The Evolution of Religion

I’ve been attending the Language as Social Coordination: An Evolutionary Perspective conference in Warsaw, Poland.  I heard a talk by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski on the Evolution of Religion.  Although there have been many approaches to this before (and he has a blog on related themes here), his talk was particularly clear.

First, he drew a distinction between the co-ordination of action between a group of people and the co-ordination of long-term goals.  For co-ordination of action (e.g. carrying a heavy load/ sharing food), the discourse must reflect reality.  However, for co-ordination of goals, this need not be the case.  He gave an example of a hunt.  Talking about where to go and plans for herding or trapping should try to reflect the real problem as closely as possible.  However, if the hunt becomes long and arduous, some members might give up.  Invoking a wrathful god that might motivate people to continue.

In this sense, long-term co-ordination needs to sole the free-rider problem (where a lazy minority who still reap the benefits of the group will eventually destabilise the group and the benefits disappear).  You can do this by invoking beliefs in higher powers that punish defectors or reward co-operators.  However, evidence against these beliefs might destabilise the group.

The evidence against a belief can come in three forms:  Evidence can directly contradict the content of a belief.  A belief that there is a Unicorn that follows me around will soon be destabilised.  The answer is to make the beliefs invisible, dangerous of far away (the Flying Spaggetti Monster comes to mind).

A belief can also exploit the current methodological context.  For example, it’s easy to claim the shroud of Turin really does date back to the time of Christ if Carbon Dating hasn’t been invented yet.

Finally, a belief can use social context to protect it from destabilisation – for example, you can make the shroud of Turin ‘sacred’ so that it can’t be examined or questioned.

A belief that harnesses all three of these tactics is, in Talmont-Kaminski’s terms, ‘Superempirical’.  That is, you can’t disprove it because it resists empirical investigation. This means that religion can be shaped by functionality rather than evidence.  This is exactly what you want to achieve social co-ordination of long-term goals.

Talmont-Kaminski also points out that the consequences of defecting should also be Superempirical.  For example, going to Heaven or Hell in an afterlife.

In the conference, a commentator pointed out that many nations that have very good co-ordination of social goals (e.g. Sweden) seem to be aethist, while many nations that are very un-coordinated (e.g. Afghanistan) are rife with religious belief.  Talmont-Kaminski took this point, but argued that there are now social constructs (banks, government) that can take over the role of co-ordination of goals more effectively.

Talmont-Kaminski has a book coming out soon, a preview chapter can be found here.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski (2008). In a Mirror, Darkly: Does Superstition Reflect Rationality? Skeptical Inquirer, 32 (4)

More on The Social Sensitivity Hypothesis

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent post, James wrote about the Social Sensitivity hypothesis.  Given findings that certain genetic variants will make a person more sensitive to social contact and more reliant on social contact under stress, it proposes that certain genetic variants ‘fit’ better with certain social structures.  In support of this idea, Way and Lieberman (2010) find a correlation between the prevalence of this variant and the level of collectivism (as opposed to individualism) in a society.

An alternative explanation I’ve been thinking about is migration patterns.  If genetic differences make a person less reliant on social networks, they may be more likely to migrate.  This would predict that areas settled later in human history will have more ‘non socially sensitive’ individuals.

Continue reading “More on The Social Sensitivity Hypothesis”


Searching Research Blogging for “bilingualism”, two blogs dominate the recent posts: mine and Language on the Move – a blog started by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.  Since starting last year, they have been joined by a host of international collaborators.  It’s a really well organised blog – they even have separate facebook and twitter officers!

The blog discusses topics on language learning, multilingualism and multicultural sociolinguistics.  The writers are bilingual and certainly pro-bilingualism, but it’s good to see a genuine debate over the so-called ‘bilingual edge’ (see Piller 2010- a review of ‘the bilingual edge’ which argues that differences elicited in controlled conditions don’t necessarily translate to the real world where variables are correlated).

There’s been a recent spurt of posts and publications aimed at trying to get people out of a mono-mindset.  Alastair Pennycook writes about Metrolingualism (see also, Otsuji & Pennycook, 2010) – the common use of many languages to construct identity.  He reminds us that people are most cultural traits are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the majority of people can communicate in many mediums.  Despite this, there is a tendency both in research and general opinion to see monolingualism as the norm and bilingualism as exceptional.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the monolingual mindset extends into computational modelling of language acquisition and evolution.  Often, there are implicit monolingual assumptions.  On the other hand, whole paradigms such as Steels & Belpeame’s ‘Naming Game’ focus on how populations of agents can arrive at the same, single mapping between words and meanings.

In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that children can acquire multiple languages easily.  My own research focusses on a simple question – why did we evolve to be able to learn multiple languages?  It would be more efficient to have a single human language – especially if it were innately specified.  Instead, we have a culturally transmitted system that exhibits a large amount of variation.

I’m looking at two possible answers:  Either there is no selective pressure on language and bilingualism is the product of historical accident (drift) or there is an inherent advantage to the flexibility that bilingualism affords, both for communication and for the evolvability of the system.  Along the way, I’m hoping to look at whether monolingualism is a legitimate abstraction, or whether bilingualism is a fundamental part of language (for a recent talk, see here).

However, Pennycook points out the paradox of a monolingual mindset in a pervasively bilingual world, suggesting that it may be a  political affliction rather than a scientific approach:
“If we take the current sociolinguistic literature on styles, registers, discourses, genres and practices seriously, then monolingualism is also a myth: a monolingual mindset does not emerge from a state of monolingualism, because no such state can exist. If languages are myths, so too is monolingualism!”

Piller, I. (2010). The bilingual edge: why, when, and how to teach your child a second language International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (1), 115-118 DOI: 10.1080/13670050802645942

Otsuji, E., & Pennycook, A. (2010). Metrolingualism: fixity, fluidity and language in flux International Journal of Multilingualism, 7 (3), 240-254 DOI: 10.1080/14790710903414331

Language Evolution and Tetris! Part 2

Ok, so my previous experiment was an incredible failure.  The program crashed in sixteen different ways, including suddenly deciding not to respond to key presses for no apparent reason.  A rather lazy Ghost in The Shell.  Although about 8 people participated, the data was unusable.  What on earth was I trying to achieve?

The experiment was a typical human Iterated Learning experiment (e.g. Kirby, Cornish, Smith, 2008) – there were a set of meanings (Tetris blocks) which varied along two dimensions (shape and colour).  Participants were shown the words for half of the meanings, but then asked to recall words for each meanings.  These responses were then given to the next participant as input.  Over time, other such experiments result in meanings which are compositional and more learnable.  However, the meaning space tends to ‘collapse’ as the same label is applied to many meanings.

I was trying to do an iterated learning experiment which teased apart the difference between labelling a form and labelling a function.  If participants label the function of an object, the environment will play a greater role in the evolution of the language.

There were two chains –  one played Tetris where you have to complete lines to score points – colours are irrelevant.  The other chain played “Coltris” where you scored points by placing more than 4 blocks of the same colour next to each other.  Also, each individual block in a brick finds its own lowest point (i.e. the brick breaks apart), meaning that shape is much less important. That is, for Tetris, the functionally salient feature was shape while for Coltris it was colour.

What I was hoping was that, for the Tetris players, the signal space would ‘collapse’ in the colour dimension.  That is, labels would distinguish bricks by shape, but not colour.  For the Coltris, the opposite should have happened – labels would have distinguished bricks by colour but not shape.

Gary Lupyan has shown that naming categories of objects can affect your perception of those objects (Lupyan, G. (2008). The Conceptual Grouping Effect: Categories Matter (and named categories matter more). Cognition, 108, 566-577.).  My experiment looks into where those distinct category names came from in the first place.  Having said this, the experiment would have been more neat than illuminating.

Oh Well.

Language Evolution and Tetris!

Hello, people of the Blogosphere!

Why not take some time out from your dedicated reading to do a little language evolution experiment!  And all you have to do is play Tetris!

The Evolution of Tetris

… and learn an alien language.  It takes no more than 10 minutes.

The instructions and game are here:

Due to me being a terrible programmer, it’ll probably crash or do some weird things.  But it’s all in the name of pseudo-science!

P.S. – users of the latest Firefox will need to update java.

Language Evolved due to an “animal connection”?

New hypothesis of language evolution. Language Evolved due to an “animal connection” according to Pat Shipman:

Next, the need to communicate that knowledge about the behavior of prey animals and other predators drove the development of symbols and language around 200,000 years ago, Shipman suggests.

For evidence, Shipman pointed to the early symbolic representations of prehistoric cave paintings and other artwork that often feature animals in a good amount of detail. By contrast, she added that crucial survival information about making fires and shelters or finding edible plants and water sources was lacking.

“All these things that ought to be important daily information are not there or are there in a really cursory, minority role,” Shipman noted. “What that conversation is about are animals.”

Of course, much evidence is missing, because “words don’t fossilize,” Shipman said. She added that language may have arisen many times independently and died out before large enough groups of people could keep it alive.

Nothing but wild conjecture as usual but still interesting.

Original article here.

Bayesian Bilingualism

Recently, David Burkett and Tom Griffiths have looked at iterated learning of multiple languages from multiple teachers (Burkett & Griffiths 2010, see my post here).  Here, I’ll describe a simpler model which allows bilingualism.  I show that, counter-intuitively, bilingualism may be more stable than monolingualism.

Continue reading “Bayesian Bilingualism”