Archive for May, 2007

World’s great apes face disaster, says Leakey

Hunting, disease, logging and demand for biofuels cited among prime threats

David Adam, environment correspondent
Thursday May 31, 2007
The Guardian

A female mountain gorilla in Uganda. Photograph: Stuart Price/AFP/Getty

One of the world’s most prominent conservation experts yesterday issued a rallying cry to save the great apes, man’s closest biological cousins, which are under serious threat of extinction.Richard Leakey, former head of the Kenya wildlife service and now chair of Wildlife Direct, said apes across the world faced unprecedented threats from the combined effects of hunting, disease and logging. And he said efforts to tackle global warming through the use of biofuels could cause more damage to ape populations because of pressure to chop down their tropical forest homes.

Continue reading ‘World’s great apes face disaster, says Leakey’


Gestural Communication Paper – De Waal

I’m trying to find a link to the actual paper, abstract is here. The right-hand gesture bit is really interesting. Context-dependent gesture with Bonobos more flexible than chimpanzees.

Scientific American, April 30, 2007

Apes may lead to origin of language: researchers


By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A male chimpanzee may beg for food from another chimpanzee by gesturing with an extended arm and open hand.

Under different circumstances, the same chimpanzee may use the same gesture to try to coax a female chimpanzee to have sex. And the same gesture may be used after two males fight as a signal of reconciliation.

In research published on Monday, scientists seeking clues to the origins of human language analyzed the way two types of apes genetically closely related to people — chimpanzees and bonobos — use such hand and limb gestures to communicate.

They found that the apes use such gestures much more flexibly — in different contexts with apparently different meanings — than they used facial expressions and vocalizations. The findings, they believe, lend support to the idea that human language started with such gestures rather than speech.”We are a naturally gesturing species that may have first developed language in the gestural domain, and once the brain parts related to language were well developed, then started using speech,” primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University and Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta said in a telephone interview.

Continue reading ‘Gestural Communication Paper – De Waal’


Check out this brief little essay by Howard Bloom. I really like this term omnology. It seems to me that language evolution is an inherently omnologous discipline.

We are blessed with a richness of specializations, but cursed with a paucity    of panoptic disciplines—categories of knowledge that concentrate on seeing the pattern that emerges when one views all the sciences at once. Hence we need a field dedicated to the panoramic, an academic base for the promiscuously curious, a discipline whose mandate is best summed up in a paraphrase of the poet Andrew Marvel: “Let us roll all our strength and all Our knowledge up into one ball, And tear our visions with rough strife Thorough the iron gates of life.”

Lecture – Is Man Just Another Animal?

Thanks Nita, this looks well worth checking out. I’m definately going.

– Chris

News & Events – 14 May 2006

Is Man Just Another Animal?

Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College, London, will explore man’s evolution in the William Dick Memorial Lecture next month.

This event is part of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies Homecoming Weekend and is held in honour of school founder, William Dick.

Professor Jones is a television presenter and prize-winning author on the subject of biology.

He is one of the best known contemporary popular writers on evolution.

The public lecture, entitled ‘Is Man Just Another Animal?’ will take place at 5:30pm on Friday 22nd June, in the Assembly Hall, New College on the Mound.

Professor Jones’ lecture will centre on man’s evolution. Evolution, he says, is at the basis of paleontology, medicine, veterinary science, and the whole of biology – and even, some people claim, of the very essence of society.

In these days of genome sequences of men, chimps, dogs, cows and worms, Professor Jones will talk about why Charles Darwin’s theory has triumphed and how, in some senses, “Darwinian man, though well behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved” as Gilbert and Sullivan once claimed.

However, he will also discuss how man is scarcely animal at all.


Ken Miller, Evolutionary Scientist and Roman Catholic, slowly and rationally deconstructs the ‘science’ of Intelligent Design.

Carol Padden at Heriot-Watt

I think you will all have gotten this from me in email form, but Carol Padden is speaking at Heriot-Watt on June 20th at 7pm.  She is a member of the team studying Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, the one claimed to have no phonology.  The announcement is rather vague, it may well be a general talk on sign language issues or Deaf issues, but we could at least ask her questions about this no phonology claim  I think….

(posted by Molly)

Mirror Neurons… hmmm…

The more I read about mirror neurons the more unsure I become about their relevance. For the uninitiated, mirror neurons are a new type of neuron that has been discovered in macaques (and are presumed to be present in humans) that fire when observing someone performing an action. There is a nice little PBS mini-documentary on them here. Jim Hurford wrote an excellent article explaining their limitations (2003) and putting a deft boot into some of the more grandiose claims of the mirror neuron scientists.

So first lets look at some of those claims. Perhaps my uneasiness with mirror neurons is in part based upon the fact that I can’t help but feel there is something inherently pop sciencey about their media coverage. I don’t doubt their existence or the significance of their discovery, but they have emerged as a panacea concept, a functional missing link in our understanding of brain functions. A few people have argued that they explain everything in social interactions and language use, including the dominance of visual information in our species and the impact or imitation on behaviour. Rizzato and Arbib are the people who make the greatest claims about the relevance of mirror neurons. They hold the belief that:

“Human language (as well as some dyadic forms of primate communication) evolved from a basic mechanism that was not originally related to communication: the capacity to recognize actions.”

The ability to read others is here a precursor to the evolutionary motivation to communicate, a position that crosses over slightly with the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis and Corballis’s theories on the gestural origins of communication. For Rizzato and Arbib the emergence of mirror neurons allowed us to develop sophisticated interactive behaviour that in turn lead to protolinguistic systems as ways of exploring the difference between action and perception. Mirror neurons were an essential step on the adaptive pathway drawn to full language use.

A slightly more nuanced analysis is presented by V. S. Ramachandran who argues that mirror neurons were more likely co-opted exaptations whose presence is necessary but not sufficient (to borrow those old philosophical terms) to explain the evolution of language. Mirror neurons permitted the first great leap towards tool use and culture because they permitted imitation through observation, and somewhere in this melting pot language evolution took place. The exaptation of mirror neurons is far more circumstantial than in Rizzato and Arbib’s account, and they are a self supporting explanation for language evolution.

Jim’s response to these claims is quite succinct and relies on several simple points:

  1. Mirror neurons do not produce arbitrary signs – all mirror neurons permit us to do is feel the same stimulation from watching something as performing it ourselves. The abstract Saussurian sign that is essential to the formation of grammatical symbolic language could actually restricted by mirror neuron systems, because it restricts interations from making the leap to abstract symbolism.
  2. Mirror neuron structures are probably common. Remember all these hypotheses about human mirror neuron activity are made based on experiments conducted upon macaques, not upon humans or even Great Apes – This is perhaps why my pop science detector was flashing. There must also be some sort of relationship between mirror neurons and motor neurons in order for the transferal from perception to action. To this extent it seems unlikely that mirror neurons are functionally separate from motor systems and Hurford argues that we will probably find a lot of mirror neurons in natural systems as it is the whole behaviour that is adaptive, not perception or action alone. Hurford also makes the case that many examples of mirror neuron stimulus are not necessarily caused by the individual living out an action through perception. It’s something like the difference between empathy and sympathy – we don’t always have to replicate first-hand experience through perception in order to experience a neural stimulation. The PBS documentary above argued that mirror neurons might explain the passionate connection a fan experiences through watching sport. But it’s not that the fan experiences victory vicariously through a mirror neuron-powered identification with their sporting hero, but instead that they experience a perceptual distance, a second degree sense of victory that lacks the same value as for the man on the pitch.
  3. Finally, for mirror neurons to permit the mapping of symbolic meaning then signifiers and signifieds must fundamentally be the same. However, as is clear to anyone using a language, the many different aspects of symbolic language use, the word, the symbol, the phoneme, do not possess identical features. Mirror neurons facilitate the repetition of sameness, whereas linguistic systems are fundamentally built upon the linking of difference to the same function.

So yes, a very difficult subject, that still needs a lot of expansion if it is going to prove more than a sideshow. Like Jim I’m happy to conclude that “There is a long way to go from mirror neurons to language”. I’m dubious of their ability to explain that niggling evolutionary step from sociality to language, not least because they are present in creatures like Macaques that are social but not language-using. (Using the limited powers of Web of Knowledge and Google Scholar, I didn’t manage to find any research about mirror neurons in non-primates.) It seems you still need the sociality→mind reading→language pathway for them to play this vital role in language evolution. If we look at langauge as more an abstract complex skill than a mechanism for social cohesion, then mirror neurons seem much better suited to explain human empathy than human language.

If anyone can enlighten my skimmed knowledge of the subject I’d love to hear from you.

May 2007
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