Archive for the 'Biology' Category

Hear a Neanderthal Talk (and Other Interesting Neanderthal Language Rumblings)

Anthropology.net and New Scientist have recently reported on a couple of developments in the Neanderthal language debate.
Firstly, a new paper is in the works that will cast doubt upon the conclusions of the now famous Neanderthal FOXP2 paper from last year. Krause et al found the same adaptive variation of the language-implicated FOXP2 gene as is found in humans in Neanderthal DNA sequences, and claimed that the this was evidence for FOXP2 as a homologous trait that was present in our common ancestor. Cue endless headlines about how this finding is proof that Neanderthals had language.

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MRI Species Study Offers Evidence for Gradualist Account

There are two fascinating new papers about language evolution in Nature Neuroscience (institutional access required). The first, by Rilling et al is a comparative MRI scan of human and primates, looking at the circuit level activation of the arcuate fasciculus, the neural pathway that links two major language areas of the brain, Wernicke’s Area and Broca’s area. It is this pathway that is lesioned in Aphasiacs. They found a significant difference in the levels of connectivity and the location of the terminations of the pathway across the species. In two other control pathways where no difference was predicted, they found reasonable uniformity across the species.

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Evolang 08 – More Plenary Speakers

Okay, more biased rambling commentary on Evolang 08…

On day two the proper conference began and we were treated to two excellent plenary speakers, Gary Marcus and Susan Goldin-Meadow.

I’d never heard of Gary Marcus before but he presented one of the most stimulating presentations of the whole week. The title of his talk, “Language as Kluge”, was intriguing, but sounded a bit too technical to really whet the appetite. As he got into his talk I was very pleasantly surprised by the broad brush approach he used, and the attention-to-detail he used to back it up.

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New PLoS Research Argues for Grammar-Specific Areas in the Brain

This interesting new paper by Fonteneau & van der Lely presents evidence that there is some specific language structure in the brain that deals with syntactic processing. They present evidence from children with SLIs (Specific Language Impairments); a condition that affects up to 7% of children and causes devlopmental problems in the children’s language learning. Interestingly there is increasing evidence that this linguistic impairment has a genetic basis. The research used novel electrophysiological data to demonstrate that the grammar impairment had a neurological basis.

“The findings indicate that grammatical neural circuitry underlying language is a developmentally unique system in the functional architecture of the brain, and this complex higher cognitive system can be selectively impaired… The results argue for grammar being a highly specific, specialised subsystem in the human brain and a particular developmental pathway to this exclusive neural system.”

They make an explicit link between this evidence and the debate in evolutionary linguistics about the the extent to which syntactic knowledge is represented in the brain. Yet more evidence that language is innate, but as has been mentioned before, innateness of the language faculty, and innateness of the rules of grammar, are not the same thing. I hope there will be more neurobiological evidence like this presented in future.

Major Language Evolution Papers: #1

Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition – Tomasello et al (2005)

Who’s it by? It’s by Michael Tomasello and some illustrious associates. Tomasello is a cognitive psychologist with an interest in cognitive development.

What’s it about? It presents a unifying hypothesis for a lot of the recent discoveries in human evolution, primatology and childhood development. Tomasello argues that the ability to read and share intentions is the basis for human cognition, and that we are adapted to this purpose in a way that close relatives like chimpanzees aren’t.

Why should an evolutionary linguist care? Because buried deep in that hypothesis is the assumption that language is part of this cognitive aparatus. Tomasello’s argument therefore offers the biggest contemporary challenge to the Chomskian consensus on language evolution, placing it behind the cognition of shared intentionality in terms of both emergence and importance.

So, thanks to the generosity of Chrissy Cuskley, here is a PDF of her presentation about this paper.

‘The Superorganism’ is Back in Fashion

A New E. O. Wilson Book About Group Selection

*Corrected*

The great biologist E. O. Wilson is releasing a new book call The Superorganism in which he is develops the group selection argument to posit the existence of higher level evolutionary units. An idea that has already been eloquently proposed by the other great Wilson (David Sloane Wilson) in Unto Others. This is going to be very interesting for us on two completely different levels…

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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.