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
Part 2: Universal patterns are not evidence for innate constraints
For the full dissertation and for references, go here.
Ok, so my previous experiment was an incredible failure. The program crashed in sixteen different ways, including suddenly deciding not to respond to key presses for no apparent reason. A rather lazy Ghost in The Shell. Although about 8 people participated, the data was unusable. What on earth was I trying to achieve?
The experiment was a typical human Iterated Learning experiment (e.g. Kirby, Cornish, Smith, 2008) – there were a set of meanings (Tetris blocks) which varied along two dimensions (shape and colour). Participants were shown the words for half of the meanings, but then asked to recall words for each meanings. These responses were then given to the next participant as input. Over time, other such experiments result in meanings which are compositional and more learnable. However, the meaning space tends to ‘collapse’ as the same label is applied to many meanings.
I was trying to do an iterated learning experiment which teased apart the difference between labelling a form and labelling a function. If participants label the function of an object, the environment will play a greater role in the evolution of the language.
There were two chains – one played Tetris where you have to complete lines to score points – colours are irrelevant. The other chain played “Coltris” where you scored points by placing more than 4 blocks of the same colour next to each other. Also, each individual block in a brick finds its own lowest point (i.e. the brick breaks apart), meaning that shape is much less important. That is, for Tetris, the functionally salient feature was shape while for Coltris it was colour.
What I was hoping was that, for the Tetris players, the signal space would ‘collapse’ in the colour dimension. That is, labels would distinguish bricks by shape, but not colour. For the Coltris, the opposite should have happened – labels would have distinguished bricks by colour but not shape.
Gary Lupyan has shown that naming categories of objects can affect your perception of those objects (Lupyan, G. (2008). The Conceptual Grouping Effect: Categories Matter (and named categories matter more). Cognition, 108, 566-577.). My experiment looks into where those distinct category names came from in the first place. Having said this, the experiment would have been more neat than illuminating.
Speaking in Tones: Music and Language Partner in the brain. The first of two really good articles in Scientific American. As you can guess by the title, this article is looking at current research into the links between music and language, such as the overlap in brain circuitry, how prosodic qualities of speech are vital in language development, and the way in which a person hears a set of musical notes may be affected by their native language. Sadly, the article is behind a paywall, so unless you have a subscription you’ll only get to read the first few paragraphs, plus the one I’m about to quote:
In a 2007 investigation neuroscientists Patrick Wong and Nina Kraus, along with their colleagues at Northwestern University, exposed English speakers to Mandarin speech sounds and measured the electrical responses in the auditory brain stem using electrodes placed on the scalp. The responses to Mandarin were stronger among participants who had received musical training — and the earlier they had begun training and the longer they had continued training, the stronger the activity in these brain areas.
Carried to extremes: How quirks of perception drive the evolution of species. In the second good article, which by the way is free to view, Ramachandran and Ramachandran propose another mechanism of evolution in regards to perception:
Our hypothesis involves the unintended consequences of aesthetic and perceptual laws that evolved to help creatures quickly identify what in their surroundings is useful (food and potential mates) and what constitutes a threat (environment dangers and predators). We believe that these laws indirectly drive many aspects of the evolution of animals’ shape, size and coloration.
It’s important to note that they are not arguing against natural selection; rather, they are simply offering an addition force that guides the evolution of a species. It’s quite interesting, even if I’m not completely convinced by their hypothesis — but my criticisms can wait until they publish an actual academic paper on the subject.
A robotic model of the human vocal tract? Talking Brains links to the Anthropomorphic Talking Robot developed at Waseda University. Apparently it can produce some vowels. Here is a picture of the device (which looks like some sort of battle drone):
Y Chromosome II: What is its structure? Be sure to check out the new contributor over at GNXP, Kele Cable, and her article on the structure of the Y Chromosome. I found this sentence particularly amusing:
As you can see in Figure 1, the Y chromosome (on the right) is puny and diminutive. It really is kind of pathetic once you look at it.
Scientopia. A cool collection of bloggers have banded together to form Scientopia. With plenty of articles having already appeared it all looks very promising. In truth, it’s probably not going to be as successful as ScienceBlogs, largely because it doesn’t pay contributors and, well, nothing is ever going to be as big as ScienceBlogs was at its peak. This new ecology of the science blogosphere is well articulated in a long post by Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock.
This is more a public note to myself than anything else. It’s likely to seem a bit odd to those who haven’t been following my thinking on memes. Cross-posted at New Savanna.
Back in 1996 I published a long article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (link to downloadable PDF), in the, alas, now defunct, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems. In that article I introduced the notion of units of cultural inheritance with these paragraphs:
Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.
What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren’t of much use to people who don’t know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural “programs”. Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.
What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist’s phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities which are the substance of culture.
Richard Dawkins has proposed the term “meme” for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer “psychological trait”, or just “trait”, as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing.
I have maintained that position until quite recently, say a week or two ago. I am now considering abandoning that conception. But first, a little more about how I further developed it.
In my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I developed that idea with respect to music, arguing that the neural ‘trace’ (trajectory in neural state space) of musical performances is a cultural phenotype while the memes are those aspects of musical sound around which individuals coordinate their music-making activities. I further developed this idea only a few weeks ago in a series of posts I wrote as background to a post I did for the National Humanities Center on cultural evolution.
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.
Having now returned, I feel a long list of links is needed to kick start things:
- The journal Biolinguistics now has a blog. Whether or not this turns out to be interesting will obviously depend on the role they adopt for the blog. At the moment it just seems to be promoting various conferences and a summer school. I’ve added their RSS to google reader, so we shall see if anything worth while pops up.
- Peter Frost over at Evo and Proud has written a fascinating article about the late Claude Lévi-Strauss and his view that “cultural differences have, over time, produced biological differences”.
- Babel’s Dawn is producing a ridiculous amount of insightful articles. In particular, you should check out: Is anything universal in language? It covers a great paper (click here for a draft copy) by Nicholas Evans and Stephen C. Levinson, which knocks down the perpetuated myth of language universals.
- Be sure to check out The Adventures of Auck, a blog by a friend, and fellow Welshman, at Edinburgh University. He’s written two insightful pieces on colour perception in bilinguals. Part one and part two.
- Hat tip to Shared Symbolic Storage for directing me towards a review of Michael Tomasello‘s book Why we cooperate? My personal view: it’s a by-product of our ability to coordinate perception and behaviour (but that’s for a future post).
- Edge poses the question: How is the internet changing the way you think? Plenty of good responses. Particularly amusing was Andy Clark’s reply: What kind of dumb question is that?
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.