Language Evolution in the Infinite Monkey Cage

A couple of weeks ago there was an episode of the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage starring (as well as Robin Ince, Prof. Brian Cox and Ross Noble) none other than Keith Jensen and Katie Slocombe! Despite it being a comedy programme, the discussion around language is very sensible and informative and covers Slocombe’s work with chimpanzees as well as talk of Vervet monkeys, and Robin comes up with a not unreasonable experiment involving throwing leopards through the air to address some of the questions covered in the study in Diana Monkeys I cover here.

You can listen by going here:

And clicking on: “Are Humans Uniquely Unique?”

Slocombe has been doing great work in the field of science communication for years now. You can check some of her activities here:

Also, I’d recommend other episodes of TIMC.

Talking Heads at EvoLangX

This year saw the 10th instalment of the EvoLang Conference, and it was also the 15th anniversary of Luc Steels’ Talking Heads Experiment (brief review here). In celebration, the Evolutionary Linguistics Association organised a birthday party in Replugged (Vienna). The party not only featured some excellent tuneage by replicated typo’s very own Sean Roberts along with Bill Thompson, Tessa Verhoef and me, but it also featured, very aptly, a Talking Heads tribute band headed by none other than Luc Steels himself! For those of you who were there (or weren’t there), you can now relive (or see for the first time) the experience through YouTube (extra points for spotting your favourite evolutionary linguists dancing their little socks off):

Casparo: a Tragi-comic Opera in 3 acts

Language Evolution geeks may enjoy this Tragi-comic Opera in 3 acts with music by none other than Luc Steels! It tells the story of a humanoid robot called Casparo and explores themes of music, language, autonomy, love and the SINGULARITY. Also, if you care, if look very closely after 43 minutes you can see me in the choir at the right hand side.

In case of Neanderthal uprising…

Recently there’s been quite a bit of news about Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School wanting an adventurous woman to give birth to a Neanderthal baby. Though the quotes are now being said to be completely fabricated.

However, this cropped up on Adam Van Arsdale’s blog today and I thought it funny enough to share here.


What happens when you get a Zebra Finch drunk?

It has now been some time since Sean posed the research question as to whether a population’s consumption of alcohol can affect the structure of that population’s language. This hypothesis is born from the finding that alcohol consumption affects procedural but not declarative memory (Smith & Smith, 2003).

This question was brought to the front of my mind again today after an article appeared in New Scientist about the findings of a study which looked at what happens when you get Zebra Finches drunk.

Zebra finches are interesting to those studying language evolution because they are known to use vocal learning to acquire their repertoire of songs. We also know that these songs can be passed on through cultural transmission and accumulate structure based on the cognitive biases of the finches, just as language does in humans.

It is not a hard leap to draw parallels between early human speech acquisition and the song development of birds (Doupe & Kuhl, 1999).  Both humans and birds are known to babble and in both innate biases and constraints interact with environmental influences to produce the final vocal output (Feher et al. 2008).

The findings published in new scientist (though, as yet, nowhere else),  state that binge drinking may permanently impair juvenile finches’ ability to learn new songs and that, while normal young Zebra Finches “babble” and experiment before settling on their own song, which is inspired by the songs of the finches around them, the drinking finches experimented less, and settled on a simple song at early on.

Christophen Olson, who presented the findings, said that the results may tell us something about how learning behaviour in the adolescent human brain is affected by binge drinking.  It is an interesting thought experiment to consider how human language may culturally evolve in a population of individuals binge drinking from an early age. I don’t think we’re going to get this one past the ethics board though.


Thanks to Rosalind King for pointing out this article to me.


Doupe, A.J. and Kuhl, P.K. (1999). Birdsong and Human Speech: Common Themes and Mechanisms. Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 13, 567-631.

Feher, O., Mitra, P.P., Sasahara, K., Tchernichovski, O., 2008. Evolution of song culture in the zebra finch. In A.D. Smith, K. Smith, R. Ferrer i Cancho, eds., The Evolution of Language. World Scientific Publishing: Singapore, pp. 423–424.

Smith C, & Smith D (2003). Ingestion of ethanol just prior to sleep onset impairs memory for procedural but not declarative tasks. Sleep, 26 (2), 185-91 PMID: 12683478

The continuing rise of physics envy

A few weeks back, James posted a paper about the “Linguistic Big Bang”. Now here’s a paper about protolanguage and the linguistic “God Particle”. I’m happy to see that physics envy in the linguistic community is far from dead!

A few weeks back, James posted a paper about the “Linguistic Big Bang”. Now here’s a paper about protolanguage and the linguistic “God Particle”. I’m happy to see that physics envy in the linguistic community is far from dead!


Most scholars investigating the evolution of language subscribe to the hypothesis that protolanguage occurred as an intermediate stage between the speechless state of our remote ancestors and modern language. But some scholars – Noam Chomsky and fellow biolinguists, Bernd Heine and Tania Kuteva, and others – have expressed serious doubts about the existence of protolanguage. The present article investigates the cause of this disagreement and what it reveals about the nature of influential modern work on language evolution. It does this by analysing the case made by Derek Bickerton for the existence of protolanguage, as well as Noam Chomsky’s case against the existence of protolanguage. Both cases are shown to be weak, resting on a range of implicit and/or contentious assumptions. Invoking a conceptual distinction illustrated by physicists’ hunt for the “God particle”, the article argues that the case for the existence of protolanguage has not been strengthened by recent work attributing specific properties to protolanguage. To conclude, the article discusses the conceptual means needed for shoring up the assumption that evidence for the existence of protolanguage can be derived from so-called living linguistic fossils.

Botha, R. (2012) Protolanguage and the “God particle”, Lingua, Volume 122, Issue 12, Pages 1308-1324, ISSN 0024-3841, 10.1016/j.lingua.2012.07.005.

Language Evolution in 50 Words

Every week the British Interactive Group (BIG) (a skill sharing network for science communicators) have a competition among their members on the mailing list to explain a phenomenon in 50 words. This is known as the “Friday Phenomenon” and the person who does the best job at being both informative and engaging with such a small word count inherits the job of deciding what the next “phenomenon” will be. A couple of weeks ago I had the honour of being that person and the question I asked people to answer in 50 words (rather predictably) was:  “How did structure evolve in human language?”

I thought you’d enjoy reading the entries and remember, these people are professional science communicators, not linguists!

Alexander Brown (You can read Alex’s blog here:

How did structure evolve in human language?

Because there are no records, it is hard to say how human language formed.

It was doubtless linked to the evolution of the brain.

Structure gives context to words, increasing the amount of information they carry. This was an improvement on less meaningful assemblies.

Mark Lewney:

Language must encode 4D reality.

“[Elk herd], [sunrise direction], [half day away]” is fine for the present.

To change the future, nouns must verb.

“[Ug and Og] CHASE [biggest antlers] then [Thag and Derek] REPLACE [Ug and Og] then [everyone] CHUCKS [spears] at [biggest antlers]”

Blank slates can’t tell stories.

Dave Anseel:

Communicating the difference between run towards and run away is a evolutionary advantage…. especially if the object is a lion. Those who don’t understand fairly rapidly leave the gene pool.

Plus as group sizes increase communicating “what his Autie Uga did to our cousin Ogg” leads to grammar, or frustration.

Sam Steventon:

Lexical/sexual selection (sexical selection?) Structure in language has evolved to increase the success of obtaining mates. Conspicuous lexical traits – such as pronounced punctuation, increased vocabulary, or striking sentences increase the attractiveness of humans. This can be seen in the apparent mating success of musicians, comedians and moody writers.

Lewis Pike:

Language ideally supports precise, quick and clear communication. Playful and comprehensible too. Playful language uses ambiguity not precision. Meeting strangers and learning to understand them is important. Seduction is often slow and important. White lies aren’t clear but socially important. Dynamic tensions between needs these needs keeps languages evolving.

I decided that Sam won because of the invention of the process of “sexical selection”.

Information on how to join the BIG mailing list can be found  here:

Observational learning in octopus vulgaris

A few months ago, a documentary I saw on the Discovery Channel covered some research by Graziano Fiorito and colleagues at the Stazione Zoologica  in Naples. They were investigating observational learning in wild Octopus vulgaris with a puzzle-box experiment similar to those demonstrating cultural transmission in chimpanzees.

It goes like this: there’s a tasty and terrified crustacean running around in a perspex box that has two possible ways of being opened by hungry octopuses. The experimenters capture a wild octopus (let’s call him Steve) from the harbour (which I’ll get back to in a minute), and they put it in a tank with the puzzle-box. After Steve stares hopelessly at the box for a while, it is then removed from the tank. Steve the kidnapped octopus then gets to watch a captive octopus in the next tank being presented with the same puzzle-box containing the delicious crab. Of course, the captive octopus has been confronted with the puzzle-box enough times that it has worked out a successful solution, and so opens the box like a pro. Steve is then presented with a crab in a puzzle-box again, except this time he goes straight for the crab using the same solution he just learned from the captive octopus. Here is a clip from the documentary, showing a trial of this experiment (NB: not the best quality).

It turns out that the papers on this go back as far as Fiorito & Scotto 1992, and it seems this was the first time observational learning had been demonstrated in invertebrates. The reason I’m interested in reporting this is because the documentary I watched explained another possible motivation/interpretation for Fiorito’s work that I can’t find in any of his actual papers. The octopuses used in the experiments were all caught from the harbour at Naples just before the experiments, which of course controlled for any prior experience with the puzzle boxes. But the results were reported as particularly interesting because the Naples harbour had been overfished and disrupted, resulting in an increase in marine predators that eat the small octopus vulgaris as well as fish that the octopuses themselves rely on. These harsher environmental conditions resulted in the octopuses being forced to inhabit a smaller space alongside each other. As a result, young octopuses were frequently exposed to, and even coexisted with, older octopuses. This is a weird situation for an octopus; they usually live solitary lives and never even meet their own mothers, who die of starvation while caring for the eggs (the fathers die within a few months of having mated). The only real interactions are mating, and conflicts between rival males while competing for a mate.

Toward the end of the documentary, the voiceover growled against some dramatic music about how the combination of observational learning capacities and increased predation pushing octopuses into groups meant that it was only a matter of time  before we’re overthrown by octopus vulgaris. This made me think of Dunbar’s “social brain hypothesis” for the emergence of language, and whether I really should prepare to welcome our new octopus overlords. Talking specifically about primates, Dunbar (1996) states that “[primates] in general exhibit two responses to increased predation: they grow physically bigger [or] they increase the size of their groups” (p.110). In order to maintain these groups, that are essential for survival in harsh ecological conditions, Dunbar suggests that standard primate grooming behaviour becomes too time consuming and costly in order to keep up with the rapidly expanding social group, creating a pressure for a more efficient method of bonding and communicating that allows the size of the group to continue increasing. Again with reference just to primate communication, Dunbar says “This [efficient mechanism] need not have involved any dramatic change, for as the studies by Seyfarth and Cheney have shown, primate vocalizations are already capable of conveying a great deal of social information and commentary.” (p.115) In addition to primates, and adding further credence to this idea, it’s been shown that the older Matriarchs of elephant groups make use of vocalisations to seemingly instruct their group on how to fend off lion attacks (McComb et al., 2011; previous Replicated Typo coverage here). It seems to me that the difference between the primates/elephants and the octopuses is that the former endeavour to actually enrich the environment from which their conspecifics extract information; they don’t just learn, they inform. As far as we can tell, there is no such communication like this – that is, enriching the environment in some way that helps other octopuses learn or survive – happening among the octopuses. That said, we know from mating displays and conflicts that cephalopods can communicate with chromatophore signalling. As an interesting aside that is reflective of their cognitive abilities and capacity for suffering, octopuses are treated as honorary vertebrates by UK animal testing laws.

It’s interesting enough that marine biologists (or at least those reporting on marine biologists) seem to have the same idea as Dunbar about the necessary preconditions for successful societies of animals, but why not let’s get wildly speculative? If (..!) existing in groups is in fact adaptive for these octopuses in the face of increased predation, and the competition between them for resources isn’t too great a counter-factor, it seems the only ingredient missing from an octopocalypse is the emergence of some cooperative behaviour. Someone should keep an eye on that harbour.



Dunbar, R. (1996) Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Fiorito, G. & Scotto, P. (1992) “Observational learning in Octopus vulgaris” Science 256, 545-546.

McComb, K., Shannon, G., Durant, S., Sayialel, K., Slotow, R., Poole, J. & Moss, C. (2011) “Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age” Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published online.

Monkeys can read! (not really)

OMG! Monkeys can read! Planet of the apes is coming! Not really.

OMG! Monkeys can read! Planet of the apes is coming! Not really. A new paper in Science by Grainger, Dufau, Montant, Ziegler and Fagot at the Aix-Marseille University found that Guinea baboons can be trained to differentiate between four letter English words and nonsense words. One monkey called Dan could recognise up to 300 written words, and by “recognise” I mean he knew those words could give him a treat, not that he could recognise that they signified objects in the world, which is what we mean when we say that a human has “recognised” a word. It’s a minefield isn’t it?

I wonder to what degree this is just a memory test or if the monkeys really are noticing relations between the letters which make up the words, as opposed to the nonsense words. The paper probably answers this. Bloody pay walls… Either way, I don’t think this is evidence to suggest that the role of phoneme-letter matching in humans learning to read should be undermined.