Imitation is often seen as one of the crucial foundations of culture because it is the basis of social learning and social transmission. Only by imitating others and learning from them did human culture become cumulative, allowing humans to build and improve on the knowledge of previous generations. Thus, it may be one of the key cognitive specializations that sparked the success of the human evolutionary story:
Much of the success of our species rests on our ability to learn from others’ actions. From the simplest preverbal communication to the most complex adult expertise, a remarkable proportion of our abilities are learned by imitating those around us. Imitation is a critical part of what makes us cognitively human and generally constitutes a significant advantage over our primate relatives (Lyons et al. 2007: 19751).
Indeed, there have been some interesting experiments suggesting that the human capacity -and, above all, motivation – for imitation is an important characteristic that separates us from the other great apes.
In a series of intriguing experiments by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Derek Lyons and his colleagues from Yale University, young wild-born chimpanzees and Children aged 3 to 4 were shown how to get a little toy turtle/ a reward out of a puzzle box. In the first condition of the experiment the puzzle box was transparent, whereas in the second condition the puzzle box was opaque.
And here’s the catch: both chimpanzees and children were not shown the ‘right’ or ‘simple’ solution to how to get the reward but one that was actually more complicated and involved unnecessary steps.
Continue reading “Imitation and Social Cognition in Humans and Chimpanzees (I): Imitation, Overimitation, and Conformity”
The notion of a domain-specific, language acquisition device is something that still divides linguists. Yet, in an ongoing debate spanning at least several decades, there is still no evidence, at least to my knowledge, for the existence of a Universal Grammar. Although, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the problem was solved many years ago, especially if you were to believe the now sixteen-year old words of Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (1994):
The extreme specificity of the language system, indeed, is a fact, not just a working hypothesis, even less a heuristically convenient postulation. Doubting that there are language-specific, innate computational capacities today is a bit like being still dubious about the very existence of molecules, in spite of the awesome progress of molecular biology.
Suffice to say, the analogy between applying scepticism of molecules and scepticism of Universal Grammar is a dud, even if it does turn out that the latter does exist. Why? Well, as stated above: we still don’t know if humans have, or for that matter, even require, an innate ability to process certain grammatical principles. The rationale for thinking that we have some innate capacity for acquiring language can be delineated into a twofold argument: first, children seem adept at rapidly learning a language, even though they aren’t exposed to all of the data; and second, cognitive science told us that our brains are massively modular, or at the very least, should entail some aspect that is domain specific to language (see FLB/FLN distinction in Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch, 2002). I think the first point has been done to death on this blog: cultural evolution can provide an alternative explanation as to how children successfully learn language (see here and here and Smith & Kirby, 2008). What I haven’t really spoken about is the mechanism behind our ability to process language, or to put it differently: how are our brains organised to process language?
Continue reading “Domain-General Regions and Domain-Specific Networks”
As Niyogi & Berwick (2009) point out, there is a tendency in modelling of Linguistic Evolution to assume chains of single learners inheriting single grammars from single teachers. This is, of course, not realistic – we learn language from many people and people can speak more than one language. However, Niyogi & Berwick suggest deeper objections.
Continue reading “Learning Multiple languages from Multiple teachers”
I 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.
Continue reading “The Media Noose: Copycat Suicides and Social Learning”
How does natural selection account for language? Darwin wrestled with it, Chomsky sidestepped it, and Pinker claimed to solve it. Discerning the evolution of language is therefore a much sought endeavour, with a vast number of explanations emerging that offer a plethora of choice, but little in the way of consensus. This is hardly new, and at times has seemed completely frivolous and trivial. So much so that in the 19th Century, the Royal Linguistic Society in London actually went as far as to ban any discussion and debate on the origins of language. Put simply: we don’t really know that much. Often quoted in these debates is Alfred Russell Wallace, who, in a letter to Darwin, argued that: “natural selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape whereas he possesses one very little inferior to that of an average member of our learned society”.
This is obviously relevant for those of us studying language evolution. If, as Wallace challenged, natural selection (and more broadly, evolution) is unable to account for our mental capacities and behavioural capabilities, then what is the source behind our propensity for language? Well, I think we’ve come far enough to rule out the spiritual explanations of Wallace (although it still persists on some corners of the web), and whilst I agree that biological natural selection alone is not sufficient to explain language, we can certainly place it in an evolutionary framework.
Such is the position of Prof Terrence Deacon, who, in his current paper for PNAS, eloquently argues for a role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity. He’s been making these noises for a while now, as I previously mentioned here, with him also recognising evolutionary-similar processes in development. However, with the publication of this paper I think it’s about time I disseminated his current ideas in more detail, which, in my humble opinion, offers a more nuanced position than the strict modular adaptationism previously championed by Pinker et al (I say previously, because Pinker also has a paper in this issue, and I’m going to read it before making any claims about his current position on the matter).
Continue reading “Answering Wallace's challenge: Relaxed Selection and Language Evolution”
For those of you familiar with the formal mathematical models of cultural evolution (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Boyd & Richerson, 1985), you’ll know there is a substantive body of literature behind the process of cultural transmission. It comes as a surprise, then, that experiments in this area are generally lacking.
For instance, if we look at evolutionary biology, then there are many experiments into small-scale microevolutionary processes, such as natural selection, sexual selection, mutation and drift, which are then applied in showing how these processes generate population-level, macroevolutionary patterns. It follows then, that this sort of population-level thinking can be applied to cultural evolution: the forces and biases of cultural transmission can be studied experimentally to see if they fit with population-level patterns of cultural change documented by scientists. As the current paper by Mesoudi & Whiten (2008) notes, this potentially gives cultural transmission experiments added significance: “cultural transmission should not only be studied for its own sake (i.e. in order to better understand cultural transmission itself), but also in order to explain broader cultural patterns and trends, all as part of a unified science of cultural evolution”.
Continue reading “Experiments in cultural transmission and human cultural evolution”
Earlier this year I went along to the Cultaptation Conference at St Andrews. Despite being a fascinating event, there appears to nothing on the blogsphere pertaining to the speakers and their talks. In fact, this generally holds true for cultural evolution: there are no dedicated blogs reporting what is undoubtedly a serious scientific endeavour. As a remedy I’m going to dedicate several future blog posts to the conference. Until then, here are the talk abstracts for some of my personal highlights:
Continue reading “Cultaptation Conference”