Monkeys can read! (not really)

OMG! Monkeys can read! Planet of the apes is coming! Not really.

OMG! Monkeys can read! Planet of the apes is coming! Not really. A new paper in Science by Grainger, Dufau, Montant, Ziegler and Fagot at the Aix-Marseille University found that Guinea baboons can be trained to differentiate between four letter English words and nonsense words. One monkey called Dan could recognise up to 300 written words, and by “recognise” I mean he knew those words could give him a treat, not that he could recognise that they signified objects in the world, which is what we mean when we say that a human has “recognised” a word. It’s a minefield isn’t it?

I wonder to what degree this is just a memory test or if the monkeys really are noticing relations between the letters which make up the words, as opposed to the nonsense words. The paper probably answers this. Bloody pay walls… Either way, I don’t think this is evidence to suggest that the role of phoneme-letter matching in humans learning to read should be undermined.

James Hurford: Animals Do Not Have Syntax (Compositional Syntax, That Is)

After passing my final exams I feel that I can relax a bit and have the time to read a book again. So instead of reading a book that I need to read purely for ‘academic reasons’, I thought I’d pick one I’d thoroughly enjoy: James Hurford’s “The Origins of Grammar“, which clocks in at a whopping 808 pages.
I’m still reading the first chapter (which you can read for free here) but I thought I’d share some of his analyses of “Animal Syntax.”
Hurford’s general conclusion is that despite what you sometimes read in the popular press,

“No non-human has any semantically compositional syntax, where the form of the syntactic combination determines how the meanings of the parts combine to make the meaning of the whole.”

The crucial notion here is that of compositionality. Hurford argues that we can find animal calls and songs that are combinatorial, that is songs and calls in which elements are put together according to some kind of rule or pattern. But what we do not find, he argues, are the kinds of putting things together where the elements put together each have a specified meaning and the whole song, call or communicative assembly “means something which is a reflection of the meanings of the parts.”

To illustrate this, Hurford cites the call system of putty-nosed monkeys (Arnold and Zuberbühler 2006). These monkeys have only two different call signals in their repertoire, a ‘pyow’-sound that ‘means’, roughly, ‘LEOPARD’; and a ‘hack’ sound that ‘means’, roughly, ‘EAGLE’.

Continue reading “James Hurford: Animals Do Not Have Syntax (Compositional Syntax, That Is)”

Conrad’s Special K: Periodicity in Heart of Darkness

Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo, Part II

While Kurtz is the center of attention in Heart of Darkness, he doesn’t appear until relatively late in the story. He isn’t mentioned until about 8000 words into the 38000 word text nor do we know much about him until a long paragraph that starts roughly 23,000 words into the text. That paragraph, which I’ve called the nexus, is structurally central to the text, and is roughly 1500 words long.

I decided to investigated Kurtz’s presence in the text by the simple expedient of noting where the name “Kurtz” occurs. The result, my colleague Tim Perper subsequently told me, is what’s called a periodogram (PDF):

Figure 1: Periodicity in the appearance of “Kurtz”
Visual inspection suggests that the appearance of “Kurtz” is periodic, with two components, a short one and a significantly longer one. Before discussing this further, however, I would like to explain what I’ve done. Continue reading “Conrad’s Special K: Periodicity in Heart of Darkness”

Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo

Or, Speculations in Computational Evolutionary Psychology

Note: This version of the post has been revised from an earlier version in which I suggested that the distribution in the first chart followed a power law. Cosma Shalizi checked it for me and it’s not a power law distribution. It’s an exponential distribution.

So, I’ve been exploring Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the last two posts I’ve examined one paragraph in the text, the so-called nexus. It’s the longest paragraph in the text, it’s structurally central, and it covers a lot of semantic territory.

OK, but what about the other paragraphs.

What about them?

Aren’t you going to look at them?

Well, yeah, but I sure don’t have time to troll through them like I did the nexus. I mean, that post stretched from here to Sunday.

I get your point. Why don’t you do the Moretti thing?

Moretti thing?

You know, distant reading.

Distant reading? You mean count something? Count what?

How about paragraph length?

What’ll that get me?

I don’t know. Just do it. I mean, you already know that the nexus is the longest paragraph in the text. There must be something going on with that. Mess around and see if something turns up.

* * * * *
I did and it did.

I used the MSWord word-count tool to count the words in every paragraph in the text. All 198 of them. One at a time. Real tedious stuff. Then I loaded the results into a spreadsheet and created a bar chart showing paragraph length from longest to shortest:

HD whole ordered 2 Continue reading “Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo”

Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing

It has long been obvious to me that the so-called cognitive revolution is what happened when computation – both the idea and the digital technology – hit the human sciences. But I’ve seen little reflection of that in the literary cognitivism of the last decade and a half. And that, I fear, is a mistake.

Thus, when I set out to write a long programmatic essay, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, I argued that we think of literary text as a computational form. I submitted the essay and found that both reviewers were puzzled about what I meant by computation. While publication was not conditioned on providing such satisfaction, I did make some efforts to satisfy them, though I’d be surprised if they were completely satisfied by those efforts.

That was a few years ago.

Ever since then I pondered the issue: how do I talk about computation to a literary audience? You see, some of my graduate training was in computational linguistics, so I find it natural to think about language processing as entailing computation. As literature is constituted by language it too must involve computation. But without some background in computational linguistics or artificial intelligence, I’m not sure the notion is much more than a buzzword that’s been trendy for the last few decades – and that’s an awful long time for being trendy.

I’ve already written one post specifically on this issue: Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable, where I write abstracts of four texts which, taken together, give a good feel for the computational side of cognitive science. Here’s another crack at it, from a different angle: symbol processing.

Operations on Symbols

I take it that ordinary arithmetic is most people’s ‘default’ case for what computation is. Not only have we all learned it, it’s fundamental to our knowledge, like reading and writing. Whatever we know, think, or intuit about computation is built on our practical knowledge of arithmetic.

As far as I can tell, we think of arithmetic as being about numbers. Numbers are different from words. And they’re different from literary texts. And not merely different. Some of us – many of whom study literature professionally – have learned that numbers and literature are deeply and utterly different to the point of being fundamentally in opposition to one another. From that point of view the notion that literary texts be understood computationally is little short of blasphemy.

Not so. Not quite.

The question of just what numbers are – metaphysically, ontologically – is well beyond the scope of this post. But what they are in arithmetic, that’s simple; they’re symbols. Words too are symbols; and literary texts are constituted of words. In this sense, perhaps superficial, but nonetheless real, the reading of literary texts and making arithmetic calculations are the same thing, operations on symbols. Continue reading “Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing”

Statistics and Symbols in Mimicking the Mind

MIT recently held a symposium on the current status of AI, which apparently has seen precious little progress in recent decades. The discussion, it seems, ground down to a squabble over the prevalence of statistical techniques in AI and a call for a revival of work on the sorts of rule-governed models of symbolic processing that once dominated much of AI and its sibling, computational linguistics.

Briefly, from the early days in the 1950s up through the 1970s both disciplines used models built on carefully hand-crafted symbolic knowledge. The computational linguists built parsers and sentence generators and the AI folks modeled specific domains of knowledge (e.g. diagnosis in elected medical domains, naval ships, toy blocks). Initially these efforts worked like gang-busters. Not that they did much by Star Trek standards, but they actually did something and they did things never before done with computers. That’s exciting, and fun.

In time, alas, the excitement wore off and there was no more fun. Just systems that got too big and failed too often and they still didn’t do a whole heck of a lot.

Then, starting, I believe, in the 1980s, statistical models were developed that, yes, worked like gang-busters. And these models actually did practical tasks, like speech recognition and then machine translation. That was a blow to the symbolic methodology because these programs were “dumb.” They had no knowledge crafted into them, no rules of grammar, no semantics. Just routines the learned while gobbling up terabytes of example data. Thus, as Google’s Peter Norvig points out, machine translation is now dominated by statistical methods. No grammars and parsers carefully hand-crafted by linguists. No linguists needed.

What a bummer. For machine translation is THE prototype problem for computational linguistics. It’s the problem that set the field in motion and has been a constant arena for research and practical development. That’s where much of the handcrafted art was first tried, tested, and, in a measure, proved. For it to now be dominated by statistics . . . bummer.

So that’s where we are. And that’s what the symposium was chewing over.

Continue reading “Statistics and Symbols in Mimicking the Mind”

Neanderthal-human Hybrids

Paul Mason and Robert Short have an article out called Neanderthal-human hybrids (I wonder what that’s about?). Here is the abstract:

Evidence from studies of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossils and humans points to fascinating hypotheses concerning the types of interbreeding that occurred between these two species. Humans and Neanderthals share a small percentage of nuclear DNA. However, humans and Neanderthals do not possess the same mito­chondrial DNA. In mammals, mitochondrial DNA is exclusively maternally inherited. Taking into account an understanding of interspecific hybridity, the available data leads to the hypothesis that only male Neanderthals were able to mate with female humans. If Haldane’s Law applied to the progeny of Neanderthals and humans, then female hybrids would survive, but male hybrids would be absent, rare, or sterile. Interbreeding between male Neanderthals and female humans, as the only possible scenario, accounts for the presence of Neanderthal nuclear DNA, the scarcity of Neanderthal Y-linked genes, and the lack of mitochondrial DNA in modern human populations.

Paul Mason previously wrote about the topic over at Neuroanthroplogy, so I really don’t have much more to say on the topic, other than that I’ll get around to reading it over the next couple of days. I’m curious to see if the usual suspects in the genetics (Razib Khan), anthropological (Dienekes) and evolutionary (John Hawks) communities offer some food for thought on the topic.

For me, I’m actually more interested in Mason’s recent work on degeneracyBut that’s for a later post 😉

The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?

Just a quick post in case folks haven’t heard about this already, I got a copy for Christmas.

‘The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?’ by Padgett Powell – A book composed entirely of interrogative sentences, or rather, questions.

It has been hailed as a pioneering yet risky step in the author’s somewhat turbulent writing career, but has received praise from a puzzled many people who have found an unexpected enjoyment and intrigue in its pages, for example:

‘How this book works is beyond me, but, miraculously, it does’ (Village Voice)

‘It is a wondrous strange… a hydra-headed reflection of life as it experienced, and of thought as it is felt’ (New York Times Book Review)

The book is not the first of its kind – ‘Gold Fools’ by fellow American novelist Gilbert Sorrentino is also completely written in interrogative sentences, and tells a Western adventure story whilst challenging and questioning genre-specific stereotypes and contemporary linguistic convention.

Even so, Powell’s book is still unique because it was written to achieve a different objective. Unlike ‘Gold Fools’ there is no chronological story to this ‘novel’ – Powell calls upon every sentence forming configuration in English to dispense vast stores of accrued knowledge, factual information, tantalising and mysterious hints about himself, his memories, and his life. Some interrogatives are curt and challenging, where as others span the length of paragraphs and pages thanks to some pretty serious sentence embedding. Through an agreeable barrage of dos, ifs, ares and all the WH-words, Powell not only covertly feeds us information about himself, but forces us to think deep into the worlds of ourselves and those around us. He presents the reader with moral dilemmas interspersed with comparably routine queries, encouraging us to consider how we might behave faced with a variety of arbitrary and significant choices, highlighting both humorous and perturbing inconsistencies in every arena of life.

Direction and premeditated structure is not immediately apparent in the novel (something to be examined, maybe?) and this works as a selling point. The reader is engaged by Powell’s gentle and inquisitive bullying which encourages self examination, reflection, and increased time spent on Wikipedia trying to source some obscure reference or fact.

A warning though – reading this book hijacks the internal narrative, forcing you to think almost entirely in interrogatives for a good few hours afterwards.

Bored birds, busy brains: Habituation to song initiates significant molecular changes in auditory forebrain of zebra finch

When we think of habituation, we tend to think of a process in which there is a decrease in psychological and behavioural response(s) over time following an organism’s exposure to a stimulus. Conceptualising habituation in this manner seems to imply the loss of something once an initial learning event has taken place. Although this may accurately describe what occurs at the psychological and behavioural levels, a study by a group of scientists from the University of Illinois (Dong et al. 2010), which examines habituation at the neurobiological level, shows that contrary to this conceptualisation, both initial exposure and habituation to song playbacks initiates a vast array of genetic activity in the zebra finch brain.

The systematic regulation of FoxP2 expression in singing zebra finches has been the subject of previous posts, but there is also a growing literature, of which Dong et al’s study is a part, documenting increases in ZENK gene (which encodes a transcription factor protein that in turn regulates the expression of other target genes) expression in zebra finch auditory forebrain areas in response to playbacks of song or the song of a conspecific. Studies showed that ZENK expression seems to mirror the typical decline in response associated with habituation in that after a certain amount of repetition, presentation of the song that originally elicited upregulation of ZENK no longer did so, and that ZENK returned to baseline levels – although upregulation of ZENK would occur if a different song or an aspect of novelty was introduced (i.e. the original song was presented in a different visual or spatial context).

What Dong et al. have demonstrated by conducting a large scale analysis of gene expression at initial exposure, habituation, and post-habituation stages however, is that unexpectedly profound genetic changes occur as a result of habituation in the absence of any additional novel stimuli following the surge of activity observed during initial exposure to novel song. Thus, the resounding merits of the Dong et al. (2010) study lie in the broadness of their approach, providing a true sense of magnitude with respect to genomic involvement in vocal communication and illuminating important influences that have gone unnoticed by studies with a narrower focus. I summarise the experimental design and findings of the paper below.

Continue reading “Bored birds, busy brains: Habituation to song initiates significant molecular changes in auditory forebrain of zebra finch”

Mapping Linguistic Phylogeny to Politics

In a recent article covered in NatureNews in Societes Evolve in Steps, Tom Currie of UCL, and others, like Russell Gray of Auckland, use quantitative analysis of the Polynesian language group to plot socioanthropological movement and power hierarchies in Polynesia. This is based off of previous work, available here, which I saw presented at the Language as an Evolutionary Systemconference last July. The article claims that the means of change for political complexity can be determined using linguistic evidence in Polynesia, along with various migration theories and archaeological evidence.

I have my doubts.

Note: Most of the content in this post is refuted wonderfully in the comment section by one of the original authors of the paper. I highly recommend reading the comments, if you’re going to read this at all – that’s where the real meat lies. I’m keeping this post up, finally, because it’s good to make mistakes and learn from them. -Richard


I had posted this already on the Edinburgh Language Society blog. I’ve edited it a bit for this blog. I should also state that this is my inaugural post on Replicated Typo; thanks to Wintz’ invitation, I’ll be posting here every now and again. It’s good to be here. Thanks for reading – and thanks for pointing out errors, problems, corrections, and commenting, if you do. Research blogging is relatively new to me, and I relish this unexpected chance to hone my skills and learn from my mistakes. (Who am I, anyway?) But without further ado:


In a recent article covered in NatureNews in Societes Evolve in StepsTom Currie of UCL, and others, like Russell Gray of Auckland, use quantitative analysis of the Polynesian language group to plot socioanthropological movement and power hierarchies in Polynesia. This is based off of previous work, available here, which I saw presented at the Language as an Evolutionary Systemconference last July. The article claims that the means of change for political complexity can be determined using linguistic evidence in Polynesia, along with various migration theories and archaeological evidence.

I have my doubts. The talk that was given by Russell Gray suggested that there were still various theories about the migratory patterns of the Polynesians – in particular, where they started from. What his work did was to use massive supercomputers to narrow down all of the possibilities, by using lexicons and charting their similarities. The most probable were then recorded, and their statistical probability indicated what was probably the course of action. This, however, is where the ability for guessing ends. Remember, this is massive quantificational statistics. If one has a 70% probability chance of one language being the root of another, that isn’t to say that that language is the root, much less that the organisation of one determines the organisation of another. But statistics are normally unassailable – I only bring up this disclaimer because there isn’t always clear mapping between language usage and migration.

Continue reading “Mapping Linguistic Phylogeny to Politics”