Stephen Fry’s Planet Word

Stephen Fry has embarked on a series of documentaries about language, beginning with the evolution of language which he calls ‘the final frontier’ of human understanding.  The typical documentary hype is all here:  Stephen Pinker sits in a gigantic fish tank with bits of taxidermied brain lying around like sandwiches; Michael Tomasello appears to live in a tropical primate enclose; Fry conducts his studies from a medieval study complete with quills, a CGI tree of languages and a talking parrot.

Despite this, it was actually a coherent and comprehensive review of topics in the field: Language versus communication in animals, phisological constraints of language, creativity and the desire to share information, the pragmatic origins of language, FoxP2 and the poverty of the stimulus. Bilingualism is even added to this cannon of interesting ways to approach the origins of language, somewhat tempered by Fry’s question “wouldn’t it be better if everybody spoke Esperanto?”.

Mercifully, Fry seems to be actually interested rather than trying to build up the conspiracy plot format endemic in other science documentaries.  There are some odd diversions to a Klingon version of Hamlet, a trip to a German Christmas market and a slightly awkward re-enactment of a feral child case, but all in all the message is not objectionable: There is a graded difference between non-human and human communication, it’s partly genetic and partly cultural and languages continually change under pressures to be learned and to express new ideas.  There are also welcome additions of the original Wug test and, of course, Fry & Laurie’s seminal sketch about language.

Overall, I’d say it was the second best documentary the BBC have made about the origins of language.

Here’s a clip:


Also a clip of Fry talking about the series:

Academic Networking

Who are the movers and shakers in your field?  You can use social network theory on your bibliographies to find out:

Today I learned about some studies looking at social networks constructed from bibliographic data (from Mark Newman, see Newman 2001 or Said et al. 2008) .  Nodes on a graph represent authors and edges are added if those authors have co-authored a paper.

I scripted a little tool to construct such a graph from bibtex files – the bibliographic data files used with latex.  The Language Evolution and Computation Bibliography – a list of the most relevant papers in the field – is available in bibtex format.

You can look at the program using the online Academic Networking application that I scripted today, or upload your own bibtex file to find out who the movers and shakers are in your field.  Soon, I hope to add an automatic graph-visualisation, too.

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Imitation and Social Cognition in Humans and Chimpanzees (II): Rational Imitation in Human Infants and Human-Raised Chimps

In my last post I wrote about two experiments on imitation in young children and chimpanzees by Lyons et al. (2005) and Horner & Whiten (2005).  Their results suggested that young children tend to copy both the ‘necessary’ and the ‘unnecessary’ parts of a demonstrator’s action who shows them how to get a reward out of a puzzle box, whereas chimps only copy the ones necessary to get the reward.

ResearchBlogging.orgOne important question raised by these experiments was whether these results can only be applied to wild chimpanzees or whether they also hold for enculturated, human-raised chimps. This is an important question because it is possible that chimpanzees raised in these kinds of richly interactive contexts show more sensitivity to human intentionality.

Buttelman et al. (2007) tested just that. They used the “rational imitation” paradigm, which features two conditions

a) the subjects are shown an action in which the specific manner of the action is not purposive and intentional but results from the demonstrator being occupied with something else. For example, he may be carrying something so that he has to use his foot to turn on a light (often called the Hands Occupied Condition).

b) the subjects are shown an action in which the demonstrator chooses a specific manner of doing something on purpose. For example he may have his hands free but still choosto turn on the light with his foot (Hands Free Condition).

taken from Call & Tomasello 2008

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Marc Hauser investigated for scientific misconduct

The Boston Globe reported today that Marc Hauser is on leave due to scientific misconduct . The Great Beyond summarises the article as follows:

The trouble centers on a 2002 paper published in the journal Cognition (subscription required). Hauser was the first author on the paper, which found that cotton-top tamarins are able to learn patterns – previously thought to be an important step in language acquisition. The paper has been retracted, for reasons which are reportedly unclear even to the journal’s editor, Gerry Altmann.

Two other papers, a 2007 article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B and a 2007 Science paper, were also flagged for investigation. A correction has been published on the first, and Science is now looking into concerns about the second. And the Globe article highlights other controversies, including a 2001 paper in the American Journal of Primatology, which has not been retracted although Hauser himself later said he was unable to replicate the results. Findings in a 1995 PNAS paper were also questioned by an outside researcher, Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany, who reviewed the original data and said he found “not a thread of compelling evidence” to support the paper’s conclusions.

Hauser has taken a year-long leave from the university.

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What Makes Humans Unique ?(III): Self-Domestication, Social Cognition, and Physical Cognition

ResearchBlogging.orgIn my last post I summed up some proposals for what (among other things) makes human cognition unique. But one thing that we should bear in mind, I think, is that our cognitive style may more be something of an idiosyncrasy due to a highly specific cognitive specialization instead of a definitive quantitative and qualitative advance over other styles of animal cognition. In this post I will look at studies which further point in that direction.

Chimpanzees, for example, beat humans at certain memory tasks  (Inoue & Matsuzawa 2007) and behave more rational in reward situations (Jensen et al. 2007).

In addition, it has been shown that in tasks in the social domain, which are generally assumed to be cognitively complex, domesticated animals such as dogs and goats (Kaminski et al. 2005) fare similarly well or even outperform chimpanzees.

Social Cognition and Self-Domestication

It is entirely possible that the first signs of human uniqueness where at first simply side-effects our self-domesticating lifestyle – the same way the evolution of social intelligence in dogs and goats is hypothesised to have come about –, acting on a complex primate brain (Hare & Tomasello 2005).

This line of reasoning is also supported by domesticated silver foxes which have been bred for tameness over a time period of 50 years but developed other interesting characteristics as a by-product: To quote from an excellent post on the topic over at a Blog Around the Clock (see also here):

“They started having splotched and piebald coloration of  their coats, floppy ears, white tips of their tails and paws. Their body proportions changed. They started barking. They improved on their performance in cognitive experiments. They started breeding earlier in spring, and many of them started breeding twice a year.”

What seems most interesting to me, however, is another by-product of their experimental domestication: they also improved in the domain of social cognition. For example, like dogs, they are able to understand human communicative gestures like pointing. This is all the more striking because, as mentioned above, chimpanzees do not understand human communicative gestures like  helpful  pointing. Neither do wolves or non-domesticated silver foxes (Hare et al. 2005).

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Some Links #4

Back to the future on syntax and Broca’s area. Talking Brains provide a concise and humorous post about why Broca’s area is not the seat of syntax, be it domain-specific or domain-general. I tend to think that areas important for syntactic processing are probably distributed throughout the left perisylvian region. Hence why Broca’s aphasiacs are quite capable of making grammatical judgements. Then again, another reason why damage to Broca’s area doesn’t, to quote Hickok, “obliterate the ability to make such judgements”, is because the processing shifts to another region (sort of an ancillary system). This is very possible in the advent of neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is a dirty word. Having mentioned neuroplasticity, I now feel obligated to mention this brilliant post over at Mind Hacks. It provides a sort of 101 approach to neuroplasticity, which, after all, simply means something in the brain has changed. Still, as one poster from pointed out: “However, at its most abstract, the concept of neuroplasticity is often arrayed against that other commonplace abstract notion, that the brain is genetically ‘hard-wired’ in some way”.

Dialect Geography and Social Networks. Mark Lieberman over at Language Log discusses geographical patterns of linguistic variation and recent analyses of facebook networks in the US. Put succinctly: they don’t line up very well. He also asks some interesting questions about the role facebook might play as a proxy for communication patterns.

How best to learn R. R is an invaluable statistical package. If, like me, you find yourself being dropped in at the deep end, then things can seem slightly confusing in an environment that is far less user friendly than, say, SPSS. All the important stuff is in the comments section of the post, but you should take some time out to have a general poke around Statistical Modelling, Causal Inference and Social Science.

Are Scottish People Living Dangerously? The short answer: Yes. Barking Up The Wrong Tree links to a study claiming that “Almost the entire adult population of Scotland (97.5%) are likely to be either cigarette smokers, heavy drinkers, physically inactive, overweight or have a poor diet.”

The Sun Gone Crazy? Apparently, for the past two years there’s been a prolonged absence in sunspots. But as Adam Frank mentions, “The magnetic activity of stars like sun, which is the root cause of the sunspot cycle, is still poorly understood even after decades of intense study.  It’s more than an academic concern”.

Three Questions for Michael Tomasello. A cool little interview with the chimpanzee, linguistic and cooperation guru, Michael Tomasello, over at cognition and culture.

Some links #1

Having now returned, I feel a long list of links is needed to kick start things:

Right, that’s all I’ve got time for at the moment. Laptop battery is dying and my bladder is urging me towards the toilet.