From the regulation and reproduction in bacteria colonies (Bassler, 2002) to complex smell and taste systems of humans (Van Toller & Dodd, 1988), the ability of sensing chemical stimuli, known as chemosensation, is believed to be the most basic and ubiquitous of senses (Bhutta, 2007). One strain of thought places chemosensation as merely an evolved ability to detect dangerous and volatile substances – such as putrefied food (see Bhutta, 2007). Still, the notion that this ability to detect chemical stimuli, particularly in the domain of smell, serves a purpose in communication is not necessarily a contemporary concept (Wyatt, 2009).
If we accept that language is not only a conveyer of cultural information, but it is itself a socially learned and culturally transmitted system, then an individual’s linguistic knowledge is the result of observing the linguistic behaviour of others. This well attested process of language acquisition is often termed Iterated Learning, and it opens up a new avenue to investigate the design features of language: that cultural, as opposed to biological, evolution is fundamental in understanding these features.
A prominent idea in linguistics is that humans have an array of specialised organs geared towards the production, reception and comprehension of language. For some features, particularly the physical capacity to produce and receive multiple vocalizations, there is ample evidence for specialisation: a descended larynx (Lieberman, 2003), thoracic breathing (MacLarnon & Hewitt, 1999), and several distinct hearing organs (Hawks, in press). Given that these features are firmly in the domain of biology, it makes intuitive sense to apply the theory of natural selection to solve the problem: humans are specially adapted to the production and reception of multiple vocalizations.
A developing interest of mine is that of complex adaptive systems. Like language, ant colonies and the immune system, the economy is such an evolutionary system. As Plektix explains in a very interesting article:
Earlier this year I went along to the Cultaptation Conference at St Andrews. Despite being a fascinating event, there appears to nothing on the blogsphere pertaining to the speakers and their talks. In fact, this generally holds true for cultural evolution: there are no dedicated blogs reporting what is undoubtedly a serious scientific endeavour. As a remedy I’m going to dedicate several future blog posts to the conference. Until then, here are the talk abstracts for some of my personal highlights:
If you happen to be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then this is a must see:
Also check out Brinkman’s website: http://www.babasword.com/index/rge.html. And if you have seen him, remember: performance, feedback, revision. Genius.
Here’s some stuff I’ve been reading over the last month or so:
- Babel’s Dawn discusses Michael Arbib’s paper, Invention and Community in the Emergence of Language: Insights from New Sign Languages.
- Over at Neurophilosophy there is an overview of a fascinating paper on the Universal Grammar of birdsong (also check out my comment, it’s the first one under JW).
- John Hawks talks about some of my favourite topics: learning, population size, and modern human behaviour.
- The recent resurgence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Lera Boroditsky are the topics of discussion over at Mind Hacks.
- Deric Bownds’ MindBlog mentions the “origins of altruism toward one’s own social group and the emergence of cultural complexity“.
- Evolution can occur in less than 10 years… In guppy fish.
- Researchers at Brown find: “A front portion of the brain that handles tasks like decision-making also helps decipher different phonetic sounds“.
- And lastly, Dienekes’ anthropology blog discusses a paper that investigates the role of drift and selection in the shaping of human skulls, concluding “that neutral processes have been much more important than climate in shaping the human cranium”.
Okay, so that brings you up to date with my reading from May through to July. Next round up will cover August. How fascinating :-/
The debate concerning the origin of our minds stems back to the diverging opinions of Darwin (1871) and Wallace (1870). When Charles Darwin first discussed the evolution of our seemingly unique cognitive faculties, he proposed that there is “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” (Darwin, 1871, pg. 66). Conversely, Wallace was suspicious of whether natural selection alone could have shaped the human mind, writing: “[…] that the same law which appears to have sufficed for the development of animals, has been alone the cause of man’s superior mental nature, […] will, I have no doubt, be overruled and explained away. But I venture to think they will nevertheless maintain their ground, and that they can only be met by the discovery of new facts or new laws, of a nature very different from any yet known to us.” In the intervening years, the debate surrounding the degree of continuity between animal and human minds still rages on in contemporary discussions (Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009; Penn, Holyoak & Povinelli, 2009).
Having handed in my disseration and, with the notable exception of graduation, all but completed my course, I’m now free to spend much more time working on this blog. From now on I’m hoping to post at least an article a day — varying from research-related posts to just my reading for the day. Probably the most pertinent thing to write about is what I have been working on over these past few months, but being a precocious topic-hopper I’m going to provide a video of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an economist who appears to hold a lot of sensible views about the economy.
N.B. The video I was watching doesn’t appear to be compatible with wordpress. So, here is the link to that video, and the video below is a far shorter segment from Newsnight. It’s dumbed down to the extreme, but you get the gist of Mr Taleb’s stance. Enjoy.
In the year of Darwin, I’m not too surprised at the number of articles being published on the interactions between cultural change and biological evolution — this synthesis, if achieved, will certainly be a crucial step in explaining how humans evolved. Still, it’s unlikely we’re going to see the Darwin of culture in 2009, given we’re still disputing some of the fundamentals surrounding these two modes of evolution. One of these key arguments is whether or not culture inhibits biological evolution. That we’re seeing accelerated changes in the human genome seems to suggest (for some) that culture is one of these evolutionary selection pressures, as John Hawks explains:
Continue reading “How do biology and culture interact?”