Evolang 08 – First Post

Well I’m back in the UK after a very pleasing Evolang 08 in Barcelona. It was an busy and fulfilling week of evolutionary linguistics, biology, primatology and cultural evolution. Our hosts were the University of Barcelona and CosmoCaixa, the fantastic local science museum. The beer and tapas certainly helped to make the week pass smoothly, although the conference threw up its usual raft of controversies.

There’s no way I can cover everything that was said in every talk, not least because lots of the sessions ran simultaneously. But I’m going to try to give you a brief outline of the plenary speakers and some of the more significant presentations I saw:

The workshop session kicked off with Duane Rumbaugh, legendary primatologist, who gave his standard talk about his primate research programme. He emphasised the importance of finding emergent behaviours in great apes, by which he meant behaviours that are insightful and synthesise learning experience without any apparent stimulus control or reinforcement. He pointed to lots of examples from Kanzi to reinforce this point. Ultimately this talk was interesting but familar.

Rumbaugh was followed by Dave Leavens, who I really couldn’t make my mind up on. He presented an argument that joint attention was essential for language competence, which seemed to fit neatly within the Tomasello research programme. However, his significant extrapolation was to present a range of evidence for pointing behaviour in primates. From this he concluded that the precursors of triadic pointing are present in other primates and therefore must (parsimonially) be in our common ancestor. I liked the argument but felt that the evidence he presented was a little bit rough around the edges, particularly his argument that environmental factors account for why we don’t see these behaviours as readily in captive chimpanzees. He drew an unnecessary and unpleasant comparison between caged primates and Romanian orphanage children, which failed to account for the differences in cognition found in these species under natural circumstances.

This was followed by William Hopkins, another Yerkes researcher, who produced some excellent evidence that Chimpanzees are indeed lateralised, despite the scientific consensus. He showed some excellent studies of the differences in size of relevant brain areas, that reinforced extensive practical research performed on apes in captivity.

Many more to come as I get round to writing them up…

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