Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Two Interesting Reviews:
A recent edition of Science Magazine (Nov. 10th, 2006), the journal of the AAAS, contains a couple of book reviews that I find interesting.

One review by Joseph T. Devlin is of 'Toward and Evolutionary Biology of Language' by Philip Lieberman. The review points out that the three critical differences between human language and other communication systems in other animals are, "...a large vocabulary, a rapid (and robust) transmission system and the ability to combine a finite set of words into a potentially infinite set of sentences." It also points out that, "...each of these is based on existing on linguistic abilities present in other species."

The reviewer goes on to present evidence given in the book that none of these abilities are unique to humans and all have their "prototypes" in other species. He goes on to discuss the vocabulary of vervet monkeys and, of course, the famous chimpanzee experiments in terms of "vocabulary". He states that the most successful chimps have learned about 150 to 200 words which they can combine in novel ways as a sort of "proto-grammar".
Molly aside: A little veterinary note here. Many people have made equal or even greater claims for the vocabulary of dogs. Little of this has been scientifically tested, though on an anecdotal basis I have met dogs who understood at least 6 verbs and up to 15 nouns (excluding "proper nouns" which might take the number much higher). What I have failed to see evidence for is that dogs have any concept of grammar. The whole idea of "a ball" versus "the ball" is beyond them, though I must admit that this distinction present in Germanic languages, Romance languages, Arabic, and Greek isn't present in most Slavic languages. It's minor actually.
What I usually struggle to communicate to people who were never taught grammar is that dogs are even more lacking than they are. Dogs do not understand such things as "tense" or "mood". My best example is the following. If you say to your dog,
"If you shit on the floor again, I will kick your ass"
The dog, being ignorant of both conditional and future tenses...and mood as well hears what you have said as,
"Shit...floor...kick ass."
Knowing the nouns "shit" and "floor" and being a bright dog who has picked up your use of the term "kikas" as one word signifying aggression the dog, being very eager to please, promptly shits on the floor and attacks somebody. The dog is very well acquainted with the imperative mood and takes what you have said as such. Actually, most dog's just cock their head in confusion and beg you to make a little more sense. This is, of course, the "eternal present" that mystic philosophers have always assumed is the best way for people to live.
Something to both think and woof about.

Back to the review. The reviewer goes on to compare the human ability to recognize "communication phonemes" at a much more rapid rate than they recognize other sounds. Phonemes are understood at a rate of 20 to 30 sounds per second while other sounds of 10 to 15 per second are hear as a "buzzing noise".
Molly Aside: I wonder if this is true of musical notes as well as random sounds ?

The reviewer notes that other animal species can produce every phoneme found in humans, even if all are not found in any given species in the variety found in humans. He goes on to state that "changes in the position and shape of our tongue, however, have enhanced our vocal communication by enabling us to generate more distinct vowel sounds that reduce ambiguity in the acoustic signal. Because these changes also increase the risk of choking on our food, the communicative advantages must outweigh the potential costs.
Molly aside: There have also been changes in the anatomy of the human larynx during the course of the evolution of hominids. This is a simplified statement.

The reviewer goes on to point out the differences between the model proposed by Lieberman and that proposed by people such as Chomsky and Pinker in terms of the production of grammar. the basic difference is that Lieberman proposes a "reiterative" system dependant on the basal ganglia structure of the brain that says that language is structured by a more or less simple process of repetition to produce a coherent whole ala a sort of "natural selection" in the brain reminiscent of "dance". The reviewer points out that the author wrongly attributes a greater specificity of cerebral cortex involvement to people such as Chomsky, Pinker and others than such people actually hold in their view of language-including the naming of specific cortical regions that such people simply don't name- as an "hierarchically structured" process that requires the "overwhelming" participation of the cortex. Very much a straw man argument on the part of the author.

The reviewer, however, points out that the author's enumeration of the prelinguistic abilities of other species is very valuable in laying out the evolutionary biology of the evolution of language and that the author's focus on the basal ganglia is a needed correction to something of an over concentration on the cortex in the neurobiology of language.
Molly's final aside. I think that I have pointed out one problem previously, that "music" may also be organized in an "hierarchical" manner similar to language in that rules of context may determine meaning. This is certainly true of the artform known as "comics", something that I have more familiarity with than "fine art", though I am pretty sure that it is true of other visual arts as well. I am very much the amateur in terms of the visual arts outside of comics, though I am familiar with at least a few of the rules, especially as they apply to art history. All that being said the point is that I personally "provisionally" favour the idea that many other modes of human communication are structured in an hierarchical rather than a reiterative manner. This points to an evolutionary conserved ability to understand many different modes of communication that is basically the same at its simple base. If this is right I am sure that both neurology and evolutionary biology will eventually converge towards a parsimonious explanation of why bower birds can understand both the communication of nests and of songs. Let's leave the humans for later.

For those interested in a "layperson's explanation" of the neurobiology involved in such debates I suggest the following site, formulated for teachers (which is about as "lay" as you can get in my arrogant opinion), 'The Evolution of Language' by Brian Peterson at 'Brain Connection' at http://www.brainconnection.com/topics/?main=fa/evolution=language

Anyways, on to the second book reviewed in said issue. This is a review of 'The Evolution of Animal Communication' by William A. Searcy and Stephan Nowicki, reviewed by Katherine E. Levan and Noah Wilson-Rich. This is actually a review of a subtitle in the Princeton series of 'Monographs in Behavior and Ecology', so it's hard to say if it deserves the title of "book". it's 286 pages long so maybe it does. The subtitle of the book, 'Reliability and Deception in Signalling Systems' really says much more about the "book" than the main title, as it hardly presumes to give an overview of "the evolution of animal communication" at all but merely deals with a few restricted issues in the sociobiology of same.

The main point to take away from this review is that there are three basic situations in which signalling takes place. There is, of course, a continuum between the various situations. They are a "yardstick" rather than "three colours", but research can be oriented by looking at the evolutionary interests of the "communicators" in these three different situations. One is where "the interests overlap" in terms of communication between "related" individuals. This shades because of degrees of relationship towards "where interests diverge" as in communication between the sexes and this, in turn, shades towards "when interests oppose" as between competitors. The monograph, as the reviewers point out, concentrates on the communication "within species" even though many of the most interesting questions revolve around interspecific communication. The reviewers also criticize the concentration on avian species, though this is excused by both the research interests of the original authors and the weight of the data accumulated for birds versus other species. The practical exclusion of the social insects, however, is deplored.

The point to take away from this review is that the evolve communication systems such as "language" have both cooperative and competitive aspects that have to be carefully diced apart by extended research. The whole idea of 'deception" is something central to both animal and human sociobiology and I can certainly see it at work in many (most ?) political statements including that of many people who share the anarchist "adjective" with myself. Some of this stuff is so cynical that I have a hard time imaging that the authors believe their own bullshit. It must be nice to have a totally sponge-like view of the world where you can assert anything, even things that totally contradict each other, at the same time. Liberalism as a malignant brain tumour masquerading as anarchism. The traditional commies at least took as few days to totally switch their views at the orders of Moscow. The great right wing example of this present use of communication as deception may be perhaps the right wing exponents of the "right to life" who want to even expand the death penalty. Left wing nonsense is too numerous to enumerate beyond what I have mentioned above.

Anyways, to get off my hobby horse, if you'd like a debate in left wing terms of the whole concept of "deception in communication" which brilliantly avoids left wing examples but is very penetrating in terms of right wing examples see the "debate" (more like a love-in) between sociobiologist Robert Trivers and Noam Chomsky at http://www.seedmagazine.com/noam_chomsky_robert_trivers.php

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