Cultural Evolution and the Impending Singularity: The Movie

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Here’s a video of a talk I gave at the Santa Fe Institute‘s Complex Systems Summer School (written with roboticist Andrew Tinka-check out him talking about his fleet of floating robots).  The talk was a response to the “Evolution Challenge”:

  1. Has Biological Evolution come to an end?
  2. Is belief an emergent property?
  3. Will advanced computers use H. Sapiens as batteries?

I also blogged about a part of this talk here (why a mad scientist’s attempt at creating A.I. to make new scientific discoveries was doomed).

The talk was given a prise for best talk by the judging panel which included David Krakauer, Tom Carter and best-selling author Cormac McCarthy.  At several points in the talk, I completely forget what I was supposed to say because the people filming the event asked me to set my screen up in a way so I couldn’t see my notes.

Sperl, M., Chang, A., Weber, N., & Hübler, A. (1999). Hebbian learning in the agglomeration of conducting particles Physical Review E, 59 (3), 3165-3168 DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevE.59.3165

Chater N, & Christiansen MH (2010). Language acquisition meets language evolution. Cognitive science, 34 (7), 1131-57 PMID: 21564247

Ay N, Flack J, & Krakauer DC (2007). Robustness and complexity co-constructed in multimodal signalling networks. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 362 (1479), 441-7 PMID: 17255020

Ackley, D.H., and Cannon, D.C.. “Pursue Robust Indefinite Scalability”. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth Workshop on Hot Topics in Operating Systems (HOTOS-XIII) (2011, May). Abstract, PDF.

Guttal V, & Couzin ID (2010). Social interactions, information use, and the evolution of collective migration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (37), 16172-7 PMID: 20713700

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

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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Evolution of Colour Terms: 10 Universal Patterns are not Evidence for Innate Constraints

In a series of posts, I’ve been discussing constraints on the evolution of colour terms. Here, I discuss the role of drift and also argue that universal patterns are not necessarily good evidence for innate constraints. For the full dissertation and references, go here.


An important point which has not been highlighted in the literature is the drift introduced by cultural transmission.  Perceptual systems are noisy, and change over lifetimes.  Therefore, systems of categorising these perceptions may drift over time.  However, if concepts are shared, this drift is influenced by more than one system.  This may cause a different kind of drift from a stand-alone system for self-thought.  Communication has an additional semantic bottleneck which self-though does not have.  Using language for self thought, if you don’t know a label, you can make one up.

However, for communication, this won’t work.  For example, in models of cultural transmission (e.g., Steels & Belpaeme, 2005) agents do create new labels but, importantly, accept the speaker’s label when available.  That is, communicative systems are more flexible than systems for self-thought (communicators must be more willing to change their minds), and so are more subject to drift.  The drift allows the system to move around the possible space of coding efficiency and object categorisation efficiency.  Peaks in these landscapes will attract the drift, hence environmental and perceptual constraints being projected into language.

Although systems of colour categorisation for self-thought may be more efficient if they were constrained by the environment, shared cultural systems are more likely to reflect constraints in the environment because they are more flexible.  That is, perceptual constraints have projected themselves into language because of a communicative pressure, rather than a perceptual or environmental pressure.

I suggest that this drift, together with an ability for categories to warp perceptual spaces, would mean that individuals converge on a shared perceptual system.  If comprehension involves the activation of perceptual representations, then communication involves individuals reaching similar perceptual representations or, in a perfect world, activation of the same neural substrates.  Therefore, a population with a shared perceptual system would be able to communicate much more effectively.  In this sense, Embodied systems improve communicative success, whereas the same effect is not necessarily true of Symbolist systems. Furthermore, this drift means that populations can still converge on similar solutions, without having to assume that Universal biases are the main driving force.  It has been argued that the similarities in colour categorisation between cultures contradicts Relativism, which would predict a large variation in colour categorisation between cultures (e.g., Belpaeme & Bleys, 2005).  I argue that this inference is not necessarily valid.


This series of posts has shown that a wide range of factors constrain the categorisation of colour, including the physiology of perception, the environment and cultural transmission.  Why is there evidence for Colour Terms being adapted to so many domains?

This study considered the idea that categorisation acquired by individuals can feed back into perception and itself become a constraint both on the development of categorisation, the environment and genetic inheritance.  In this sense, the feedback from categorisation allows Niche Construction dynamics to apply to linguistic categorisations.  It was argued that this dynamic fits with the Cultural implication of an Embodied account of language comprehension.  That is, this study has concluded, similarly to Kirby et al. (2007), that universal patterns across populations do not necessarily imply strong innate biases.  This was done by arguing that Cultural, Embodied systems tend to drift towards better representations of the real world, which involves better coherence with perceptual and environmental constraints, creating cross-cultural patterns.  Furthermore, an Embodied approach to cultural dynamics incorporating a mechanism for perceptual warping predicts that the perceptual spaces of individuals can be synchronised through language to achieve better communication.

Steels, L., & Belpaeme, T. (2005). Coordinating perceptually grounded categories through language: A case study for colour Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28 (04) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X05000087

Belpaeme, T. (2005). Explaining Universal Color Categories Through a Constrained Acquisition Process Adaptive Behavior, 13 (4), 293-310 DOI: 10.1177/105971230501300404

Kirby, S., Dowman, M., & Griffiths, T. (2007). Innateness and culture in the evolution of language Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (12), 5241-5245 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0608222104

Evolution of Colour Terms: 6 Categorisation Constraints

Continuing my series on the Evolution of Colour terms, this post reviews evidence for categorisation constraints on colour perception. For the full dissertation and for references, go here.

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Evolution of Colour Terms: 5 Cultural Constraints

Continuing my series on the Evolution of Colour terms, this post reviews studies of cultural constraints on colour naming. For the full dissertation and for references, go here.

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Evolution of Colour Terms: 3 Perceptual Constraints

Continuing my series on the Evolution of Colour terms, this post reviews evidence for perceptual constraints on colour terms. For the full dissertation and for references, go here.

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Experiments in communication pt 2: Human Iterated Learning

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the last post, I discussed some of the literature into experimental communication, with the intention of then following it up by looking at recent experiments done at Edinburgh (and beyond). But as Hannah pipped me to the post, with a great overview of the wide range of experiments into language evolution, I’ll instead limit this to two relatively recent papers on Human Iterated Learning (Kirby et al., 2008; Cornish et al., 2009)

Drawing from experimental approaches found in Diffusion Chain and Artificial Language Learning studies, Kirby et al (2008) show that as a consequence of intergenerational transmission languages “culturally evolve in such a way as to maximize their own transmissibility: over time, the languages in our experiments become easier to learn and increasingly structured.” In these experiments a subject is exposed to an alien language, made up of two elements within a finite space: meanings (consisting of a picture with three discernible elements: colour, shape and movement) paired with signals (consisting of a string of letters). Importantly, the subject is only exposed to a set amount of meanings (SEEN items), after which they are then presented with a group of meanings (some SEEN, some UNSEEN) without the corresponding signal — the goal being that they provide a response (be it the correct version or not). On completion of forming the meaning-signal pairs the experiment is repeated, except this time the new subjects are trained on the data provided by the previous generation. This continues until the experiment is finished, which in this case happened at generation ten.

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Evolution of Colour Terms: Part 1

In a series of posts, I’ll review the current state of the field of the Evolution of Colour Categories.  It has been argued that universals in colour naming across cultures can be traced back to constraints from many domains including genetic, perceptual and environmental.    I’ll review these arguments and show that if our perception is affected by our language, then many conflicts can be resolved.  Furthermore, it undermines the Universalist assumption that universal patterns in colour terms are evidence for innate constraints.

Part 1: Domains of Constraint

Genetic Constraints

Environmental Constraints

Perceptual Constraints

Learning Constraints

Cultural Constraints

Categorisation Constraints

Part 2: Universal patterns are not evidence for innate constraints

Perceptual Warping

Embodied Relationships

Niche Construction

Universal Patterns are not Evidence for Innate Constraints

For the full dissertation and for references, go here.

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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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Experiments in Communication pt 1: Artificial Language Learning and Constructed Communication Systems

ResearchBlogging.orgMuch of recent research in linguistics has involved the use of experimentation to directly test hypotheses by comparing and contrasting real-world data with that of laboratory results and computer simulations. In a previous post I looked at how humans, non-human primates, and even non-human animals are all capable of high-fidelity cultural transmission. Yet, to apply this framework to human language, another set of experimental literature needs to be considered, namely: artificial language learning and constructed communication systems.

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