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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The Media Noose: Copycat Suicides and Social Learning

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.orgI always remember 2008 as the year when the entire UK media descended upon the former mining town of Bridgend. The reason: over the course of two years, 24 young people, most of whom were between the ages of 13 and 17, decided to commit suicide. At the time I was working in Bridgend, so I’m able to appreciate the claims of local MP, Madeleine Moon, that media influence had become part of problem. After all, most editors will tell you: the aim is to sell newspapers. And when this rule is rigorously applied, it should not come as a surprise at the depths some journalists will sink to recycle a news story. Even at a local-level, where you’d think some civic responsibility might exist, journalists clambered over themselves to find a new angle, generating ridiculous claims such as: electromagnetic waves from mobile phones caused the suicides.

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Can linguistic features reveal time depths as deep as 50,000 years ago?

ResearchBlogging.orgThroughout much of our history language was transitory, existing only briefly within its speech community. The invention of writing systems heralded a way of recording some of its recent history, but for the most part linguists lack the stone tools archaeologists use to explore the early history of ancient technological industries. The question of how far back we can trace the history of languages is therefore an immensely important, and highly difficult, one to answer. However, it’s not impossible. Like biologists, who use highly conserved genes to probe the deepest branches on the tree of life, some linguists argue that highly stable linguistic features hold the promise of tracing ancestral relations between the world’s languages.

Previous attempts using cognates to infer the relatedness between languages are generally limited to predictions within the last 6000-10,000 years. In the present study, Greenhill et al (2010) decided to examine more stable linguistic features than the lexicon, arguing:

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Population size predicts technological complexity in Oceania

ResearchBlogging.orgHere is a far-reaching and crucially relevant question for those of us seeking to understand the evolution of culture: Is there any relationship between population size and tool kit diversity or complexity? This question is important because, if met with an affirmative answer, then the emergence of modern human culture may be explained by changes in population size,  rather than a species-wide cognitive explosion. Some attempts at an answer have led to models which make certain predictions about what we expect to see when populations vary. For instance, Shennan (2001) argues that in smaller populations, the number of people adopting a particular cultural variant is more likely to be affected by sampling variation. So in larger populations, learners potentially have access to a greater number of experts, which means adaptive variants are less likely to be lost by chance (Henrich, 2004).

Models aside, and existing empirical evidence is limited with the results being mixed. I previously mentioned the gradual loss of complexity in Tasmanian tool kits after the population was isolated from mainland Australia. Elsewhere, Golden (2006) highlighted the case of isolated Polar Inuit, who lost kayaks, the bow and arrow and other technologies when their knowledgeable experts were wiped out during a plague.Yet two systematic studies (Collard et al., 2005; Read, 2008) of the Inuit case found no evidence for population size being a predictor of technological complexity.

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Phylogenetics, Cultural Evolution and Horizontal Transmission

ResearchBlogging.orgFor some time now, evolutionary biologists have used phylogenetics. It is a well-established, powerful set of tools that allow us to test evolutionary hypotheses. More recently, however, these methods are being imported to analyse linguistic and cultural phenomena. For instance, the use of phylogenetics has led to observations that languages evolve in punctuational bursts, explored the role of  population movements, and investigated the descent of Acheulean handaxes. I’ve followed the developments in linguistics with particular interest; after all, tracing the ephemeral nature of language is a daunting task. The first obvious road block is that prior to the invention of writing, the uptake of which is limited in geography and history, language leaves no archaeological record for linguists to examine. One particular note I’d like to make is that when Charles Darwin first formulated his theory of natural selection, he took inspiration from linguistic family trees as the basis for his sketch on the evolutionary tree of life. So it seems rather appropriate that phylogenetic approaches are now being used to inform our knowledge regarding linguistic evolution.

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Culture and the human genome: a synthesis of genetics and the human sciences

ResearchBlogging.orgHumans are immersed in culture from birth. It is so fundamental to our experience, and what it means to be human itself, yet we often overlook the consideration that “cultural practices might have transformed the selection pressures acting on humans” (Laland, Odling-Smee & Myles, 2010, pg. 137).

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What conclusions can we draw from Neanderthal DNA pt.2

ResearchBlogging.org4. Nuclear DNA: Forays into 3 billion base pairs

4.1 Before Vi-80

The Vindija-80 (Vi-80) specimen is an important find for geneticists: it yielded a minimally contaminated sample and provided those first steps into Neanderthal genomics.

Previously, attempts at retrieving ancient nuclear DNA sequences proved to be a notoriously difficult process, plagued with problems of degradation, contamination and chemical damage (Hofreiter et al., 2001). Researchers also need to contend with quantities of nuclear genome available: for every nuclear genome there are approximately several hundred mtDNAs (Green et al., 2008). The severity of these problems, especially contamination, is magnified through Neanderthal genetic similarity with humans (Green et al., 2006). This is troubling because nuclear DNA presents far less variability than mtDNA (Russell, 2002). As a result, huge stretches of nuclear sequences are required to find a significant number of polymorphisms (ibid). Such implications meant that discovering endogenous DNA sequences requires sifting through a large corpus of “[…] more than 70 Neanderthal bone and tooth samples from different sites in Europe and western Asia” (Green et al., 2006, pg. 331).

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Broca's area and the processing of hierarchically organised sequences pt.2

ResearchBlogging.org3. Neurological processing of hierarchically organised sequences in non-linguistic domains

A broader perspective sees grammar as just one of many hierarchically organised behaviours being processed in similar, prefrontal neurological regions (Greenfield, 1991; Givon, 1998). As Broca’s area is found to be functionally salient in grammatical processing, it is logical to assume that this is the place to search for activity in analogous hierarchical sequences. Such is the basis for studies into music (Maess et al., 2001), action planning (Koechlin and Jubault, 2006) and tool-production (Stout et al., 2008).

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Broca's area and the processing of hierarchically organised sequences pt.1

ResearchBlogging.orgEver since its discovery in 1861, Broca’s area (named after its discoverer, Paul Broca) has been inextricably linked with language (Grodzinsky and Santi, 2008). Found in the left hemisphere of the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), Broca’s region traditionally[1] comprises of Broadmann’s areas (BA) 44 and 45 (Hagoort, 2005). Despite being relegated in its status as the centre of language, this region is still believed to play a vital role in certain linguistic aspects.

Of particular emphasis is syntax. However, syntactic processing is not unequivocally confined to Broca’s area, with a vast body of evidence from “Studies investigating lesion deficit correlations point to a more distributed representation of syntactic processes in the left perisylvian region.” (Fiebach, 2005, pg. 80). A more constrained approach places Broca’s area as processing an important functional component of grammar (Grodzinsky and Santi, 2007). One of these suggestions points specifically to how humans are able to organise phrases in hierarchical structures[2].

In natural languages, “[…] the noun phrases and the verb phrase within a clause typically receive their grammatical role (e.g., subject or object) by means of hierarchical relations rather than through the bare linear order of the words in a string. [my emphasis]” (Musso et al., 2003, pg. 774). Furthermore, these phrases can be broken down into smaller segments, with noun phrases, for example, consisting of a determiner preceding a noun (Chomsky, 1957). According to Chomsky (1957) these rules exist without the need for interaction in other linguistic domains. Take for example his now famous phrase of “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” (ibid, pg. 15). Despite being syntactically correct, it is argued the sentence as a whole is semantically meaningless.

The relevant point to take away is a sentence is considered hierarchical if phrases are embedded within other phrases. Yet, examples of hierarchical organisation are found in many domains besides syntax. This includes other language phenomena, such as prosody. Also, non-linguistic behaviours – such as music (Givon, 1998), action sequences (Koechlin and Jubault, 2006), tool-use (cf. Scott-Frey, 2004) and tool-production (Stout et al., 2008) – are all cognitively demanding tasks, comparable with that of language. We can even see instances of non-human hierarchical representations: from the songs of humpback whales (Suzuki, Buck and Tyack, 2006) to various accounts of great apes (McGrew, 1992; Nakamichi, 2003) and crows (Hunt, 2000) using and manufacturing their own tools[3].

With this in mind, we can ask ourselves two questions corresponding to Broca’s area and hierarchical organisation: Does Broca’s area process hierarchically organised sequences in language? And if so, is this processing language-specific? The logic behind this two-part approach is to help focus in on the problem. For instance, it may be found hierarchical structures in sentences are processed by Broca’s area. But this belies the notion of other hierarchically organised behaviours also utilising the same cognitive abilities.

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