Tag Archives: development

journal.pone.0025759.g007

Talk to the Virtual Hands

A new paper in PlosOne has used new fancy research methods to look at whether humans are more capable of describing a word using just spoken communication, or whether the use of gesture also helps. This research is pertinent to the field of language evolution because it might help us understand if spoken language co-evolved with gesture as well as helping us understand how language is processed in the brain.

This new study builds on previous research in this area by using avatars in a virtual reality setting. Participants were either in control of the movements of their avatar, or not.

The study found that participants were much more successful in communicating concepts when the speaker was able to use their own gestures when explaining a concept using spoken language. The body language of the listener also impacted success at the task, showing the need for nonverbal feedback from the listener.

It’s worth noting that the primary purpose of this research wasn’t to find if gesture is helpful in communication (though that is certainly interesting and worthwhile) but rather whether using virtual reality is fruitful in these kinds of experiments.

The press release discusses some of the problems with using avatars:

The researchers note that there are limitations to nonverbal communication in virtual reality environments. First, they found that participants move much less in a virtual environment than they do in the “real world.” They also found that the perspective of the camera in the virtual environment affected the results.

Lead author, Dr. Trevor Dodds maintains, “this research demonstrates that virtual reality technology can help us gain a greater understanding of the role of body gestures in communication. We show that body gestures carry extra information when communicating the meaning of words. Additionally, with virtual reality technology we have learned that body gestures from both the speaker and listener contribute to the successful communication of the meaning of words.  These findings are also important for the development of virtual environments, with applications including medical training, urban planning, entertainment and telecommunication.”

The work was led by Dr. Trevor Dodds at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany.

References
 Dodds TJ, Mohler BJ, Bu¨ lthoff HH (2011) Talk to the Virtual Hands: Self-Animated Avatars Improve Communication in Head-Mounted Display Virtual Environments. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25759. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025759

Robustness, Evolvability, Degeneracy and stuff like that…

Much of the work I plan to do for this year involves integrating traditional and contemporary theories of language change within an evolutionary framework. In my previous post I introduced the concept of degeneracy, which, to briefly recap, refers to components that have a structure-to-function ratio of many-to-one, with a single degenerate structure being capable of performing distinct functions under different conditions (pluripotent). Whitcare (2010: 5) provides a case in point for biological systems: here, the adhesin gene family in A. Saccharomyces “ expresses proteins that typically play unique roles during development, yet can perform each other’s functions when expression levels are altered”.

But what about degeneracy in language? For a start, we already know from basic linguistic theory forms (i.e. structures) are paired with meanings (i.e. functions). More recent work has expanded upon this notion, especially in developing the concept of constructions (Goldberg, 2003): “direct form-meaning pairings that range from the very specific (words or idioms) to the more general (passive constructions, ditranstive construction), and from very small units (words with affixes, walked) to clause-level or even discourse-level units” (Beckner et al., 2009: 5). When applied to constructions, degeneracy fits squarely with work identifying language as a Complex Adaptive System (see here) and as a culturally transmitted replicator (see here and here), which offers a link between the generation of first order synchronic variation – in the form of innovation (e.g. newly introduced linguistic material in the form of sounds, words, grammatical constructions etc) – and the selection, propagation and fixation of linguistic variants within a speaker community.

For the following example, I’m going to look at a specific type of discourse-pragmatic feature, or construction, which has undergone renewed interest over the last thirty-years. Known as General Extenders (GEs) – utterance- or clause-final discourse particles, such as and stuff and or something – researchers are realising that, far from being superfluous linguistic baggage, these features “carry social meaning, perform indispensible functions in social interaction, and constitute essential elements of sentence grammar” (Pichler, 2010: 582). Of specific relevance, GEs, and discourse-pragmatic particles more generally, are multifunctional: that is, they are not confined to a single communicative domain, and can even come to serve multiple roles within the same communicative context or utterance.

It is proposed the concept of degeneracy will allow us to explain how multifunctional discourse markers emerge from variation existent at structural components of linguistic organisation, such as the phonological and morphosyntactic components. If anything, I hope the post might serve as some food for thought, as I’m still grappling with the applications of the theory (and whether there’s anything useful to say!).

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Statistics and Symbols in Mimicking the Mind

MIT recently held a symposium on the current status of AI, which apparently has seen precious little progress in recent decades. The discussion, it seems, ground down to a squabble over the prevalence of statistical techniques in AI and a call for a revival of work on the sorts of rule-governed models of symbolic processing that once dominated much of AI and its sibling, computational linguistics.

Briefly, from the early days in the 1950s up through the 1970s both disciplines used models built on carefully hand-crafted symbolic knowledge. The computational linguists built parsers and sentence generators and the AI folks modeled specific domains of knowledge (e.g. diagnosis in elected medical domains, naval ships, toy blocks). Initially these efforts worked like gang-busters. Not that they did much by Star Trek standards, but they actually did something and they did things never before done with computers. That’s exciting, and fun.

In time, alas, the excitement wore off and there was no more fun. Just systems that got too big and failed too often and they still didn’t do a whole heck of a lot.

Then, starting, I believe, in the 1980s, statistical models were developed that, yes, worked like gang-busters. And these models actually did practical tasks, like speech recognition and then machine translation. That was a blow to the symbolic methodology because these programs were “dumb.” They had no knowledge crafted into them, no rules of grammar, no semantics. Just routines the learned while gobbling up terabytes of example data. Thus, as Google’s Peter Norvig points out, machine translation is now dominated by statistical methods. No grammars and parsers carefully hand-crafted by linguists. No linguists needed.

What a bummer. For machine translation is THE prototype problem for computational linguistics. It’s the problem that set the field in motion and has been a constant arena for research and practical development. That’s where much of the handcrafted art was first tried, tested, and, in a measure, proved. For it to now be dominated by statistics . . . bummer.

So that’s where we are. And that’s what the symposium was chewing over.

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Academic Blogging

Natalia Cecire has a good post on academic blogging over at Arcade. Tne ensuing discussion is excellent.

Here’s what I posted to the discussion:

Excellent post, Natalia, and excellent discussion all.

I come at this subject from a different angle. I was trained as an academic, held an academic post, then failed to get tenure. Since then I’ve done this and that, while maintaining an active intellectual life. The advent of the web was a godsend to me, for it opened up new lines communication. Now I could easily find out about things and stuff and contact any scholar with an email address. I was once again in the mix, though a somewhat different mix, to be sure.

It’s within that context that I see my blogging. I do most of my blogging at my own blog, New Savanna, which is a mixture of various things. I could easily break it into 3 or 4 more tightly focused blogs, but why do that? (Perhaps readers would be less confused.) I post photos, personal essays (not so many of those), and material on a wide variety of topics at varying levels of sophistication and intellectual development.

I’m particularly fond of the work I’ve been doing on cartoons, most of which is analytic and descriptive. I regard that as being as important as anything I’m doing, but I don’t see how I could do that work in a formal academic venue. As far as I know, there’s no place to publish largely analytic descriptive work on cartoons. So I blog it. Most recently, a series of four posts on Porky in Wackland and eight on The Greatest Man in Siam. While some of those posts get just a tad heavy here and there, for the most part they’re pretty straightforward and accessible. Anyone who’s interested in that material can read those posts. And there’s a substantial community of folks interested in animation that isn’t being served by academia.

So, I’m a public intellectual without the reputation that seems to be part of the implicit understanding of the term. Continue reading

The Parental Antagonism Theory of Language Evolution

Human Biology are publishing a special issue on “Integrating genetic and Cultural Evolutionary Approaches to Language” this month! Abstracts for all of the papers can be found here.

William Brown‘s paper has been published on his blog ahead of the boat today. The Abstract is below and there is a link to the paper at the bottom.

Language—as with most communication systems—likely evolved by means of natural selection. Accounts for the natural selection of language can usually be divided into two scenarios, either of which used in isolation of the other are insufficient to explain the phenomena: (1) there are group benefits from communicating, and (2) there are individual benefits from being a better communicator. In contrast, this paper argues that language emerged during a coevolutionary struggle between parental genomes via genomic imprinting, which is differential gene expression depending on parental origin of the genetic element. It is hypothesized that relatedness asymmetries differentially selected for patrigene-caused language phenotypes (e.g., signals of need) to extract resources from mother early in child development and matrigene-caused language phenotypes (e.g.,  socially transmitted norms) to influence degree of cooperativeness  among kin later in development. Unlike previous theories for language evolution, parental antagonism theory generates testable predictions at the proximate (e.g., neurocognitive areas important for social transmission and language capacities), ontogenetic (e.g., the function of language at different points of development), ultimate (e.g., inclusive fitness), and phylogenetic levels (e.g., the spread of maternally derived brain components in mammals, particularly in the hominin lineage), thus making human capacities for culture more tractable than previously thought.

Brown, W.M. (2011). The parental antagonism theory of language evolution: Preliminary evidence for the proposal. Human Biology, 83 (2)

Animal Signalling Theory 101: Handicap, Index… or even a signal? The Case of Fluctuating Asymmetry

The differences between handicaps and indices are usually distinguishable in formal mathematical models or in unambiguous real-world cases. Often though, classifying a trait as a handicap, an index, or even a signal at all, can be quite a difficult task.

For the purposes of illustration I will use Fluctuating Asymmetry (FA for short) as an example.  Fluctuating asymmetry is the term used to refer to deviation from symmetry in paired morphological structures (ranging from birds’ tails to human faces) that should be, all being well, bilaterally symmetric. Deviations from the ideal symmetrical phenotype are caused by inherent genetic perturbations and exposure to environmental disturbances occurring in early development.

Is FA a signal?

In their 2005 book Animal Signals, Maynard-Smith and Harper define a signal as:

‘Any act or structure which alters the behaviour of other organisms, which evolved because of that effect, and which is effective because the receiver’s response has also evolved’

They then argue that FA is unlikely to function as a signal because it is difficult to discern whether receivers respond directly to FA and because there appear to be few examples of displays in which signallers actively advertise their symmetry to receivers.

 

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Emergence of linguistic diversity in the lab

There is a huge amount of linguistic diversity in the world. Isolation and drift due to cultural evolution can explain much of this, but there are many cases where linguistic diversity emerges and persists within groups of interacting individuals.  Previous research has identified the use of linguistic cues of identity as an important factor in the development of linguistic diversity (e.g. Nettle, 1999).  Gareth Roberts looks at this issue with an experimental paradigm.

This experiment was a game where individuals had to trade commodities in a series of rounds. At each round, individuals were paired up either with a team-mate or a competitor, though the speaker’s true identity was hidden.  Players were given random resources, but scored points based on how ‘balanced’ their resources were after trading (that is, you were punished for having much more meat than corn, for example).  A commodity given to another individual was worth twice as much to the receiver as to the donor.

Players could only interact through an ‘alien’ language via an instant-messaging system.  Prior to the game, individuals learned an artificial language which they were to use in these interactions. All participants were initially given the same starting language.  There were several conditions that manipulated the frequency with which you interacted with your team-mate and whether the task was competitive or co-operative.  In the co-operative condition, four players were considered as part of the same team and the task was to get a high a score as possible.  In the competitive condition the four players were split into two groups and the task was to score more than the other team.  In this condition, then, the main task was to identify whether your partner was a co-operator or a competitor.

The results showed that, if players interacted frequently enough with their team-mates and were in competition with another group, then linguistic diversity emerged.  Over the course of the game each team developed its own ‘variety’, and this was used as a marker of group identity. For example, in one game two forms of the word for ‘you’ arose.  Players in one team tended to use ‘lale’ while players in the other team tended to use ‘lele’, meaning that players could tell group membership from this variation.  Thus, linguistic variation arose due to the linguistic system evolving to encode the identity of the speakers.

The diversity seemed to arise both from drift and intentional change, both of which have been documented in the sociolinguistic literature.  Roberts suggests that linguistic markers make good social markers because they are costly to obtain (so difficult for free-riders to fake), salient and flexible enough to cope with changing group dynamics.  In the next post, I’ll be thinking about a similar experiment looking at how linguistic variation might arise in a co-operative scenario.

Roberts, G. (2010). An experimental study of social selection and frequency of interaction in linguistic diversity Interaction Studies, 11 (1), 138-159 DOI: 10.1075/is.11.1.06rob

Evolving Linguistic Replicators: Major Transitions and Grammaticalisation

ResearchBlogging.orgJust before Christmas I found myself in the pub speaking to Sean about his work on bilingualism, major transitions and the contrast between language change and the cultural evolution of language. Now, other than revealing that our social time is spent discussing our university work, the conversation brought up a distinction not often made: whilst language change is part of language evolution, the latter is also what we consider to be a major transition. As you evolutionary biologists will know, this concept is perhaps best examined and almost certainly popularised in Maynard Smith & Szathmáry’s (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution. Here, the authors are not promoting the fallacy of guided evolution, where the inevitable consequence is increased and universal complexity. Their thesis is more subtle: that some lineages become more complex over time, with this increase being attributable to the way in which genetic information is transmitted between generations. In particular, they note eight transitions in the evolution of life:

What’s notable about these transitions, and why they aren’t necessarily an arbitrary list, is that all of them share some broad commonalities, namely:

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Imitation and Social Cognition in Humans and Chimpanzees (I): Imitation, Overimitation, and Conformity

ResearchBlogging.org

Imitation is often seen as one of the crucial foundations of culture because it is the basis of  social learning and social transmission. Only by imitating others and learning from them did human culture become cumulative, allowing humans to build and improve on the knowledge of previous generations. Thus, it may be one of the key cognitive specializations that sparked the success of the human evolutionary story:

Much of the success of our species rests on our ability to learn from others’ actions. From the simplest preverbal communication to the most complex adult expertise, a remarkable proportion of our abilities are learned by imitating those around us. Imitation is a critical part of what makes us cognitively human and generally constitutes a significant advantage over our primate relatives (Lyons et al. 2007: 19751).

Indeed, there have been some interesting experiments suggesting that the human capacity -and, above all, motivation – for imitation is an important characteristic that separates us from the other great apes.

In a series of intriguing experiments by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Derek Lyons and his colleagues from Yale University,  young wild-born chimpanzees and Children aged 3 to 4 were shown how to get a little toy turtle/ a reward out of a puzzle box. In the first condition of the experiment the puzzle box was transparent, whereas in the second condition the puzzle box was opaque.

And here’s the catch: both chimpanzees and children were not shown the ‘right’ or ‘simple’  solution to how to get the reward but one that was actually more complicated and involved unnecessary steps.

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Michael Tomasello – Why We Cooperate

cross-posted at Shared Symbolic Storage

In this post I will offer a short overview of some aspects of Michael

Tomasello’s latest book „Why We Cooperate,” which is based on his 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

Tomasello deals with the question how cooperative behaviour and its socio-cognitive foundations arise both in development and during the evolution of the human species. His short text is accompanied by four short commentaries by leading scholars who contributed in important ways to the theory of the evolution and ontogenetic development Tomasello espouses here. These are: psychologist Carol S. Dweck, anthropologist Joan B. Silk, philosopher Brian Skyrms and developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke.

In this post I only want to briefly summarize some of the key tenets of Tomasello’s book to offer an introduction to his work on cooperation, whose main impetus it is to have a closer look at the relatively simple and primal cooperative and interactive social behaviour that builds the foundation of human culture.

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