Imitation and Social Cognition (III): Man’s best friend

In my two previous posts (here and here) about imitation and social cognition I wrote about experiments which showed that
1)  young children tend to imitate both the necessary as well as the unnecessary actions when shown how to get at a reward, whereas wild chimpanzees only imitate the necessary actions.
And that
2) both 14-month old human infants as well as enculturated, human raised-chimpanzees tend to ‘imitate rationally.’ That is, they tend to be able to differentiate whether an agent chose a specific way of performing an action intentionally, or whether the agent was forced to performing the action in this specific manner by some constraint.
ResearchBlogging.orgIt can be argued that these experiments demonstrate that human infants and young children show an early sensitivity to the communicative intentions of others. That is, they seem to be able to infer that a demonstrator’s specific (and ‘odd’ ) actions are somehow relevant, because she chose this specific manner freely (see also these two extremely interesting posts by the philosopher Pierre Jacob, on which my own post is partly based)

The fact that human-raised chimpanzees also show this sensitivity suggests that enculturation plays an important part in this process.
In a very interesting study, Range et al. (2007) used an experimental setup similar to that of Gergely et al. (2002) (which i described in my second post, here) to test whether other ‘enculturated’ and domesticated animals show the same kind of sensitivity: dogs.

Prairie Dog Communication

istockphoto.comA recent NPR radio show covered the research of the biosemiotician Con Slobodchikoff of the Univeristy of Arizone on prairie dog calls. The piece is very public-orientated, but still might be worth listening to.

ResearchBlogging.orgWe’ve all (I hope) heard of the vervet monkeys, which have different alarm calls for different predators, such as for leopard (Panthera pardus), martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus), and python (Python sebae). (Seyfarth et al. 1980) For each of these predators, an inherent and unlearned call is uttered by the first spectator, after which the vervet  monkeys respond in a suitable manner – climb a tree, seek shelter, etc. It appears, however, that prairie dogs have a similar system, and that it is a bit more complicated.

Slobodchikoff conducted a study where three girls (probably underpaid, underprivaleged, and underappreciated (under)graduate students) walked through a prairie dog colony wearing shirts of the colors green, yellow, and blue. The call of the first prairie dog to notice them was recorded, after which the prairie dogs all fled into their burrows. The intern then walked through the entire colony, took a break for ten minutes, changed shirts, and did it again.

What is interesting is that the prairie dogs have significantly different calls (important, as they are pretty much exactly the same to human ears) for blue and yellow, but not for yellow and green. This is due to the dichromatic nature of praire dog eyesight (for a full study of the eyesight of retinal photoreceptors of subterranean rodents, consult Schleich et al. 2010). The distinction between blue and yellow is important, however, as there isn’t necessarily any reason that blue people are any more dangerous to praire dogs than yellow ones. “This in turn suggests that the prairie dogs are labeling the predators according to some cognitive category, rather than merely providing instructions on how to escape from a particular predator or responding to the urgency of a predator attack.” (Slobodchikoff 2009, pp. 438)

Another study was then done where two towers were built and a line was strung between them. When cut out shapes were slung down the line, the prairie dogs were able to distinguish a triangle from a circle, but not a circle from a square. So, the prairie dogs are not entirely perfect at encoding information. The conclusion still stands however that more information is encoded in the calls than is entirely relevant to a suitable reaction (unless one were to argue that evolutionary pressure existed on prairie dogs to distinguish blue predators from yellow ones.)

NPR labels this ‘prairiedogese’, which makes me shiver and reminds me of Punxatawney Pennsylvania, where Bill Murray was stuck on a vicious cycle in the movie Groundhog Day, forced every day to watch the mayor recite the translated proclamation of the Groundhog, which of course spoke in ‘groundhogese’. Luckily, however, there won’t be courses in this ‘language’.


Schleich, C., Vielma, A., Glösmann, M., Palacios, A., & Peichl, L. (2010). Retinal photoreceptors of two subterranean tuco-tuco species (Rodentia, Ctenomys): Morphology, topography, and spectral sensitivity The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 518 (19), 4001-4015 DOI: 10.1002/cne.22440

Seyfarth, R., Cheney, D., & Marler, P. (1980). Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: evidence of predator classification and semantic communication Science, 210 (4471), 801-803 DOI: 10.1126/science.7433999

Slobodchikoff CN, Paseka A, & Verdolin JL (2009). Prairie dog alarm calls encode labels about predator colors. Animal cognition, 12 (3), 435-9 PMID: 19116730

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.

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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.

Guardian Science Blogs

Some smart moves by the Guardian. They’ve created their own mini science blog network, containing some top names and proven bloggers. There are currently five blogs: Punctuated Equilibrium, Political Science, The Lay Scientist, Life and Physics. The fifth blog, in case you were concerned about my ability to count, is going to rotate between various bloggers, the first of which being the brilliant Mo Costandi of Neurophilosophy. I would normally subscribe to each of these blogs individually, so it’s nice to see them all under one digital roof of science-blogging goodness.

Btw, here’s the RSS feed for all the blogs:

Some Links #16: Why I want to Falcon Punch (some) BBC Science Writers

I’m not normally one for violent resolutions to sloppy science, but in taking inspiration from one such perpetrator I’m promoting a Falcon Punch policy. Above is a graphical example of a successful Falcon Punch: the goal being to hurl your target onwards and upwards into a flaming ball of scientific shame.

Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims. I had planned on writing a more substantial article on how yet another science writer, in this case one Howard Falcon-Lang, is claiming that Darwin has once again been felled by a new study. Greg Laden, however, beat me to the punch with a damning critique:

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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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Massive Science Blogging Aggregator

If you are quite keen on keeping up with the ever-changing science blog ecosystem, then a must visit website is the newly created

Created by Anton Zuiker (MisterSugar), Bora Zivkovic (A Blog Around The Clock) and Dave Munger (Word Munger), the site aggregates all the major science group blogs, blogging networks, aggregators and services. Great stuff. They also have a blog.

Language Evolution and Language Acquisition

The way children learn language sets the adaptive landscape on which languages evolve.  This is acknowledged by many, but there are few connections between models of language acquisition and models of language Evolution (some exceptions include Yang (2002), Yu & Smith (2007) and Chater & Christiansen (2009)).

However, the chasm between the two fields may be getting smaller, as theories are defined as models which are both more interpretable to the more technically-minded Language Evolutionists and extendible into populations and generations.

Also, strangely, models of word learning have been getting simpler over time.  This may reflect a move from attributing language acquisition to specific mechanisms towards a more general cognitive explanation.  I review some older models here, and a recent publication by Fazly et al.

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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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