In an effort to update this blog regularly, I’ve decided to take the lazy route and post up a list of abstracts. This will only happen once a week, but it’s a useful resource (for me at least), and will usually be an indicator of what articles I’m going to write about in the near future.
Here is a far-reaching and crucially relevant question for those of us seeking to understand the evolution of culture: Is there any relationship between population size and tool kit diversity or complexity? This question is important because, if met with an affirmative answer, then the emergence of modern human culture may be explained by changes in population size, rather than a species-wide cognitive explosion. Some attempts at an answer have led to models which make certain predictions about what we expect to see when populations vary. For instance, Shennan (2001) argues that in smaller populations, the number of people adopting a particular cultural variant is more likely to be affected by sampling variation. So in larger populations, learners potentially have access to a greater number of experts, which means adaptive variants are less likely to be lost by chance (Henrich, 2004).
Models aside, and existing empirical evidence is limited with the results being mixed. I previously mentioned the gradual loss of complexity in Tasmanian tool kits after the population was isolated from mainland Australia. Elsewhere, Golden (2006) highlighted the case of isolated Polar Inuit, who lost kayaks, the bow and arrow and other technologies when their knowledgeable experts were wiped out during a plague.Yet two systematic studies (Collard et al., 2005; Read, 2008) of the Inuit case found no evidence for population size being a predictor of technological complexity.
This week we all get to learn a new word, the potential origins of the written word and killing at a distance. Enjoy!
- Archaeogenetics — yet another call for multi-discipline research? Yes, and the latest issue of Current Biology has a load of free (yes, free) papers on archaeogenetics. I haven’t had chance to read all of them, but it’s certainly worth checking out these two: Archaeogenetics — towards a ‘New Synthesis’? and The Genetics of Human Adaptation: Hard Sweeps, Soft Sweeps, and Polygenic Adaptation.
- 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.
- If you’re looking for good news regarding the economy, then don’t go over to Washington’s Blog. He has a short post on Alan Greenspan’s assertion that we’re in the worst financial crisis ever.
- I’ve been reading a lot of articles over at the brilliant blog, Emergent Fool. Of particular interest are posts relating to my recent article on cumulative culture and coordinated behaviour: Rafe Furst discusses three types of cooperation, cultural agency and complex systems concept summary. Meanwhile, Plektix writes about how human cultural transformation was triggered by dense populations.
- Emergent Fool also led me to an in-depth essay by Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam on emergence and complexity: complexity rising: from human beings to human civilization, a complexity profile.
- 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.”
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, Minifeed and 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).
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.
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 :-/
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?”
As part of my assessment this term I’m to write four mock peer-reviewed items for a module called Current Issues in Language Evolution. It’s a great module run by Simon Kirby, examining some of the best food for thought in the field. Alone this is an interesting endeavour, after all we’re right in the middle of a language evolution renaissance, however, even cooler are the lectures, where students get to do their own presentations on a particular paper. I already did my presentation at the start of this term, on Dediu and Ladd’s paper, which went rather well, even if one of my slip ups did not go unnoticed (hint: always label the graphs). So, over the next few weeks, in amongst additional posts covering some of the presentations in class, I’ll hopefully be writing articles on these four five papers: