Through this post on Sprogmuseet about Atkinson’s analysis of the out of Africa hypothesis, I found an article by Ember & Ember (2007) (who also quantified the link between colour lexicon size and distance from the equator, see my post here) on Sonority and climate. The article extends work by Fought et al. (2004) which finds that a language’s sonority is related to climate. Sonority is a measure of amplitude (loudness) as is greater for vowels than for consonants (for example, see here). Basically, the warmer the climate, the greater the sonority of the phoneme inventory of the population. The theory is that “people in warmer climates generally spend more time outdoors and communicate at a distance more often than people in colder climates”.
I was thinking about Daniel Nettle’s model of linguistic diversity which showed that linguistic variation tends to decline even with a small amount of migration between communities. I wondered if statistics about population movement would correlate with linguistic diversity, as measured by the Greenberg Diversity Index (GDI) for a country (see below). However, this is a cautionary tale about obsession and use of statistics. (See bottom of post for link to data).
A new book is to be published on May the 24th. By John F. Hoffecker the book is entitled “Landscape of the Mind: Human Evolution and the Archaeology of Thought” – it aims to look at the emergence of human thought and language through archaeological evidence
Archeologists often struggle to find fossil evidence pertaining to the evolution of the brain. Thoughts are a hard thing to fossilize. However, John Hoffecker claims that this is not the case and fossils and archaeological evidence for the evolution of the human mind are abundant.
Hoffecker has developed a concept which he calls the “super-brain” which he hypothesises emerged in Africa some 75,000 years ago. He claims that human’s ability to share thoughts between individuals is analogous to the abilities of honey bees who are able to communicate the location of food both in terms of distance and direction. They do this using a waggle-dance. Humans are able to share thoughts between brains using communicative methods, the most obvious of these being language.
Fossil evidence for the emergence of speech is thin on the ground and, where it does exist, is quite controversial. However, symbols emerging in the archaeological record coincides with an increase in evidence of creativity being displayed in many artifacts from the same time. Creative, artistic designs scratched on mineral pigment show up in Africa about 75,000 years ago and are thought to be evidence for symbolism and language
Hoffecker also hypothesises that his concept of the super-brain is likely to be connected to things like bipedalism and tool making. He claims that it was tool making which helped early humans first develop the ability to represent complex thoughts to others.
He claims that tools were a consequence of bipedalism as this freed up the hands to make and use tools. Hoffecker pin points his “super-brain” as beginning to emerge 1.6 million years ago when the first hand axes began to appear in the fossil record. This is because hand axes are thought to be an external realisation of human thought as they bear little resemblance to the natural objects they were made from.
By 75,00 years ago humans were producing perforated shell ornaments, polished bone awls and simple geometric designs incised into lumps of red ochre.
Humans are known to have emerged from Africa between 60,00 to 50,000 years ago based on archeological evidence. Hoeffecker hypothesises that – “Since all languages have basically the same structure, it is inconceivable to me that they could have evolved independently at different times and places.”
Hoeffecker also lead a study in 2007 that discovered a carved piece of mammoth ivory that appears to be the head of a small figurine dating to more than 40,000 years ago. This is claimed to be the oldest piece of figurative art ever discovered. Finds like this illustrate the creative mind of humans as they spread out of Africa.
Figurative art and musical instruments which date back to before 30,000 years ago have also been discovered in caves in France and Germany.
This looks to be nothing new but archaeological evidence is something which a lot of people interested in language evolution do not often discuss. I also don’t really know what to think of Hoeffecker’s claim that “all languages basically have the same structure”. What do you think?
Right, I already referred to Atkinson’s paper in a previous post, and much of the work he’s presented is essentially part of a potential PhD project I’m hoping to do. Much of this stems back to last summer, where I mentioned how the phoneme inventory size correlates with certain demographic features, such as population size and population density. Using the the UPSID data I generated a generalised additive model to demonstrate how area and population size interact in determining the phoneme inventory size:
Interestingly, Atkinson seems to derive much of his thinking, at least in his choice of demographic variables, from work into the transmission of cultural artefacts (see here and here). For me, there are clear uses for these demographic models in testing hypotheses for linguistic transmission and change, as I see language as a cultural product. It appears Atkinson reached the same conclusion. Where we depart, however, is in our overall explanations of the data. My major problem with the claim is theoretical: he hasn’t ruled out other historical-evolutionary explanations for these patterns.
Before we get into the bulk of my criticism, I’ll provide a very brief overview of the paper.
Just read about an article on phoneme diversity via GNXP and Babel’s Dawn. Hopefully I’ll share some of my thoughts on the paper this weekend as it clearly ties in with work I’m currently doing (see here and here). Below is the abstract:
Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder-effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is no explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.
Reference: Atkinson, Q.D (2011). Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. Science 332, 346. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199295.
Update: I’ve given a lengthier response here.
I’m currently writing an article on the relationship between language and social features of the speakers who use it. As studies such as Lupyan & Dale (2010) have discovered, language structure is partially determined by social structure. However, it’s also probable that many social features of a community are determined by its language.
Today, I wondered whether the number of basic colour terms a language has is reflected in the number of colours on its country’s flag. The idea being that a country’s flag contains colours that are important to its society, and therefore a country with more social tools for discussing colour (colour words) will be more likely to put more colours on its flag. It was a long shot, but here’s what I found:
The World Atlas of Language Structures has data on the number of basic colours in many languages (Kay & Maffi, 2008). Wikipedia has a list of country flags by the number of colours in them. Languages with large populations (like English, Spanish etc.) were excluded. It’s known that the number of basic colour terms correlates with latitude, so a partial correlation was carried out. There was a small but significant relationship between the number of colour terms in a langauge and the number of colours on the flag where that language is spoken (r = 0.15, τ = 254, p=0.01, partial correlation, 2-tailed using Kendall’s tau).
Here’s the flag of Belize, where Garífuna is spoken (9-10 colours in the language, 12 colours on the flag):
Here is the flag of Nigeria where Ejagham is spoken (3-4 colours in the langauge, 2 colours on the flag):
Interestingly, the languages with the highest number of colours in their language and flag come from Central America while the majority of the languages with the lowest number of colours in their language and flag come from Africa. Maybe there’s some cultural influence on neighbouring flags.
Here’s a boxplot, which makes more sense:
Also, I re-ran the analysis taking into account distance from the equator, speaker population and some properties of the nearest neighbour of each language (number of colours on flag and number of basic colours in langauge). A multiple regression showed that the number of basic colours in a language is still a significant predictor of the number of colours in its national flag (r = 0.12, F(106,16)=1.8577, p= 0.03). This analysis was done by removing languages with populations more than 2 standard deviations from the mean (9 languages out of 140). The relationship is still significant with the whole dataset.
There are still problems with this analysis, of course. For example, many of the languages in the data are minority languages which may have little impact on the national identity of a country. Furthermore, the statistics may be compromised by multiple comparisons, since there may be a single flag for more than one language. Also, a proper measure of the influence of surrounding languages would be better. The nearest neighbour was supposed to be an approximation, but could be improved.
Lupyan G, & Dale R (2010). Language structure is partly determined by social structure. PloS one, 5 (1) PMID: 20098492
Kay, Paul & Maffi, Luisa. (2008). Number of Basic Colour Categories.In: Haspelmath, Martin & Dryer, Matthew S. & Gil, David & Comrie, Bernard (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 133.
It is a largely unchallenged claim of anthropologists that the human race emerged from the continent of Africa. However, claims relating to our evolution before our nomadic ancestors left the land of our origin have been left largely abstruse.
A new paper published on PNAS.org this week attempts to address this very problem through genetic analysis of several hunter gatherer societies in Africa including speakers of the nearly distinct N|u language. This was done because hunter-gather populations remain divergent in their variations at a level which is no longer maintained in the African population as a whole.
580,000 Single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were analysed to calculate genetic relationships and diversity between the groups and propose possible evolutionary paths and branches.
Henn et al. (2011) propose that the genetics of those groups found in the south of Africa are the most diverse, and therefore the oldest, of any diversity found among other modern humans. This has caused them to suggest that the origins of modern humans may in fact be in southern Africa as opposed to the much more accepted view which is that we emerged from the east of Africa.
This assumed eastern viewpoint is a result of the earliest modern human skulls being found in the east and also the fact that humans in the rest of the world all carry a subset of genes found specifically in eastern Africa. However, until now, the populations represented in the study by Henn et al. (2011) have not been represented in previous genetic studies when making estimates of the whereabouts of our evolutionary origins.
Some dispute has arisen regarding these conclusions because the current whereabouts of these hunter-gatherer populations within Africa is not evidence to suggest that this is always where these populations have resided. These groups may have moved about and migrated from their original place of origin just as the rest of humanity has. Henn has retorted that, though this is a possibility, typically only a subset of a group moves to a new area, and this subset is less genetically diverse than the parent population. This would mean that if a group of humans left eastern African for southern Africa they would be expected to be less diverse in the population who moved and this contradicts the genetic data found in Henn et al. (2011).
Henn, B. et al. (2011) Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA doi:10.1073/pnas.1017511108
The depression map: genes, culture, serotonin, and a side of pathogens. Another new science blog network (Wired) and once again a new stable of good science writers. I’m particularly pleased to see that David Dobbs, a former SciBling and top science writer, has found a new home for Neuron Culture. I was also pleased to see he had written an article on studies into the interactions between genes and culture, namely: Chiao & Blizinsky (2009) and Way & Lieberman (2010). And I was even more pleased to see that he’d mentioned both mine and Sean’s posts on the social sensitivity hypothesis. Suffice to say, I was pleased.
Take home paragraph:
In a sense, these studies are looking not at gene-x-environment interactions, or GxE, but at genes x (immediate) environment x culture — GxExC. The third variable can make all the difference. Gene-by-environment studies over the last 20 years have contributed enormously to our understanding of mood and behavior. Without them we would not have studies, like these led by Chiao and Way and Kim, that suggest broader and deeper dimensions to what makes us struggle, thrive, or just act differently in different situations. GxE is clearly important. But when we leave out variations in culture, we risk profoundly misunderstanding how these genes — and the people who carry them — actually operate in the big wide world.
The same issues are not as operative when it comes to culture. Two tribes can speak different dialects or languages. If a woman moves from one tribe to another her children don’t necessarily speak a mixture of languages, rather, they may speak the language of their fathers. The nature of cultural inheritance is more flexible, and so allows for the persistence of more heritable variation at different levels of organization. Differences of religion, language, dress, and values, can be very strong between two groups who have long lived near each other and may be genetically similar.
Homo was born vocalizing. Babel’s Dawn links to a recently finished PhD thesis that supposedly argues for a relatively recent emergence for language (approx. 120,000 years ago). She defends her assertions by stating: “[…] all of the unique cognitive traits attributed to humans arose as the consequence of one crucial mutation, which radically altered the architecture of the ancestral primate brain.” I haven’t read the thesis, and I probably won’t as I’m already stretched in regards to my reading, but I’m completely unconvinced by the hopeful mutation hypothesis. Plus, as Bolles notes in his post, there is plenty of available evidence to the contrary.
Primed for Reading. Robert Boyd reviews Stanislas Dehane’s new book, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, which I’ll be picking up soon. In the meantime, to give you a bit of background, I suggest you read Dehane’s (2007) paper on the Neuronal Recycling Hypothesis: the Cultural recycling of cortical maps. H/T: Gene Expression.
Through the looking glass (part 1). The Lousy Linguist reviews Guy Deutscher’s new book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, with the general takeaway message being that, in part one at least, one where the book is a bit science-lite. What really interested me, though, were these two paragraphs:
We discover quite quickly what Deutscher is doing as he begins to walk through complexity issues of “particular areas of language” (page 109), namely morphology, phonology, and subordination. And these last 15 pages are really the gem of Part 1. He shows that there is an interesting, somewhat illogical, entirely engaging but as yet unexplained set of correlations between speaker population size and linguistic complexity.
For example, languages with small numbers of speakers tend to have more morphologically rich grammars (hence one could claim that small = more complex). However, small languages with small numbers of speakers also tend to have small phonological inventories. Hmmm, weird, right? [My emphasis]
As those of you who read this blog will know: I don’t think it’s weird that small speaker populations also tend to have small phonological inventories.
Clothing lice out of Africa. A cool new paper by Troups et al which looks at the evolutionary history of clothing lice to provide specific estimates on the origin of clothing. Using a Bayesian coalescent modelling approach, they estimate that clothing lice diverged from head louse ancestors between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago. H/T: Dienekes.
It is well documented that Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population greatly influenced both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace’s independent conception of their theory of natural selection. In it, Malthus puts forward his observation that the finite nature of resources is in conflict with the potentially exponential rate of reproduction, leading to an inevitable struggle between individuals. Darwin took this basic premise and applied it to nature, as he notes in his autobiography:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.
The interaction of demographic and evolutionary processes is thus central in understanding Darwin’s big idea: that exponential growth will eventually lead to a large population, and in turn will generate competition for natural selection to act on any heritable variation which conferred a greater fitness advantage. Under these assumptions we are able to interpret the evolutionary record of most species by appealing to two basic causal elements: genes and the environment. As we all know, in most cases the environment generates selection pressures to which genes operate and respond. For humans, however, the situation becomes more complicated when we consider another basic causal element: culture. The current paper by Richerson, Boyd & Bettinger (2009) offers one way to view this muddied situation by delineating the demographic and evolutionary processes through the notion of time scales:
The idea of time scales is used in the physical environmental sciences to simplify problems with complex interactions between processes. If one process happens on a short time scale and the other one on a long time scale, then one can often assume that the short time scale process is at an equilibrium (or in some more complex state that can be described statistically) with respect to factors governed by the long scale process. If the short time scale and long time scale interact, we can often imagine that at each time step in the evolution of the long time scale process, the short time scale process is at “equilibrium.” A separation of time scales, if justified, makes thinking about many problems of coupled dynamics much easier.
When examining the dispersal of Pleistocene hominins, one of the more fascinating debates concern the patterns of biological and technological evolution in East Asia and other regions of the Old World. One suggestion emerging from palaeoanthropological research places a demarcation between these two regions in the form of a geographical division known as the Movius Line. Specifically, the suggestions that initially led to the Movius Line were based on observations of differing technological patterns, namely: the lack of Acheulean handaxes and the Levallois core traditions in East Asia.
Since Hallam L. Movius’ initial proposal, the recent discovery of handaxes within East Asia have led to suggestions that the Movius Line is in fact obsolete. Suggesting this may not in fact be the case is a recent paper by Stephen Lycett & Christopher Norton, which highlights three central points coming from a growing body of research: 1) “several morphometric analyses have identified statistically significant differences between the attributes of specific biface assemblages from east and west of the Movius Line”; 2) “The number of sites from which handaxes have been recovered in East Asia tend to be geographically sparse compared with many regions west of the Movius Line”; 3) “‘handaxe’ specimens tend only to comprise a small percentage of the total number of artefacts recovered, a situation that contrasts with many classic Acheulean sites in western portions of the Old World, where bifacial handaxes may dominate assemblages in large numbers”.