Archive for the 'Evolutionary Psychology/Sociobiology' Category

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.

Continue reading ‘Evolang 08 – More Plenary Speakers’


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


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…

Continue reading ‘‘The Superorganism’ is Back in Fashion’

Oral traditions can affect tribal survival in natural disasters like Tsunamis

This is a very interesting press release from UC Santa Cruz. The researcher found much higher survival rates in areas with previous knowledge of Tsunamis and with long term populations steeped in the oral traditions of the culture

“they had heard stories passed down from their elders about how to recognize a tsunami and how to respond. These people knew that when they saw the sea draw down, it was time to run for the hills. … ”

Oral traditions are a very efficient means of tsunami education,” said Day, a visiting research associate in Earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz…

“It became apparent that oral traditions were going back 500 years,” Day explained. “The stories contained information about how to recognize when a tsunami was about to come, such as falling sea levels, and told how people should take action…”

In contrast, Day found from a review of the literature, casualties from other tsunamis are much higher in areas inhabited by recent immigrants with no indigenous knowledge about these events. For example, video evidence showed that many people in Thailand in 2004 did not recognize the warning signs of a tsunami and did not realize that there was a safe place to go less than one kilometer away …”

The focus of the study is obviously the future prevention of Tsunami casualties, but it does offer us an excellent demonstration of the interwoven nature of biological survival, cultural behavior and language. The preservation of knowledge can have a direct relationship with an individual’s genetic survival, and it poses the interesting question as to whether the memetic information contained in an oral tradition is adapted to the needs of its users? For this correlation between oral traditions and tsunami survival to be significant then every oral tradition must have preserved this information.  In addition, any cultural adaptation can only take place at a group level. You can’t have an oral culture of one…

So many unanswered questions are posed by this information that I’d love to see some more research done that focused specifically on the issue on the relationship between oral cultures and group survival.

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


Higher Social Skills Are Distinctly Human, Toddler And Ape Study Reveals

Taken from

Apes bite and try to break a tube to retrieve the food inside while children follow the experimenter’s example to get inside the tube to retrieve the prize, showing that even before preschool, toddlers are more sophisticated in their social learning skills than their closest primate relatives, according to a report published in the 7 September issue of the journal Science.

Chimpanzees participated in a comprehensive battery of tasks comparing their physical and social cognitive abilities to those of 2-year-old human children. 

Continue reading ‘Higher Social Skills Are Distinctly Human, Toddler And Ape Study Reveals’

Deacon Blogging Epic – Part 2


Deacon and Nativism
Clearly Deacon is arguing something far more subtle than innate grammar. He begins by following the standard UG criticism – that children don’t deduce rules of grammar from nothing, they are in fact embedded in a powerful learning structure.
But he goes further to argue that learning also isn’t sufficient to explain the pace and effectiveness with which children aquire language.

The nativist mistake is to attribute language learning competence to internal sources just because learning externally from adults doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation. The Skinnerian learning mistake is to assume that all external information must be passed from the minds of adults in the form of learning. Deacon believes there is an alternative explanation, that information is carried in language itself. Language is adapted to people, and is not just an abstract and unforgiving code. Therefore a child wouldn’t have to learn language by trial and error if they didn’t possess UG. If they were tuned towards language their exploration of the novel linguistic structure would be itself be structured and relevant.

Children’s minds need not innately embody language structures, if languages embody the predisposition of children’s minds” (p109)

Continue reading ‘Deacon Blogging Epic – Part 2’

July 2018
« Jul