Archive Page 2

Orangutans and Sir David Attenborough

A lovely clip of Orangutans both tool using and navigating their arboreal environment, from a BBC wildlife documentary.

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Evolang Post #4

After this one, there’s two more posts to come on Evolang, where firstly I’ll sum up the remaining plenary speakers, and then sum up the more interesting speakers from the normal sessions. Apologies for the slow posting but ‘tis essay season and I’ve loads of work to do.

As far as Evolang goes I must confess that beer and tapas had diminished my note-taking skills at this point and so some of these sketches might be a little vague, but I’ll try to be as fair and accurate as I can be.

Simon Kirby presented a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of the work being carried out at the LEC in Edinburgh. I better restate my biases in the interests of disclosure. I am one of the vast crowd of ‘Edinburghians’ who made up the largest group at Evolang, but I hope this won’t distort my reporting of their or other people’s ideas.

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Languages Change in Punctuational Bursts

This nice little paper from Science (Vol 319, 2008 ) presents evidence that languages undergo an initial period of strong seperation, where the rate of change is high, and then slow down into a steadier pace of change. They hypothesise that this is due to a cultural need to establish a seperate identity, or as a product of the way we use language to enhance group cohesion in times of cultural upheaval. A nice hypothesis that, if true, would demonstrate the power of cutltural transmission upon language structure. It fits roughly into the same line of argument as Kirby, Hurford, Smith (K) et al.

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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Tool Use in Rats

A new PLoS paper by Okanoya et al claims to show rats engaging in significant tool use. As you might expect, the paper is pretty extensive and convincing, clearly demonstrating that rats can not only use tools, but differentiate between different categories of tools in different contexts. This is another piece of evidence against the idea that only humans can use tools and that tool use is the product of some sort of higher cognitive function. Already tool use has been observed in a wide range of species, from chimpanzees to birds.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Okanoya at dinner during Evolang. He was a lovely guy and he whipped out his laptop and showed us some of the videos in this paper. He said the paper had only really been done to prove that even rats could use tools. His team certainly wasn’t making a comment about rats in particular. As he says in the paper, this is just more evidence that “tool use is not a specific faculty resulting from higher intelligence, but is a specific combination of more general cognitive faculties”. It is important to bear in mind though that these rats were trained to use tools and we don’t have any evidence yet of natural tool use.

Fossil find could be Europe’s first humans

 From The Guardian Science, by James Randerson

A fossilised jawbone and teeth found in a cave in northern Spain may have belonged to one of the first human ancestors to set foot in western Europe. The hominid has been identified as Homo antecessor, or pioneer man, a possible ancestor of both our own species and Neanderthals. The fossils date from between 1.1m and 1.2m years ago.

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Evolang 08 – Plenary Speakers Day 2

The next day brought a couple of plenary speakers who both spoke on fascinating topics but somehow managed to make them dull as hell or inpenetratable.

Rudolph Botha began by looking at exaptation and argued that it is a mechanism that is too frequently employed in accounts of language evolution. He painstakingly went through a series of examples in the literature where exaptation is heavily invoked and tried to show that it did not meet the standards for exaptation that most biologists would use. It was persuasive, and on an interesting topic, but somehow Botha contrived to make it duller than a Calvinist sermon. Come on Rudi, this subject is naturally cool, it shouldn’t have the life sucked out of it like this.

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