Language is not necessary for analogy

Analogy is a trait thought to be uniquely human and the origin is largely unknown. Recent studies have suggested that some language trained apes can find relations between relations, which is thought to be what is at the root of analogy. However, a new study in the journal  Psychological Science  has tested baboons using shapes with matching features. These baboons were able to match pairs which had matching features and pairs which had no matching features.

The study was run by Joël Fagot of the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (CNRS/Université de Provence) and Roger Thompson of the Franklin & Marshall College (United States).

It has been hypothesised in the past that finding relations between relations is an ability only accessible by language, but these new findings with baboons cast doubt on this assertion.

The experiments were carried out on 29 baboons. The baboons were first shown two shapes on a screen. The baboons then touched one of these shapes and two other pairs of shapes appeared on the screen. To be successful at the task the baboons had to touch the pair representing the same relation as the initial pair. So if the first pair matched in a feature the baboon had to choose the pair which also had a matching feature, and avoid the pair where there was no matching feature, in order to gain a reward. This shows the inherent abilities behind analogy.

6 baboons correctly performed the task after thousands of trials of training showing that it is definitely within the abilities of old world monkeys to resolve analogy problems.

The researchers also revisited the same baboons with the same task a year later and the monkeys were much quicker at acquiring the task showing that they remembered what to do.

These results show that language is not necessary for analogy and leaves questions as to what might make this ability adaptive.


Fagot J, & Thompson RK (2011). Generalized Relational Matching by Guinea Baboons (Papio papio) in Two-by-Two-Item Analogy Problems. Psychological science PMID: 21934135

Cultural Evolution and the Impending Singularity: The Movie

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

Here’s a video of a talk I gave at the Santa Fe Institute‘s Complex Systems Summer School (written with roboticist Andrew Tinka-check out him talking about his fleet of floating robots).  The talk was a response to the “Evolution Challenge”:

  1. Has Biological Evolution come to an end?
  2. Is belief an emergent property?
  3. Will advanced computers use H. Sapiens as batteries?

I also blogged about a part of this talk here (why a mad scientist’s attempt at creating A.I. to make new scientific discoveries was doomed).

The talk was given a prise for best talk by the judging panel which included David Krakauer, Tom Carter and best-selling author Cormac McCarthy.  At several points in the talk, I completely forget what I was supposed to say because the people filming the event asked me to set my screen up in a way so I couldn’t see my notes.

Sperl, M., Chang, A., Weber, N., & Hübler, A. (1999). Hebbian learning in the agglomeration of conducting particles Physical Review E, 59 (3), 3165-3168 DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevE.59.3165

Chater N, & Christiansen MH (2010). Language acquisition meets language evolution. Cognitive science, 34 (7), 1131-57 PMID: 21564247

Ay N, Flack J, & Krakauer DC (2007). Robustness and complexity co-constructed in multimodal signalling networks. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 362 (1479), 441-7 PMID: 17255020

Ackley, D.H., and Cannon, D.C.. “Pursue Robust Indefinite Scalability”. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth Workshop on Hot Topics in Operating Systems (HOTOS-XIII) (2011, May). Abstract, PDF.

Guttal V, & Couzin ID (2010). Social interactions, information use, and the evolution of collective migration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (37), 16172-7 PMID: 20713700

Evolution of Colour Terms: 2 Environmental Constraints

Continuing my series on the Evolution of Colour terms, this post reviews evidence for environmental constraints on colour perception. For the full dissertation and for references, go here.

Continue reading “Evolution of Colour Terms: 2 Environmental Constraints”

Experiments in Communication pt 1: Artificial Language Learning and Constructed Communication Systems

ResearchBlogging.orgMuch of recent research in linguistics has involved the use of experimentation to directly test hypotheses by comparing and contrasting real-world data with that of laboratory results and computer simulations. In a previous post I looked at how humans, non-human primates, and even non-human animals are all capable of high-fidelity cultural transmission. Yet, to apply this framework to human language, another set of experimental literature needs to be considered, namely: artificial language learning and constructed communication systems.

Continue reading “Experiments in Communication pt 1: Artificial Language Learning and Constructed Communication Systems”

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.