Tag Archives: Neuroanthropology

Some Links #17: The Return of Whorf

The famous Klingon linguist, Whorf, has returned with his theories on linguistic relativity (I know, terrible joke).

The Largest Whorfian Study Ever. The Lousy Linguist looks at the paper Ways to go: Methodological considerations in Whorfian studies on motion events. As you can probably guess, the paper deals with the methodological issues surrounding linguistic relativity. It’s all interesting stuff, bringing to light important questions about how the brain handles language. I’m fairly lay when it comes to this topic, so for more background on the current events, see similar posts over at Language Log: Never Mind the Conclusions, What’s the Evidence? and SLA Blog: Linguistic Relativity, Whorf, Linguistic Relativity.

But Science Doesn’t Work That Way: Miller & Chomsky (1963). Many of you who read this blog will be familiar with the position taken by Melody’s post over at Child’s Play: against a strong nativist position in language acquisition. It’s the first part in a series of posts so I’ll reserve judgement on her conclusions until she’s finished. But much of her post is drawn from a brilliant paper by Scholz and Pullum (2005): Irrational Nativist Exuberance. Key paragraph:

Do we really want to say that phonemes are ‘innate’?

I haven’t yet addressed how we know — with all but certainty — that the model Miller and Chomsky used had to be a poor approximation of human learning capabilities.  It has to do with phonemes.

Experiments have shown that people are remarkably sensitive to the transitional probabilities between phonemes in their native languages, both when speaking and when listening to speech.  If Miller and Chomsky’s assessment of probabilistic learning is correct, then the problem of “parameter estimation” should apply not only to learning the probabilities between words, but also to learning the probabilities between phonemes.  Given that people do learn to predict phonemes, Miller and Chomsky’s logic would force us to conclude that not only must ‘grammar’ be innate, but the particular distribution of phonemes in English (and every other language) must be innate as well.

We only get to this absurdist conclusion because Miller & Chomsky’s argument mistakes philosophical logic for science (which is, of course, exactly what intelligent design does).  So what’s the difference between philosophical logic and science? Here’s the answer, in Einstein’s words, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

PLoS Blogs. Yet another blogging network. This time it’s with the Public Library of Science. The most notable move, for me at least, is Neuroanthropology. That move hasn’t seemed to impact upon their ability to produce good articles, the latest of which being in regards to Uner Tan Syndrome (I’m sure there was a documentary about this on BBC…).

Hap Map 3: more people ~ more genetic variation. Razib has a cool read on the new HapMap dataset. The current paper (Integrating common and rare genetic variation in diverse human populations) looked for variants across the genome in 11 populations, consisting of 1184 samples. It’s been especially useful with less common variants. As with previous versions, you can also explore the data. Here’s the conclusion from the paper:

With improvements in sequencing technology, low-frequency variation is becoming increasingly accessible. This greater resolution will no doubt expand our ability to identify genes and variants associated with disease and other human traits. This study integrates CNPs and lower-frequency SNPs with common SNPs in a more diverse set of human populations than was previously available. The results underscore the need to characterize population-genetic parameters in each population, and for each stratum of allele frequency, as it is not possible to extrapolate from past experience with common alleles. As expected, lower-frequency variation is less shared across populations, even closely related ones, highlighting the importance of sampling widely to achieve a comprehensive understanding of human variation.

Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers. Someone gave this in to the charity store I work at: it’s a brilliant book by Jan Gullberg on (surprise, surprise) the history of mathematics. The first chapter was on mathematics and language, so I had to pick it up, and not just for that chapter alone, as there are plenty of gaps in my mathematical knowledge I’m sure this will clear up.

Cultural Diversity, Economic Development and Societal Instability

ResearchBlogging.orgMost of you in the science blogosphere have probably come across Razib’s recent post on linguistic diversity and poverty. The basic argument being that linguistic homogeneity is good for economic development and general prosperity. I was quite happy to let the debate unfold and limit my stance on the subject to the following few sentences I posted previously:

From the perspective of a linguist, however, I do like the idea of really obscure linguistic communities, ready and waiting to be discovered and documented. On the flip side, it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society. Our goal, then, should probably be more focused on documenting, as opposed to saving, these languages.

Since then, the debate has become a lot more heated, with Neuroanthropology wading in against Razib, which, in the second-half of the post at least, is worth reading just to get the general flavour of the other side in this debate. Having said that, I wasn’t convinced by the evidence Greg Downey used to dismiss Razib’s hypothesis, so I decided to actually look at the literature on the subject. The first paper I found upon searching was one by Nettle et al, in which they examine the relationship between cultural diversity and societal instability using a large cross-national data set of 212 nations. Importantly, they look at cultural diversity in the context of three areas: linguistically, ethnically and religious affiliation. Also, they draw a distinction between within-nation (alpha) diversity and between-nation (beta) diversity. Lastly, unlike other studies on the subject, where simple regression or correlation methods are used, the current study employs structural equation modelling (SEM):

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Some Links #11: Linguistic Diversity or Homogeneity?

Linguistic Diversity = Poverty. Razib Khan basically argues, correctly in my opinion, that linguistic homogeneity is good for economic development and general prosperity. From the perspective of a linguist, however, I do like the idea of really obscure linguistic communities, ready and waiting to be discovered and documented. On the flip side, it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society. Our goal, then, should probably be more focused on documenting, as opposed to saving, these languages. Razib has recently posted another, quite lengthy post on the topic: Knowledge is not value-free.

When did we first ‘Rock the Mic’? A meeting of my two favourite interests over at the New York Times: Linguistics and Hip Hop. Ben Zimmer writes:

In “Rapper’s Delight,” the M.C. Big Bank Hank raps, “I’m gonna rock the mic till you can’t resist,” using what was then a novel sense of rock, defined by the O.E.D. as “to handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance.” To be sure, singers in the prerap era often used rock as a transitive verb, whether it was Bill Haley promising, “We’re gonna rock this joint tonight,” or the bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup more suggestively wailing, “Rock me, mama.” But the M.C.’s of early hip-hop took the verb in a new direction, transforming the microphone (abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike) into an emblem of stylish display. Later elaborations on the theme would allow clothes and other accessories to serve as the objects of rock, as when Kanye West boasted in a 2008 issue of Spin magazine, “I rock a bespoke suit and I go to Harold’s for fried chicken.”

It’d be nice to see more stuff on linguistics and hip hop, and, having said that, I might write a bit on the subject. In fact, I would go as far as to say that hip hop is part of reason why I fell into linguistics: the eloquent word play encouraged, and perhaps moulded, my fascination with language. To demonstrate why, here’s a track by Maryland rapper, Edan, who certainly knows how to rock the mic:

Edan — One Man Arsenal

Life without language. Neuroanthropology provides yet another great read. This time it’s on the topic of life without language — something that’s always crept into my thoughts, yet seems impossible to imagine (as I’m already so embedded within a language-using society). The post goes on to discuss Susan Schaller and the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who did not learn sign language:

The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figure things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.

One problem for Schaller’s efforts was that Ildefonso’s survival strategy, imitation, actually got in the way of him learning how to sign because it short-circuited the possibility of conversation. As she puts, Ildefonso acted as if he had a kind of visual echolalia (we sometimes call it ‘echopraxia’), simply copying the actions he saw

One Man’s Take on the Facts of the Matter. Babel’s Dawn takes a look at Tecumseh Fitch’s book, The Evolution of Language, and concisely explains a clear departure between two camps in evolutionary linguistics:

One clear difference between the scenarios is in the role of the individual in relation to language. Language is somehow built into the brain in Chomsky’s thought-first scenario, while it is learned from others in the topics-first approach. Empiricists, like Morten Christiansen and Nicholas Chater, see language as ‘out there’ to be learned while nativists, like Fitch and Chomsky, say there is an internal, I-language, and the language out there is merely the sum of all those little I-languages. How to settle the dispute? Look for factual evidence.

Some links #8: Are you WEIRD?

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough? Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology gives his take on Henrich et al.’s paper The weirdest people in the world? which looks at acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and how we may be extrapolating too much from this particularly narrow data set. Yet, despite this, we continue to use WEIRD individuals in psychological experiments, even though it may not be representative of, say, the large body of Africans. I mean, come on, you wouldn’t take genetic data from Western Europe and then make sweeping generalisations about populations in Western Africa…

The Human Penis Bone. From WEIRD to just weird. Scicurious reviews a very old journal article from 1913, which tells of a guy who actually grew a penis bone. Now, many mammals do have penis bones, but human males generally lack this ossified aid. However, if you’re curious about how to get one, then all you have to do is simply wear a particular type of corset (see below) and, here’s a downside for those of you planning on ditching the Viagra, get syphilis. As Scicurious explains:

The syphilis, combined with the constant irritation of the corset, had apparently caused a build up of desposits, which eventually ossified and turned in to bone. REAL BONE, with marrow and holes in it and everything! [...] So the moral of this story is: if you’re a guy, and you’re vain about your appearance, get a flat front corset. You don’t want to be sitting down in something pointy.

Wild cat found mimicking monkey calls. Some clever vocal mimicry from a margay. ScienceDaily reports:

Researchers first recorded the incident in 2005 when a group of eight pied tamarins were feeding in a ficus tree. They then observed a margay emitting calls similar to those made by tamarin babies. This attracted the attention of a tamarin “sentinel,” which climbed down from the tree to investigate the sounds coming from a tangle of vines called lianas. While the sentinel monkey started vocalizing to warn the rest of the group of the strange calls, the monkeys were clearly confounded by these familiar vocalizations, choosing to investigate rather than flee. Four other tamarins climbed down to assess the nature of the calls. At that moment, a margay emerged from the foliage walking down the trunk of a tree in a squirrel-like fashion, jumping down and then moving towards the monkeys. Realizing the ruse, the sentinel screamed an alarm and sent the other tamarins fleeing.

Nongenetic selection and evolution: flies use bacteria to adapt to parasitic worms. Jerry Coyne has a fascinating post about nongenetic evolution occurring in a mushroom-eating fruit fly Drosophila neotestacea. But how is it nongenetic? Well, as Jerry explains:

A new paper by John Jaenike and his colleagues in Science, however, shows a form of biological evolution by natural selection that isn’t based on changes in genes. It’s based on changes in the presence of symbiotic bacteria that protect a species from parasites [...] Some flies also carry another organism: the bacterial symbiont Spiroplasma, which is found in many insects.  In D. neotestacea, however, the presence of Spiroplasma protects the fly from the sterilizing effects of nematodes.  While flies with worms and no Spiroplasma are virtually sterile, the presence of the bacteria confers almost normal fertility on worm-ridden flies.  It’s not yet clear how this works, but worms in flies with Spiroplasma are much smaller than those without the bacteria. Presumably the bacteria does something to the worms (or to the flies) that makes the worms grow much more slowly.