Archive for October, 2007

Humans evolve fastest – The gap with Chimpanzees widens

Recent research demonstrates that the speed with which humans acquire and ditch new genes is the fastest yet studied in mammals.  Primates are noticeably quick at genetic variation, but humans are the fastest of all, meaning that the eternally quoted “Chimps share 97 % (or 98%, take your pick) of our DNA” does not tell the whole story about genetic difference. Whilst they may share 97% of our nucleotide sequences, the differences in quantities of this gene may indicate a more notable genetic difference. According to this Science article “6.4% of the 22,000-odd human genes aren’t present in chimps” making the difference between them seem considerably larger.

Results from Neanderthal Sequencing … and it’s FOXP2

Well it looks like those people who held our FOXP2 mutation as being recent and uniquely human have been proven wrong again. Evidence from the recent Neanderthal genone sequencing project has demonstrated that the two FOXP2 mutations, that until recently were considered uniquely human, were present in Neanderthals as well. This of course implies that they must also have been present in an earlier common ancestor as well. There is an excellent post on it here at For those of you with institutional access the paper is online here at Current Biology. The implications for this will take some dissection, but it would imply a more complex communicative ability for Neanderthals and a far more interesting evolutionary picture for evolutionary linguists.

*update* A fantastic discussion of the implications and problems with this discovery can be found over at John Hawks. Well worth a read when you get the time.

Armand Leroi – What Makes Us Human

Here is a high quality copy of the second part of Armand Leroi‘s acclaimed What Makes Us Human? documentary. It’s a little shallow in its representation of the issues and occasionally might have you screaming at the screen in frustration. (Pinker’s misrepresentation of the Chimpanzee language research programme had the veins popping in my neck). Overall however, it is a very good overview of all the most popular ideas in the field and is packed with great footage of Alex the Parrot, children with FOXP2 abnormalities, studies into autism and an exploration of mirror neurons. Requires the DIVX codec


A guilty language geek pleasure…

…Watching the look on Steven Pinker‘s face as he had to deal with increasingly desperate and innane questions from an underprepared and clueless Adam Boulton on the Sky News Sunday breakfast programme.

A sample exchange paraphrased from memory:

Boulton – “So what does all this brain stuff tell us about what the government should be doing to improve teaching language in schools?”

Pinker – “There’s nothing in this book about learning foreign languages Adam”

Language evolution (or at least very long term langauge change) in Nature this week

These are from two different universities, and both seek to quantify the relationship between frequency of use and regularization. The most significant fact coming out of the  papers is that words have a strikingly slow rate of evolution which is modified by the frequency of use, just like genes. There is a neat summary here.

Chimpanzees think economically rather than reciprocally


Researchers have devised an interesting new reciprocal game called the ultimatum game which has had some interesting results in chimpanzes.  There is an interesting summary here.

“one person, the proposer, is given money by an experimenter. That proposer can then divide the “manna from heaven” with a second person, the responder. The responder is not powerless – if he accepts the division, both people take home the offered amounts. But if he rejects it, both get nothing. The fear of having an unfair offer rejected causes the proposer to make a fair offer. People typically make offers of close to 50%. Anything less is likely to be rejected … chimpanzees do not show a willingness to make fair offers and reject unfair ones. In this way, they behave like selfish economists rather than as social reciprocators.”

Geoffrey Pullum and the Argument from Poverty of Stimulus

The room was packed to the rafters; a basement lecture theatre, as sweaty as the armpit of Satan and woefully inadequate for the nature of the event it was hosting. It was stuffed with what seemed like half the academic community of Edinburgh, all eager to see the new Chair of General Linguistics, the renowned Geoffrey Pullum, deliver a stinging rebuke to linguistic nativism. Pullum, a tall, pleasant man with an implausibly high waistband and the look of a high school physics teacher, was in a playfully combative mood. The talk was remarkably balanced, whilst serving quite powerfully to rally the troops. Pullum restated his and Barbara Scholz’s position on linguistic nativism and systematically dismantled the attacks against them from the Chomskian camp.

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