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)