Evolution of Colour Terms: 9 Niche Construction

In a series of posts, I’ve been discussing constraints on the evolution of colour terms. For the full dissertation and references, go here.

This section reiterates how a link between linguistic categories and perception fits into Niche Construction Theory.  If concepts can influence perception, and people share the same concepts, their perceptions will become synchronised.  This would render them more effective at communication, since referents would be perceived as similar (‘red’ can refer to the same domain of entities for each individual).  Furthermore, it may render them more able to co-operatively build a better model of the actual environment (for instance, describing an unseen danger, or researching physics).  However, this will only be true if language is grounded in constraints that come from the actual environment.  If this were not the case, apart from being inefficient at describing the actual environment, a language may drift to influence the perceived environment in a way that results in a worse fit with the actual environment.

Returning to the constraints diagram (above), note that the influence of categorisation continues, through action, to change the environment.  In other words, if language influences the perceived environment and facilitates communication, then it may also facilitate the way we change the actual environment.  In this sense, language’s influence on perception can be regarded as a form of Niche Construction (Laland, Odling-Smee & Feldman, 2000).  Therefore, not only does language become better at describing the actual environment, but the environment becomes better suited to being described by language.  This creates a better fit between perceived and actual environments and possibly increases the fitness of language users.  Essentially, then, this study presents evidence for language-specific niche construction where language can influence the environment.  This dynamic would be a consequence of an Embodied system, and more efficient as part of an Embodied system than a Symbolist account.  I therefore argue that the Embodied account is supported.

As an example of this dynamic, Hansen et al. (2006) showed that perception is affected by semantic knowledge, specifically that achromatic bananas look yellow.  However, bananas are domesticated (Heslop-Harrison & Schwarzacher, 2007).  The link between a banana’s structure and colour, therefore, is a constructed niche – cultivators fertilise the ‘best’ bananas, which go on to influence the way they perceive bananas, which affects which bananas they fertilise, and so on.  This means that the effect found in Hansen et al. cannot be innate, since the colour and structure of a banana have changed (see below).  Modulating perception with flexible, high-level categories is a way of keeping up with rapidly changing environments.

Differing structures and colours of six species of banana, all ripe. Top left: Musa balbisiana, ancestor of modern cultivated bananas. Top right: Pink Banana (Musa velutina). Bottom, from left to right: Plantains (Musa paradisiacal), red bananas (Musa rutilus), Bananito (Musa acuminate) and Cavendish bananas (Musa cavendishii). Images from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org

Less anecdotally, Griffin’s (2006) model, which classified objects using colour (see section 5.2.2), found that natural colour categories optimally aid the identification of objects.  Furthermore, the model performed equally well for natural and manufactured objects.  That is, manufactured objects have been coloured to be maximally classifiable by colour, according to linguistic colour categorisations.  This would be an intuitive and efficient tactic if, as Embodied Cognition suggests, comprehension is scaffolded onto systems of object recognition (MacWhinney, 1999).  There would be no advantage in doing this in a Symbolist system where perceptions and concepts have arbitrary connections.

Next, why universal patterns are not evidence for innate constraints ->

Laland, K., Odling-Smee, J., & Feldman, M. (2000). Niche construction, biological evolution, and cultural change Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23 (1), 131-146 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X00002417

Hansen, T., Olkkonen, M., Walter, S., & Gegenfurtner, K. (2006). Memory modulates color appearance Nature Neuroscience, 9 (11), 1367-1368 DOI: 10.1038/nn1794

Heslop-Harrison, J., & Schwarzacher, T. (2007). Domestication, Genomics and the Future for Banana Annals of Botany, 100 (5), 1073-1084 DOI: 10.1093/aob/mcm191

Griffin, L. (2004). Optimality of the Basic Colours Categories Journal of Vision, 4 (8), 309-309 DOI: 10.1167/4.8.309

Experiments in cultural transmission and human cultural evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgFor those of you familiar with the formal mathematical models of cultural evolution (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Boyd & Richerson, 1985), you’ll know there is a substantive body of literature behind the process of cultural transmission. It comes as a surprise, then, that experiments in this area are generally lacking.

For instance, if we look at evolutionary biology, then there are many experiments into small-scale microevolutionary processes, such as natural selection, sexual selection, mutation and drift, which are then applied in showing how these processes generate population-level, macroevolutionary patterns. It follows then, that this sort of population-level thinking can be applied to cultural evolution: the forces and biases of cultural transmission can be studied experimentally to see if they fit with population-level patterns of cultural change documented by scientists. As the current paper by Mesoudi & Whiten (2008) notes, this potentially gives cultural transmission experiments added significance: “cultural transmission should not only be studied for its own sake (i.e. in order to better understand cultural transmission itself), but also in order to explain broader cultural patterns and trends, all as part of a unified science of cultural evolution”.

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Cultaptation Conference

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:

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