a broad differentation such as this seems valid.
Next, we have to distinguish between three levels on which different frames of references can be constructed: perceptual, conceptual, and linguistic. There is especially much diversity on the linguistic level, which will be discussed in my next post. As I'm going home tomorrow I don't really know when I'll have access to the internet again, but I hope it wont't be too long.

Carlson-Radvansky, L.A. and Irwin, D.A. (1993): Frames of reference in vision language: Where is above? Cognition
46: 223-244

Levinson, Stephen C. (2003) Space in Language and Cognition : Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Rock, I. (1990), The frame of reference, in I. Rock (ed.), The legacy of Soloman Asch, pp. 243– 268. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space (II)

Spatial orientation is crucial when we try to navigate the world around us. It is a fundamental domain of human experience and depends on a wide array of cognitive capacities and integrated neural subsystems. What is most important for spatial cognition however, are the frames of references we use to locate and classify ourselves, others, objects, and events.

Often, we define a landmark (say ourselves, or a tree, or the telly) and then define an object's location in relation to this landmark. (the mouse is to my right, the bike lies left of the tree, my keys have fallen behind the telly). But as it turns out, many languages are not able to express a coordinate system with the meaning of the English expression “left of.” Instead, they employ a compass-like system of orientation.

They do not use a relative frame of reference, like in the English “the cat is behind the truck” but instead use an absolute frame of reference that can be illustrated in English by sentences such as “the cat is north of the truck.” (Levinson 2003: 3). This may seem exotic for us, but for many languages it is the dominant – although often not the only – way of locating things in space.

What are the cognitive consequences of this? Levinson argues that “
the choice of a predominant frame of reference in language correlates with, and probably determines, many other aspects of cognition, from memory, to inference, to navigation, to gesture and beyond. “ (Levinson 2003: 3).

Levinson has done much work on two languages which feature absolute frames of references:
1. Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal language. Levinson recounts how a Guugu Yimithirr speaker once warned him of an army ant “north of his” foot, or how another one told him where to find the frozen fish in a store that was 45 kilometres away. He pointed to his left and Levinson, just as all speakers of Indo-European and many other languages would probably do, thought he meant that Levinson would find the frozen fish on his right-hand side when he entered the shop. But in fact, he had pointed north-east and intended to communicate to Levinson that he would find the frozen fish in the north-east corner of the shop.

Größere Kartenansicht

2. Tzeltal, a Mayan language. In Tzeltal, speakers use the hills that surround them as points of reference. If they are out of the hills, they still project their frame of reference on their environment. So a speaker asking “Is the hot water in the uphill tap?” in an unfamiliar hotel out of the hills would mean by this ‘Is the hot water in the tap that would lie in the uphill (southerly) direction if I were at home?’ (Levinson 2003: 4).

Größere Kartenansicht

Levinson was particularly impressed by a Guugu Yimithirr speaker who, when referring to a absent person, seemingly pointed at himself but in fact pointed to the place the person had lived before. For Levinson, this indicates that
“in some striking way, the ego has been reduced to an abstract point in space. (Levinson 2003: 5)”

These experiences fit perfectly into and are supported by a more thorough and experimental investigation of this matter. But they fly in the face of much of traditional western thinking on the topic, including the consensus on the nature of spatial thinking in much of cognitive science, psychology, and linguistics which held that it was organized in a relative, egocentric and anthropocentric manner. (Levinson 2003: 10f.).

And in the chapters of his book Levinson sums up a robust body of data that lend support to his thesis that spatial cognition may be differently organised in different cultures, and that the body may not be the fundamental source of our spatial concepts, neither developmentally nor cross-culturally.

However, there are still strong universal trends in cognition in the domain of space. According to Levinson the best way to accommodate all these findings is to concede that human cognition may employ several modes of internal representation and that there is no reason to assume that there is only one form of mental representation. If we accept this view, it seems much more logical to state that the internal representations accessed by and linked to language and cultural practices are in some way influenced and shaped by these linkages. (Levinson 2003: 21f.).
Levinson sums up the key issues that recur throughout his book as follows:

  • “What are the ‘natural’, pre-linguistic or innate, spatial concepts in human cognition? How abstract are they? Why does spatial thinking have a centrality in human cognition?
  • What is the role of bodily axes and coordinates in spatial cognition?
  • What is the nature of the relation between linguistic categories and non-linguistic concepts, both in general and in the spatial domain? Are there a multiplicity of underlying representations, or one multimodal representation of space? If the latter, what is its relation to spatial semantics?
  • How much linguistic diversity is there in this domain, not only in expressive form, but underlying semantic parameters? Given that there is diversity, what linguistic universals can be stated in this area?
  • Given semantic diversity, what happens to the underlying cognition? Does it remain a universal constant, translated into various restricted linguistic concepts, or does it adapt to the language it must locally support?
  • What are the general implications from the spatial domain for the relation between language and human thinking?” (Levinson 2003: 22f.)


Levinson, Stephen C. (2003) Space in Language and Cognition : Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Language, Thought, and Space (I)

I know I still haven't written my third post on Lewontin's paper in which he criticises inquiries into the evolution of language and cognition and it will be some time until I'll be able to post it as I'm going back home on Saturday and won't haven internet access for more than a month.

But in the next couple of days I want to write something about different: How different cultures speak about and conceptualize space.
In my opinion, this is a very fascinating avenue of linguistic research that gives much insight into the nature of language and cognition as well as their relationship. In addition, it also presents us with new facts and considerations when we try to study the evolution of these traits.
By studying language and cognition cross-culturally we come to the problem of language evolution from the other way so to speak.

I will focus on the work of the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands and especially on the introductory part of Stephen Levinson's (2003) book "Space in Language and Cognition." I've started reading it because I wanted to improve my knowledge of some aspects of the cognition-oriented strands of linguistics and anthropology I unfortunately know way too little about.

I’ve written about the idea of frames of references and cognitive coordinate systems before , I haven’t said much about linguistic data that bears on this question. More generally, I, following other researchers, have argued that cognition and cognitive representations of communicative interactions are to a large part spatial in nature or at least analogous to spatial thinking. But research done by the people at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands and others has shown that there is a surprising diversity in linguistic frame of references across cultures.

What exactly does this mean for any account of cognition? What we have here is of course related to the contentious issue of the relation of language and thought. Generally there people who tend too emphasize the importance of a Language of Thought over language itself (e.g. cognitivism), with others tending toward the view that language and culture shape your cognitive style to a significant amount (e.g. linguistic relativism, linguistic determinism). These theorists can be called “lumpers” who do not see it necessary to distinguish between the semantic content of a language and underlying conceptual representations, and “splitters” who insist on this distinction. (Levinson 1997: 13f.)

The issue is often seen as a black and white matter, with Benjamin Lee Whorf being portrayed as the bad guy who had a way too extreme view. This, however, is misguided, as Whorf’s main interest was not to advocate any idea of linguistic determinism per se but instead to stress the importance of how perspectives embodied in a language influence what we pay attention to in a situation and also how we conceptualise it: “‘users of different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world’” (Whorf 1956: 221).

This is not to say that language is a prison we can’t get out of. But, as language and social practices can be said to embody certain perspectives on the world, it is reasonable to argue that a child growing up in a certain community will also learn to adopt and construe these perspectives during her cognitive development. As language is a primary source that introduces children to new ways of organizing the world around them it stands to reason that the concepts and viewpoints expressed in a language have a significant impact on cognitive representations.

Of course research on the non-linguistic cognition of infants and non-human primates has shown that their mental representations are already surprisingly sophisticated and complex. Some of these cognitive capacities are certainly specified innately or at least helped by innate biases. Others may emerge due to the nature and early imprint of cultural interaction. But some concepts, namely abstract, relational ones, seem to be absent from non-human cognition completely, and in humans seem to be provided and picked up primarily by and through language during cognitive development. In fact, research on infant and childhood cognition supports the fact that the acquisition of relational concepts with the help of language may be one of the key factors that made us “so smart” (Gentner 2003, Penn et al. 2008).

If we bear this in mind, the question then is not whether language influences or determines thought, but to clarify the interactions and relationship between innate biological propensities, the environment, language and other cultural practices. If for example, we allow for multiple modes of representation in cognitive processing we may get a much clearer view on the issue. If, as mentioned above, we see semantic representations and conceptual representations as different levels of representation we can accommodate the variety of semantic distinctions in different levels with maintaining some form of ‘psychic unity of mankind’ with shared atomic concepts across our species. (Levinson 1997)

In my next post I’ll write about how the research done by the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguists on the relationship between cross-linguistic differences in descriptions of space sheds light on this topic. I will draw on the 2003 book Space in language and cognition: explorations in cognitive diversity by Stephen C. Levinson, the director of the language and cognition group at the institute, in which he sums up much of the research that was done there over the years.

Gentner, D. (2003). Why we’re so smart. In D. Gentner and S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought (pp.195-235). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Levinson, Stephen C. (1997) From outer to inner space: Linguistic categories and non-linguistic thinking. In E. Pederson & J. Nuyts, eds., With Language in Mind: the Relationship Between Linguistic and Conceptual Representation, 13-45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, Stephen C. (2003) Space in Language and Cognition : Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Whorf, B.L. (1956,) Language, thought and reality, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Links & Delay

I know I wanted to write another post on Lewontin's paper, but I'm going back to Germany in a few days and I'm caught up in packing, sending parcels, etc. etc. It's incredible how much stuff accumulates in 10 months.... I don't exactly how long it will take my to settle in back in Germany but I hope I'll be back to blogging soon.

Anyway, the recent debates about evolutionary psychology and the evolution of cognition are quite interesting to follow at the moment. In his brilliant Wednesday Round Up, Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology.net has listed some very interesting post on the topic under the heading "Evolution – or Men Fighting Back against Sharon Begley vs. Other Men Just Getting on with Things".

I myself am quite critical of the sex-centred adaptationism of many evolutionary psychologists, but in general I think evolutionary considerations should be an important part of any theory of cognition.

Other takes on the issue are David Brooks' New York Times op-ed piece criticising evolutionary psychologists' simplifiyng take on human nature and Jerry Coyne's comments. Coyne was a student of Richard Lewontin and I think you can see this in his criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology.

Go check it out!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Studying the Evolution of Cognition and Language: Are We Wasting Our Time? (Part 2)

In my last post I discussed some of the criticisms faced by people interested in the evolution of cognition.
One of the harshest critics is Richard Lewontin, who, at the end of his article "The Evolution of Cognition: questions we will never answer", advises his readers to “
to give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood. History, and evolution is a form of history, simply does not leave suffcient traces, especially when it is the forces that are at issue. Form and even behavior may leave fossil remains, but forces like natural selection do not. It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck.. (Lewontin, 1998: 130).”
But what leads Lewontin to conclude his essay in such as pessimistic and definitive manner?
According to Lewontin, there are three main strains of evolutionary explanations. And with each strain there are problems with evolutionary inquiries into cognition.

Historical Explanations
Firstly, there is a strain that explains the patterns of similarities and differences between animals through historical relatedness. Humans, for example, are more similar to and share more traits with chimpanzees than with lemurs because the human/chimpanzee lineages split some 5-7 million years ago and the lemur/human lineage split some 78 million years ago.

Functional Explanations
Secondly, there is a strain that tries to explain these patterns by looking at the functions they perform and the adaptive advantage they may have. The bodily similarities of sharks, dolphins, seals, and penguins for example can be explained by the fact that their bodies are adapted to swimming in the sea. Similarly, the differences between closely related species can be explained by adaptations to different environments. The differences between cows, goats, and deer, for example, only arose in the last 10 million years due to the different environments they had to adapt to. (Lewontin 1998: 116).

Problems for Studying the Evolution of Cognition
This is of course a problem for studying the evolution of cognition. Chimpanzees are the closest relatives that still exist but we and them may both have diverged so far from our ancestors that studying the cognitive differences between us may not really give us an insight into much human evolution. Indeed, there even is a study claiming “
more genes underwent positive selection in chimpanzee evolution than in human evolution.” (Bakewell et al. 2007).
“Humans and chimpanzees are nevertheless very similar in their proteins, on the average, but vastly different in the sizes of their brains and their ability to write books about each other.” (Lewontin, 1998: 117).
But here is a point where I disagree with Lewontin: the research shown earlier indeed indicates that there probably was not a large amount of changes in brain-related genes that led to human cognition:
“This conclusion, however, does not preclude the possibility that substantial accelerations occurred in the evolution of a few nervous system genes during human origins. Indeed, several such examples are known, including genes that control brain size and speech development. (Shi et al. 2006).
And indeed, a recent article based on assumptions similar to that of these researchers and Lewontin, by Derek Penn and his colleagues, (2008) doesn’t see things so negatively as Lewontin but instead sees these considerations as offering a great chance.

If there really is “profound functional discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds” we can ask if there is a core ability that is responsible for it.
For Penn et al. psychological, comparative and developmental studies point towards the conclusion that this cognitive cap
“is largely due to the degree to which human and nonhuman minds are able to approximate the higher-order, systematic, relational capabilities of a physical symbol system.”
Sara Shettleworth (2009), in her critique of Bolhuis & Wynne’s (2009) arguments which are quite similar to that of Lewontin, agrees that
“There is evidence from behavioural studies that many of humans' mental powers are shared by other animals, including simple forms of learning, memory and categorization, and the elements of social, spatial and numerical cognition.
Only against this background does it make sense to propose, as some have, that there is a distinct small set of mental powers that is unique to humans […].”
Other researchers also defend the view that, contrary to Lewontin, we can learn a lot about the evolution of primate and human cognition by comparing different extant species. Jonathan Kenneth Burns (2004), for example, directly attacks Lewontin's arguments in an article on the evolution of Schizophrenia by stating that primatologist Richard Byrne
“has listed the establishing of a reliable pattern of descent as one part of a methodology for inferring the history of primate cognition (Byrne 2000). Many authors have confirmed the close evolutionary relationship between simian and ape species and modern Homo sapiens, with strong data from comparative psychology, molecular biology, and physical anthropology. Thus, cladistic analysis provides us with living relative species with which we can test the hypothesis that there is a heritable variation for social cognition that increases fitness.“ (Burns 2004: 868)
Evolutionary Constraints
But back to Lewontin’s article. The third strain of evolutionary theory he mentions is the one focusing on developmental and physiological constraints in the evolution and development of organisms. In the billion years of vertebrate evolution, for example, no organism ever developed more than four limbs.
Equally, mammals that went back into the sea and became whales and seals, the turned their limbs into flippers and flukes, but still retained their basic mammalian skeletal architecture.
This probably means that there are basic biological constraints because the available material regulates which evolutionary changes are possible, although the functions and activities of organisms and their parts may change quite dramatically over evolutionary time.
It also implies that
“when new functions arise in evolutiom, they often do so through a process of recruiting previously existing organs or physiological activities.” (Lewontin 1998: 117).
But If a trait is unique to one species it may be that we can’t really find any direct precursors and that it thus has no real “observable evolutionary history.”
What is more, we can’t be sure if a similar trait in other species it is far from clear if
"we are dealing with the same trait in the genetic, anatomical, and physiological sense.” (Lewontin 1998).
Platforms for the evolution of human cognition
I would argue however, that studies that show that similar cognitive activities which activate and rely on similar neural systems are a strong candidate for homologous platforms for human cognitive evolution. In fact, we now know that there are strong neural similarities between aspects of the macaque conceptual system and the human once (Gil-da-Costa et al. 2004).
With research like this we can thus probe into the “common architecture” that “underlies the conceptual systems of different species”, and ask how “additional systems” may have extended “human conceptual abilities significantly” (Barsalou 2005).
We also know now that “Communicative Signaling Activates ‘Broca’s’ Homolog in Chimpanzees,” and recent comparative neuroimaging studies have given new and important insights into the evolution of specialized language areas in human evolution. (for a great summary see this post).

Concluding Remarks
These examples lead me to think that we can learn a lot about the evolution of human cognition and language if we draw together the massive amount of data on the subject from all the different disciplines in a coherent and sensible manner. We simply have much more data to work with than at the time Lewontin voices his criticisms. Studying the evolution of cognition is – or has become – more than a ‘Paleofantasy’ in which we simply tell stories because we don’t know enough. Quite to the contrary – often it is the incredible wealth of data from different disciplines that presents the biggest problem.
Sverker Johansson's (2005) gargantuan collection of data relevant to the study of language evolution bears testament to this. The Study of language evolution, after it has moved beyond its ‘adaptationist’ beginnings in the early to mid-nineties – which Lewontin rightly criticized in some respects – is still a developing and growing field and I certainly agree with Willem Zuidema (2005) who states that
“Only when we have precise scenarios of the evolution of language and worked out ways to test empirically the plausibility of one scenario against another, can we conclude . if that turns out to be the case that there are too many alternative scenarios consistent with the available data. In my view, we have certainly not reached this stage yet.”

I hope I can wrap up my discussion of Lewontin's article next week.


Bakewell,Margaret A., Peng Shi, and Jianzhi Zhang (2007:) More genes underwent positive selection in chimpanzee evolution than in human evolution. PNAS 104: 7489-7494.

Barsalou, Lawrence W. 2005. “Continuity of the conceptual system across species.” Trends in Cognitive Science 9.7: 309-311.

Bolhuis, Johan and Clive D. L. Wynne (2009):Can evolution explain how minds work?' Nature 458: 832–833.

Burns, Jonathan Kenneth. (2004) An evolutionary theory of schizophrenia: Cortical connectivity, metarepresentation, and the social brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences
27(6):831–55; Discussion, 855–85.

Byrne, Richard W.(2000) Evolution of primate cognition. Cognitive Science 24(3):543–70

Gil-da-Costa, Ricardo, Allen Braun, Marco Lopes, Marc D. Hauser, Richard E. Carson, Peter Herscovitch and Alex Martin. 2004. “Toward an evolutionary perspective on conceptual representation: Species-specific calls activate visual and affective processing systems in the macaque.” PNAS 101.50: 17516–17521.

Johansson, Sverker (2005): Origins of Language: Constraints on Hypotheses. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Lewontin, R. C. (1998) The evolution of cognition: Questions we will never answer. In D. Scarborough and S. Sternberg, editors, An invitation to cognitive science, Volume 4: Methods, models, and conceptual issues. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Shettleworth, Sara J. (2009). Cognition: theories of mind in animals and humans. In: Nature 459: 506.

Shi, Pen Margaret A. Bakewell and Jianzhi Zhang(2006):Did brain-specific genes evolve faster in humans than in chimpanzees? Trends in Genetics 22: 608-613.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Studying the Evolution of Cognition and Language: Are We Wasting Our Time? (Part 1)

This is my penultimate post in my short series on human uniqueness (1, 2, 3).

In a recent article in nature, Johan J. Bolhuis and Clive D. L. Wynne asked “Can evolution explain how minds work?” (subscription needed) and were of the opinion that there are severe problems with comparative paradigms. They pointed out major problems with evolutionary interpretations of cognitive traits. In their view, this research was fraught with anthropocentrism, e.g. it was mostly focused on humans or seen from a human perspective, and it doesn’t take into account the problem of convergent evolution:

“Different species may have arrived at similar solutions to cognitive problems because they have experienced similar selection pressures, not because they are closely related. In other words, evolutionary convergence may be more important than common descent in accounting for similar cognitive outcomes in different animal groups” (Bolhuis & Wynne 2009).

In addition, we don’t know which selective pressures our ancestors faced in their environment. Cognitive traits also leave little to no traces in the fossil record. This means that we mainly have to guess which cognitive traits may have evolved in response to some presumed selection pressures.

Bolhuis and Wynne also hold that comparative researchers have “naïve evolutionary presuppositions” and hold that

“As long as researchers focus on identifying human-like behaviour in other animals, the job of classifying the cognition of different species will be forever tied up in thickets of arbitrary nomenclature that will not advance our understanding of the mechanisms of cognition.” (Bolhuis & Wynne 2009).

This argument is of course not new and can be found – in an even stronger form and on a more general level – in the critical writings of Noam Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould, and maybe most vocally, Richard Lewontin. Lewontin even goes so far as to say that the only thing we know about the evolution of human cognition is precisely that it evolved. That’s it. (Lewontin 1998: 108). This is especially so with complicated cognitive traits like linguistic competence.

We don’t even know in how far language is an innate genetically specified ability and in how far it is only a by-product of other evolutionary changes and is shaped and specified by culture. What’s more, we can’t possibly know how hereditary mechanisms (both genetic and cultural) acted in our remote ancestor, and we don’t know anything about the survival advantage these presumed mechanisms may have had in the past. Lewontin draws the conclusion that “reconstructions of the evolutionary history and the causal mechanisms of linguistic competence […] are nothing more than a mixture of pure speculation and inventive stories.” (Lewontin 1998: 111).

He explicitly directs his criticism at proposals like that of Pinker & Bloom (1990) (see also this post) who argued that natural selection is the only force that can explain the evolution of such a ‘complex adaptive’ trait like language. But we can’t show how natural selection might have been at work in each of the unknown stages that were necessary for language to evolve. Consequently, Pinker & Bloom’s argument is flawed.

I think Lewontin’s argument applies to some of the sweeping ‘adaptationist’ evolutionary approaches to language and cognition. But I don’t think his 1998 critique really captures the state of the research today or even earlier. In the 2003 anthology ‘Language Evolution’ (Kirby & Christiansen 2003, see also this post) which pretty much presented the state of the field there were many researchers who had a substantial amount to say about the evolution of language without falling into the theoretical pitfalls Lewontin warned about. At the end of his article Michael Tomasello, for example, cautions that “I am afraid that I have no real evolutionary fairy tale with which to conclude.” But he still has to clarify what valuable implications his research has for a general account of the evolution of language and cognition and is able to spell out some of the cognitive mechanisms which had to evolve and in how far culture has been an important aspect in this respect (Tomasello 2003: 108f.). Similarly, Marc Hauser and W. Tecumseh Fitch voice similar criticism to that of Lewontin and Chomsky (which is not very surprising given that they co-authored two papers with the latter). However, they hold that the “comparative approach to language has been and will continue to be a powerful approach to understand both the evolution and current function of the language faculty.” (Hauser & Fitch 2003: 159). I completely agree with them, especially if we throw developmental science into the mix. By looking at non-human primates we are able to “isolate and study those components of the language faculty inherited from our non-human ancestors” (Hauser & Fitch 2002: 159). What is more, comparative research can also give us insight into possible advantages and selection pressures that led to the evolution of features. If we find similar traits and neural subsystems in other primates it is reasonable to assume that these are homologous and due to our shared evolutionary history. If on the other hand, other primates don’t have these traits but other species, e.g. songbirds, jays, parrots or deer, have them, they may be analogous and due to similar environmental or social selection pressures. If we carefully compare many different species across different taxa we get an increasingly better picture of the evolution of cognition in humans and other species.

But a broad survey of the field shows that this is already done as Sara Shettleworth (2009a) points out. Consequently, Bolhuis and Wynne’s criticism falls apart if we actually look at the field they are criticising and it is more as if they are flogging a dead horse (2009b). But we can see that Tomasello, Hauser, Fitch, Bolhuis, Wynne and Shettleworth all think that comparative cognition can give us important insights into the evolution of the organisms they study and compare. But it has to be done carefully and critically and within a throroughly worked out theoretical and methodological framework. In light of this, much of Lewontin’s criticisms seem to be misguided or at least do not really apply anymore. But does this really mean that there are no real general problems with evolutionary inquiries into the evolution of cognition?

In my next post I will address the additional criticisms Lewontin launches at the study of the evolution of cognition.


Bolhuis, Johan and Clive D. L. Wynne (2009):Can evolution explain how minds work?' Nature 458: 832–833.

Hauser, M. D. & Fitch, W. T. (2003). What are the uniquely human components of the language faculty? In: Language Evolution: The State of the Art. Ed. by Christensen, M. & S. Kirby) pp. 158-181. Oxford: Oxford Unviersity Press.

Normal 0 21 Lewontin, R. C. (1998) The evolution of cognition: Questions we will never answer. In D. Scarborough and S. Sternberg, editors, An invitation to cognitive science, Volume 4: Methods, models, and conceptual issues. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Pinker, Steven & Paul Bloom (1990): “Natural Language and Natural Selection.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 707-726.

Shettleworth, S. J. (2009a). The evolution of comparative cognition: Is the snark still a boojum? In: Behavioural Processes , 80, 210-217.

Shettleworth, Sara J. (2009b). Cognition: theories of mind in animals and humans. In: Nature 459: 506.

Tomasello, M. (2003). On the different origins of symbols and grammar. In Language Evolution: The State of the Art. Ed by. M. Christiansen & S. Kirby. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Michael Tomasello - Why We Cooperate

Michael Tomasello has a new book out in October called "Why We Cooperate." What is interesting about this publication is that Tomasello presents his findings on great ape and infant cognition and and social and developmental psychologist Carol Dweck, anthropologist Joan Silk, philosopher Brian Skyrms, and developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke respond to and explore the implications of his work in light of their own research.

Here's the description:

"Drop something in front of a two-year-old, and she's likely to pick it up for you. This is not a learned behavior, psychologist Michael Tomasello argues. Through observations of young children in experiments he himself has designed, Tomasello shows that children are naturally—and uniquely—cooperative. Put through similar experiments, for example, apes demonstrate the ability to work together and share, but choose not to.

As children grow, their almost reflexive desire to help—without expectation of reward—becomes shaped by culture. They become more aware of being a member of a group. Groups convey mutual expectations, and thus may either encourage or discourage altruism and collaboration. Either way, cooperation emerges as a distinctly human combination of innate and learned behavior.

In Why We Cooperate, Tomasello's studies of young children and great apes help identify the underlying psychological processes that very likely supported humans' earliest forms of complex collaboration and, ultimately, our unique forms of cultural organization, from the evolution of tolerance and trust to the creation of such group-level structures as cultural norms and institutions.

Scholars Carol Dweck, Joan Silk, Brian Skyrms, and Elizabeth Spelke respond to Tomasello's findings and explore the implications."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Some Links

The Exploratorium (in San Francisco) and the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have a nice site up called "Exploratiorium Evidence: How Do We Know What We Know?"

"Science is an active process of observation and investigation. Evidence: How Do We Know What We Know? examines that process, revealing the ways in which ideas and information become knowledge and understanding.
In this case study in human origins, we explore how scientific evidence is being used to shape our current understanding of ourselves: What makes us human—and how did we get this way?"
Hat-tip: Afarensis

Sandy G of The Mouse Trap also has a nice post up called "What is it like to be a zombie?"

Also, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science reports on research which found that Chimps use Swiss army toolkit to rob beehives
I find the possible implications of the fact that chimpanzees use several multi-functional tools for honey-extraction quite fascinating.
As I've written before (see also this post), linguists like Dieter Wunderlich argue that the ability to change an existing structure and then further work on the qualitatively changed output in a hierarchical, recursive, and compositional manner - as for example exemplified by crafting hand axes - is a precursor to or even the same process athis the compositionality found in language. If chimpanzees are able ts io work with and modify tooln a compositional manner this would provide another insight into the possible cognitive platform from which language evolved.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Nature and Evolution of Human Cognition: Considerations from Comparative and Developmental Psychology

If we bear in mind the proposals for what (among other things) makes human cognition unique I summed up in my last post – along with the conjecture that our cognitive style may more be something of a idiosyncrasy due to a highly specific cognitive specialization instead of a definitive quantitative and qualitative advance over other styles of animal cognition, we can look for studies which further point in that direction.

Chimpanzees, for example, beat humans at certain memory tasks (Inoue & Matsuzawa 2007) and behave more rational in reward situations (Jensen et al. 2007). In addition, it has been shown that in tasks in the social domain, which are generally assumed to be cognitively complex, domesticated animals such as dogs and goats (Kaminski et al. 2005) fare similarly well or even outperform chimpanzees. It is entirely possible that the first signs of human uniqueness where first simply side-effects our self-domesticating lifestyle – the same way the evolution of social intelligence in dogs and goats is hypothesised to have come about –, acting on a complex primate brain (Hare & Tomasello 2005).

It is certainly a fact

that Homo sapiens has become ‘localized’ by having to depend upon learned, culture-specific modes of interacting.” (Bruner 2005: 693).
Humans are constantly immersed in culture and social interactions and at the same time extremely dependent on it, and human ontogeny fundamentally differs from that of any other primate species. Human infants are even more helpless and completely dependent on others, and remain unable to feed and care for themselves for a uniquely long time span. Furthermore, childhood and adolescence are two additional and prolonged states of mental development and cultural learning absent in any other species that seem to be vitally important for the development of culturally adept and cognitively highly sophisticated human beings (Locke & Bogin 2006).

The fact that social interaction, learning, and cultural transmission play such a vital and important role for children’s ongoing cognitive development indicates that hey have a biologically-based “adaptation for culture” which has to be operative from early on. Comparing young children’s and infants cognitive abilities with that of the other great apes may be a useful indicator of the biological foundations of what makes us uniquely human. In Addition, we can gain crucial insights on what platform the evolution of human cognition could have started because chimpanzees are “conservative species” that has always lived in tropical forests, which is why they didn’t have to change as much as we did to adapt to fundamentally new environments and selection pressures. This also means that chimpanzees are more similar to the last common ancestor we shared with them than we are (Gazzaniga 2008: 51).

If we now compare the performance of 2.5 year-old children and other great apes (in this case chimpanzees and orangutans) across a wide range of domains we indeed find that in some domains the differences are much more marked than in others. (see also, this post). In the physical domain, which includes the understanding of space, quantity and causality, the subjects were tested by rewards that were out of reach and could only be retrieved with a stick (causality), or had to locate a reward that was not directly accessible but had to be located (space). In the social domain, subjects had to follow “an actor’s gaze direction to a target,” solve “a simple but not obvious problem by observing a demonstrated solution” (social learning), or understand what an actor intended to do, but in the end failed to. (Intention attribution or Theory of Mind).

Generally, orangutans fared worst in most of the test, whereas chimpanzees and humans were quite similar in the physical domain. In some of the physical tasks, especially the one which required active tool use, chimpanzees even out performed human children. But in the causality tasks in which

“a judgment must be made before manipulation or choice” (Hermann et al. 2007:1362)
children were better. They were also better in inhibitory and cognitive control in general, something that is expected given what we know about the disproportionate dominance and prominence of higher-order prefrontal circuitry, which better enable a child’s brain
“to coordinate processing among its millions of neurons in order to direct them toward future goals.” (Miller et al. 2002: 1131)
than is the case in other great apes. According to the research group that did these experiments

“the current results provide strong support for the cultural intelligence hypothesis that human beings have evolved some specialized social-cognitive skills (beyond those of primates in general) for living and exchanging knowledge in cultural groups: communicating with others, learning from others, and “reading the mind” of others in especially complex ways“ (Hermann et al. 2007: 1365).

But as indicated by children’s performances in the causality task, and in congruence with the models of human cognition I’ve outlined above, the social domain is not the only catch-all distinctive property of human minds. Instead, the ability to re-interpret cognitive data in terms of more abstract properties such as “unobserved causal forces” and “mental states” seems to be distinctive foundation for excelling performances in both the physical and social domains. The authors find it plausible however, that

"understanding hidden causal forces evolved first to enable humans to understand the mental states of other persons, and this generalized only later to the physical domain.”

This is why we are justified in further looking for uniquely human attributes in the socio-cognitive development of children.


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Bruner, Jerome (2005): “Homo Sapiens, a localized species”. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:5, 694–695.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. (2008): Human: The Science of What Makes us Unique. New York: Harper-Collins.

Hare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2005). Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends in Cognitive Science, 9, 439-444.

Hermann, Esther, Josep Call, María Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Brian Hare, and Michael Tomasello. 2007. “Humans Have Evolved Specialized Skills of Social Cognition: The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis” Science 317: 1360-1366.

Inoue S. and T. Matsuzawa (2007). Working memory of numerals in chimpanzees. Current Biology, 17(23), R1004-R1005.

Jensen, Keith, Josep Call and Michael Tomasello (2007): Chimpanzees Are Rational Maximizers in an Ultimatum Game. Science 318: 107-109

Kaminski, Juliane, Riedel, J., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. (2005) Domestic goats (Capra hircus) follow gaze direction and use social cues in an object choice task. Animal Behaviour, 69(1), 11-18.

Locke, John L. and Barry Bogin. (2005) “Language and life history: A new perspective on the development and evolution of human language” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29, 259–325.

Miller, Earl K., David J. Freedman and Jonathan D. Wallis (2002.) “The Prefrontal Cortex: Categories, Concepts and Cognition.” In: Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 357: 1123–1136.