Alice Roberts on Language Evolution

The BBC are at it again and by ‘at it’ I mean talking about language evolution!

Hello! The BBC are at it again and by ‘at it’ I mean talking about language evolution!

The latest episode of ‘Origins of Us’, which is a series about human evolution from an anthropological/archaeological angle, is on brains. The program is presented by Alice Roberts and she doesn’t do a bad job of discussing the issues relating to the lack of direct fossil evidence for language. She discusses the anatomy used in speech which is something which Stephen Fry did not do in his program on the origins of language. We also get an excellent rendition of the cardinal vowels from Dr. Roberts! She also discusses the role of language in symbolic thought and there is a wee bit at the end on cultural evolution.

The part of the program on language starts about 25 minutes in, but I’d suggest watching the whole thing as all aspects of the evolution of the brain are relevant to language evolution, and also, it’s bloody interesting.

Stephen Fry’s Planet Word

Stephen Fry has embarked on a series of documentaries about language, beginning with the evolution of language which he calls ‘the final frontier’ of human understanding.  The typical documentary hype is all here:  Stephen Pinker sits in a gigantic fish tank with bits of taxidermied brain lying around like sandwiches; Michael Tomasello appears to live in a tropical primate enclose; Fry conducts his studies from a medieval study complete with quills, a CGI tree of languages and a talking parrot.

Despite this, it was actually a coherent and comprehensive review of topics in the field: Language versus communication in animals, phisological constraints of language, creativity and the desire to share information, the pragmatic origins of language, FoxP2 and the poverty of the stimulus. Bilingualism is even added to this cannon of interesting ways to approach the origins of language, somewhat tempered by Fry’s question “wouldn’t it be better if everybody spoke Esperanto?”.

Mercifully, Fry seems to be actually interested rather than trying to build up the conspiracy plot format endemic in other science documentaries.  There are some odd diversions to a Klingon version of Hamlet, a trip to a German Christmas market and a slightly awkward re-enactment of a feral child case, but all in all the message is not objectionable: There is a graded difference between non-human and human communication, it’s partly genetic and partly cultural and languages continually change under pressures to be learned and to express new ideas.  There are also welcome additions of the original Wug test and, of course, Fry & Laurie’s seminal sketch about language.

Overall, I’d say it was the second best documentary the BBC have made about the origins of language.

Here’s a clip:


Also a clip of Fry talking about the series:

Some Links #12: What if there had never been a cognitive revolution?

What if there had never been a cognitive revolution? Apparently, nothing would really be all that different according to Nicolas Baumard over at ICCI. It’s all speculative, in a similar vein to alternative history fiction (I recommend: Making History by Stephen Fry and Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling), with Baumard stating:

My point here is that these key ideas would have emerged even without a Cognitive Revolution. Take for instance the idea that the mind cannot be a blank slate. This idea is totally natural to evolutionary biologists. What about the mind as “a complex system composed of many interacting parts”? Without going back to La Mettrie, Hutcheson or Descartes, one can argue that the idea of modularity is at the core of the research program of neuropsychology since its beginning (the same is true, albeit at a lesser degree, for evolutionary biology). We should not forget as well that, with or without the Cognitive Revolution, brain imaging techniques would have emerged and would have joined neuropsychology and evolutionary biology in decomposing the mind. Add the methodological advances of developmental psychology or social psychology – which were not part of the Cognitive revolution – and you get a pretty big part of today’s ‘Cognition and Culture’.

‘Mad Men -ese. Ben Zimmer has a cool article on Mad Men (easily one of the best shows to have emerged in recent years) and its dedication to accurately portraying 1960s dialogue. But with such dedication comes equally dedicated, and pedantic, criticisms of some of the lines used. For example, Zimmer points to Don’s line “The window for this apology is closing” as being tied to the 70s use of window in a metaphorical sense. On another note: the new season of Mad Men begins tomorrow (25th June) in America.

A growing isolated brain can organize itself. Deric Bownds points to an article by Zhou et al (2010) which disconnected a mouse’s neocortex from the rest of its brain to see how the surface map developed. The results:

During these weeks, the mutant mice, despite having disconnected brains, display a variety of behaviors: eating, drinking, walking, and swimming. Thus, “protomap” formation, namely cortical lamination and formation of areas, proceed normally in absence of extrinsic connections, but survival of projection neurons and acquisition of mature morphological and some electrophysiological features depend on the establishment of normal cortical–subcortical relationships.

Things I’d like to see: a nice, simple, colourful website on evidence-based social policy. Being an avid reader of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column, and having read his book of the same name, I was surprised to find that he has another blog. Anyway, the linked post is fairly self-explanatory: he’s calling for someone to create a website looking at evidence-based social policy (something he’s been discussing since at least 2007). I’m a big fan of this idea, which would see social policy based on less rhetorical wrangling and more on actual evidence:

There are three key stages in evidence-based practise: you generate evidence; you collate and appraise it, and then you disseminate and implement. It feels to me like the last bit is currently underdone, and often it takes one clear information hub, or an organisation devoted to promoting something, to move things on.

Why money makes you unhappy. Money is apparently not very good at making us happy. Jonah Lehrer writes about a study exploring the experience-stretching hypothesis, and how it relates to money and happiness. Basically, the argument is that because money allows us to enjoy the best things in life, we actually end up lessening our ability to enjoy the mundane aspects of our life. As the mundane aspects are most frequent, then this isn’t necessarily a good thing. This comes on the back of another paper claiming that the United States, currently the richest nation on Earth, is slowly getting less satisfied with life.  As the current study states:

Taken together, our findings provide evidence for the provocative notion that having access to the best things in life may actually undermine one’s ability to reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures. Our research demonstrates that a simple reminder of wealth produces the same deleterious effects as actual wealth on an individual’s ability to savor, suggesting that perceived access to pleasurable experiences may be sufficient to impair everyday savoring. In other words, one need not actually visit the pyramids of Egypt or spend a week at the legendary Banff spas in Canada for one’s savoring ability to be impaired—simply knowing that these peak experiences are readily available may increase one’s tendency to take the small pleasures of daily life for granted.

Frying Chicken Nuggets

Most of you from Britain have probably already come across Stephen Fry‘s brilliant comment about British programmes being the equivalent of chicken nuggets:

They are like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it … But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong. You want to try those things, because that’s what being adult means.

I totally agree with Fry. Though I do think he’s being too polite by commending Dr Who and Merlin on being “wonderfully written”. Dr Who occasionally has a decent episode, usually written by Steven Moffat, but most of the writers seem to rely on deus ex machina plot devices. Just watch last season’s Journey’s End for a prime example of this. I’m not saying that Dr Who needs to become hardcore sci-fi; rather, it’d be nice if the plot was actually challenging. Think Dr Who meets Sherlock Holmes. Still, unlike the terrible Merlin, Dr Who does manage to keep me watching every week — even if it’s only due to Cardiff having a spatio-temporal rift.