Archive for November, 2007

BBC Radio Documentary about Sequencing Neanderthal DNA

There was a great documentary about the attempts to sequence Neanderthal DNA on BBC Radio 4 last night, with a fairly extensive discussion about finding FOXP2. Well worth a listen if you get a chance. You can download it here, click on the ‘Listen Again’ link in the blue box on the left hand side of the screen.

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Simulating Mirror Neurons

A new Westerman and Miranda paper looks at the results and the problems to emerge from a neural network that simulated mirror neurons. The model has two modes, one of which supports the feedback loop of a babbling action, leading to a “preferred response” area forming in the network. There’s a good summary of the results here.

And now Washoe too…

Washoe Chimp

RIP Washoe the Chimpanzee. What a sad couple of months for the animal communication research programme. Unlike the death of Alex the Parrot, this one was reasonably expected, as Washoe was an quite elderly chimpanzee when she got ill. Despite the protestations of scientific detachment these research programmes inevitably lead to an incredibly close bond between between researchers and subjects. You have to feel for the researchers at the Central Washington University who must feel like they’ve lost a dear friend.

Whilst the general consensus may still be that what Washoe achieved was not language (but instead a conditioned code system), the whole Washoe research programme fired the debate about the definition of human language. People in the Pinker/Chomsky tradition will never be convinced of the value of the Chimpanzee language research programme, but I think the extraordinary results of enculturation have to at least be acknowledged. Washoe may not have used language, but she was exposed to human culture and experience in a way that changed her forever. She was loved because to some extent she shared the human journey, and got closer to us than any animal has before.  I’ll leave the philosophical musings for another time though, and for now mourn the passing of the first one of these remarkable animals.