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’.

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Cultural Evolution and the Impending Singularity

Prof. Alfred Hubler is an actual mad professor who is a danger to life as we know it.  In a talk this evening he went from ball bearings in castor oil to hyper-advanced machine intelligence and from some bits of string to the boundary conditions of the universe.  Hubler suggests that he is building a hyper-intelligent computer.  However, will hyper-intelligent machines actually give us a better scientific understanding of the universe, or will they just spend their time playing Tetris?

Let him take you on a journey…

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Cultural Transmission observed in Whales

A new paper in Current Biology, published today has revealed that the songs of Humpbacked Whales are passed through the ocean by mechanisms of cultural transmission.

Cultural transmission is defined as the social learning of information or behaviours either over generations or via peers. It has been seen to occur in primates, cetaceans and birds.

Cultural transmission over generations, i.e. parent passing socially learnt traits to their offspring, is known as vertical transmission and cultural transmission via peers, unrelated individuals from within generations, is known as horizontal transmission. In humans, languages and memes are transmitted, learned and (in a lot of cases) evolved in this manner.

Male humpback whales have a repetitive and evolving ‘song’ which acts as a vocal sexual display. This song is highly repetitive and is used, by mechanisms of social sorting and attraction, to allow for sexual selection within the whale population. All males within a population are known to conform to the current version of the display (song type), and similarities have been seen to exist among the songs of populations within an ocean basin.

The study being discussed presents very strong evidence for patterns of horizontal transmission, whereby song types spread unidirectionally and rapidly in the pacific ocean eastward through populations in the western and central South Pacific. The study was done over an 11-year period. This is the first documentation of a repeated, dynamic cultural evolution occurring across multiple populations at such a large geographic scale and across such a large time scale.

The patterns of cultural transmission seen in these whales songs are analogous to the same mechanisms we see in humans given that the songs are subject to mistakes and changes which are replicated. This causes the same mechanisms we see in the cultural transmission of language. The authors note that the level and rate of change seen in the whales is unparalleled in any other nonhuman animal and involves culturally driven change at a vast scale.

They also state that:

Investigating the underlying mechanisms of song evolution may yield powerful insights into the transmission of cultural traits and the evolution of culture and plasticity in sexually selected traits.

They also observed that at least one of the song types was transmitted between two different ocean basins, the Indian and South Pacific Ocean. It’s amazing to think how far a single song type can be horizontally transmitted.

Humpback whale song is unique among the animal kingdom due to the conformity to the current norm. This is coupled with high plasticity in the trait (ability to change their song based on whatever the new ‘norm’ is). Why both plasticity and conformity might be selected, how these interact with sexual selection, and how cultural evolution influences both are intriguing questions in need of consideration.


Garland, E. C.; Goldizen, A. W.; Rekdahl, M. L.; Constantine, R.; Garrigue, C.; Hauser, N.; Poole, M. M.; Robbins, J.; Noad, M. J. (2011) Dynamic Horizontal Cultural Transmission of Humpback Whale Song at the Ocean Basin Scale. Current biology : CB doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.019