Science Daily claims: Simple math explains dramatic beak shape variation in Darwin’s finches. Key paragraph: “Using digitization techniques, the researchers found that 14 distinct beak shapes, that at first glance look unrelated, could be categorized into three broader, group shapes. Despite the striking variety of sizes and shapes, mathematically, the beaks within a particular group only differ by their scales.”
Be sure to check out the Kahn Academy — a not-for-profit organisation that provides some great educational resources. For those of you interested in demographics and the quantitative analysis of movement, then here’s a whole section on differential equations.
How reliable are fMRI results? Another question I’m not so sure about. However, Prefrontal.org has a full paper on providing something of an answer. The key sentence: “the results from fMRI research may be somewhat less reliable than many researchers implicitly believe.”
Lastly, Jeff Elman, UCSD professor of cognitive science and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, presents a lecture on some of the latest research in our ability to use language and why it is so far removed from other animal communication systems:
New Scientist discusses research into the discovery of primitive writing systems from 35,000 years ago. Obviously, this has massive implications for those of us who thought the seeds of writing were only starting to emerge approximately 5000-years-ago. The key paragraph: “What emerged was startling: 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared again and again at numerous sites (see illustration). Admittedly, some of the symbols are pretty basic, like straight lines, circles and triangles, but the fact that many of the more complex designs also appeared in several places hinted to von Petzinger and Nowell that they were meaningful – perhaps even the seeds of written communication.” They’ve also got some pretty pictures.
Lastly, American Scientist has a podcast on the evolution of the human capacity for killing at a distance. Here’s the summary: “Duke University anthropologist Steven Churchill presents his research on the evolutionary origins of projectile weaponry, and how weapon use changed interactions between humans and other species—including, perhaps, the Neandertals.”
Researchers from diverse backgrounds are converging on the view that human evolution has been shaped by gene–culture interactions. Theoretical biologists have used population genetic models to demonstrate that cultural processes can have a profound effect on human evolution, and anthropologists are investigating cultural practices that modify current selection. These findings are supported by recent analyses of human genetic variation, which reveal that hundreds of genes have been subject to recent positive selection, often in response to human activities. Here, we collate these data, highlighting the considerable potential for cross-disciplinary exchange to provide novel insights into how culture has shaped the human genome.
Hierarchical structure building can be achieved without Broca’s area involvement.
I’ve only just finished reading the post and, despite having some thoughts on the topic, I’m going to read the actual paper in question (Disentangling syntax and intelligibility in auditory language comprehension) before commenting. Especially since the authors, Friederici et al, don’t seem to arrive at the same conclusions as the bloggers over at Talking Brains. Still, as far as I can tell, this is only looking at syntactic information within speech, and doesn’t really tell us anything about the processing of hierarchically organised sequences in other linguistic (e.g. written language) and non-linguistic (e.g. tool manufacturing) domains.
Here’s the abstract for the paper in question:
Studies of the neural basis of spoken language comprehension typically focus on aspects of auditory processing by varying signal intelligibility, or on higher-level aspects of language processing such as syntax. Most studies in either of these threads of language research report brain activation including peaks in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) and/or the superior temporal sulcus (STS), but it is not clear why these areas are recruited in functionally different studies. The current fMRI study aims to disentangle the functional neuroanatomy of intelligibility and syntax in an orthogonal design. The data substantiate functional dissociations between STS and STG in the left and right hemispheres: first, manipulations of speech intelligibility yield bilateral mid-anterior STS peak activation, whereas syntactic phrase structure violations elicit strongly left-lateralized mid STG and posterior STS activation. Second, ROI analyses indicate all interactions of speech intelligibility and syntactic correctness to be located in the left frontal and temporal cortex, while the observed right-hemispheric activations reflect less specific responses to intelligibility and syntax. Our data demonstrate that the mid-to-anterior STS activation is associated with increasing speech intelligibility, while the mid-to-posterior STG/STS is more sensitive to syntactic information within the speech.
Having now returned, I feel a long list of links is needed to kick start things:
The journal Biolinguistics now has a blog. Whether or not this turns out to be interesting will obviously depend on the role they adopt for the blog. At the moment it just seems to be promoting various conferences and a summer school. I’ve added their RSS to google reader, so we shall see if anything worth while pops up.
Be sure to check out The Adventures of Auck, a blog by a friend, and fellow Welshman, at Edinburgh University. He’s written two insightful pieces on colour perception in bilinguals. Part one and part two.
Now I’ve had a month-long break from blogging you may, or may not, have noticed a few changes to the blog, notably the inclusion of three additional features: Dissertation, Minifeedand Basic Concepts. So from now on in, I will definitely be adding a post every day, and hopefully a research-related post every week or so. But before all this happens, I really suggest you go over and visit Babel’s Dawn, as Mr Bolles is putting much of us slightly less prolific bloggers to shame with his coverage of the ways to protolanguage conference.
As for my own opinion of protolanguage: yes, it probably existed, but I really haven’t got any more to add at the moment. It is a topic I plan on returning to in another post, although I’m not really sure I can add anything extra to the current debate. There is one thing, though: I do find debates on concerning the transition of protolanguage into a fully fledged language a bit tiresome. I mean we’re not even fully sure as to the impact that writing systems have had on how we speak. Take Chomsky’s favourite topic of recursion. As far as I know, there is no evidence of complex recursion being present in languages prior to the emergence of writing systems. It may be the case that writing allowed for languages with no, or very circumscribed, recursion in their syntax to develop into a system that allows for embedding of indefinite complexity.
In truth, you can argue many features of language didn’t appear until the development of writing, as there is no solid record of languages existing prior to this invention. This is a problem all linguists face, and it does require a lot of assumptions to be made beforehand — some of which are reasonable (languages did exist before writing) and some of which may be construed as not reasonable (literate societies process language in the same way as non-literate societies).
…Well, 60% of the genome at least. Not much has been said yet in regards to the nitty gritty aspects of Svante and colleagues’ findings. No doubt John Hawks and many others will offer their own perspectives over the next couple of days. If you’re interested in the immediate gist then here’s a link to the press release. Also, here is a quote from the BBC offering a succinct summary: Continue reading “Neanderthal Genome Published”
February 12th — keep this date in mind and prepare your browser on automatic refresh because the Neanderthal genome is to be unveiled. And just to make it extra special, the date on which we’ll dip into the three billion base pairs of our extinct relative is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin‘s birth. Here’s a little extract from the Nature article just to peak your interest:
Comparisons with the human genome may uncover evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans, the genomes of which overlap by more than 99%. They certainly had enough time for fraternization — Homo sapiens emerged as a separate species by about 400,000 years ago, and Neanderthals became extinct just 30,000 years ago. Their last common ancestor lived about 660,000 years ago, give or take 140,000 years.
I can’t think why we wouldn’t have interbred with Neanderthals. Language of course is one possible reason, acting as a symbolic marker of group boundaries to such an extent that even cultural differences within humans would minimise gene flow (assuming language, or even a protolanguage, was around then). That said, even contemporary humans are quite willing to fuck goats (and god knows what else). So why not the Neanderthals?
N.B. If you’re not familiar with they dynamics surrounding the possibility of Neanderthals having contributed some genes to modern humans, then I strongly suggest you read John Hawks’ Neanderthal FAQ. Also, check out his sections on adaptive introgression.