Souvenir of the Evolang conference in Barcelona.
Most of the Evolang conference did not consist of paradigm-smashing presentations or PowerPoint shows that pointed in a new direction. The bulk of presentations and poster displays were the result of the normal hard work and fact gathering that is the foundation of scientific success. The professionals on the scene were very much encouraged by the numbers of students who had come to Barcelona, and by the range of their work. More than one speaker professed eagerness to see the results of the work that will be presented at Evolang 2028, but we don’t have to wait 20 years to spot the trends. The conference organizers handed out a book of papers and abstracts (costly, but available here) presented at the conference that provides a fine overview of range of work being done today.
One intense area of study is animal communications. There was extensive reporting on communications by birds, primates, dolphins, etc. These reports do not receive much coverage on this blog, which tries to focus on the question of what happened after the human lineage broke with the chimpanzee/bonobo line, but there is ample relevant work going on in the effort to understand the relationship between animal signals and human communications. One of the presentations in animal communications shared a prize for best presentation by a student. Olga Feher, a student at the City College of New York, described a series of experiments in which young zebra finches learn to sing a distorted song. They were then tracked for several generations and, over time, the songs return to normal. The process was already visible by the third generation and by the seventh generation the songs of the isolated finches were indistinguishable from normal zebra finch songs. Work like this is more provocative than conclusive, but it suggests that we will eventually have a stronger understanding of the constraints and biases that lead to a normalized output without a normalized environment. These experiments, along with Simon Kirby’s experiments in which syntactical structure emerges over generations (see: Language Structure is Cultural, Not Genetic), may give us a new understanding of the role generations play in changing, restoring, and redirecting traits.
Another busy area is computational. Lots of bright folks in Barcelona were working on understanding the math of signal evolution. Again, I stay away from covering much of this on this blog because it tends to search for abstract solutions to abstract questions, while I’m more concerned with concrete things (one reason I blog about the origins of speech rather than language). But there is plenty going on in this field and my objections do not always hold. One promising researcher who presented two papers and shared in the prize with Olga Feher is Thomas C. Scott-Phillips from Simon Kirby’s Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit in Edinburgh. In both papers Scott-Phillips starts with an abstract, theoretical question that puzzles the simulators—what keeps communication stable over time? how do recipients even know that a signal is even a signal? He uses experiments with living humans to search for solutions. His answers—reputation is important to stability; bootstrapping a signal onto some existing shared behavior helps establish communications—were not wowsers, but provide food for thought. The work also shows that computation has gone beyond simulation on robots and now inspires experimental inquiries as well. It is analogous to the point in science history where calculations lead to experimentation.
Both of these prize winners show the Galilean element of experimentation, repetition with variation to challenge particular explanations. With that technique Galileo transformed observation into the experimental method. Bart de Boer’s detailed study of the effects of primate air sacs on vocalization was another example of this method’s presence in Barcelona. (See: Fossil Evidence of Speech?) Sciences truly come of age when this kind of experimentation enters the story, so it was encouraging to see it turn up time and again at Evolang.
The neuroscience of speech was nowhere nearly as well represented in Barcelona as computation approaches and interest in animal communications, but it made up for numbers by depth of controversy. In the end, the story of the evolution of speech is going to be well understood only when we have a clear understanding of how the brain changed. It turns out that the basics are still in dispute. Jean-Marie Hombert, from the University of Lyon, argued that there is no great discontinuity between chimpanzees and humans. Chimps make intentional gestures and humans make emotional vocalizations. Neurologically, systems supporting emotional vocalization and intentional signaling are comparable in human and chimp.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Oxford psychiatrist Tim Crow told me in the hallways, and his presentation made his disagreement public. Crow insists that there is a discontinuity at the neurological level and it comes in the form of the famous right-brain/left-brain distinction. Asymmetric brains are the norm in humans, but not in other animals, including chimps. Crow speculates that this brain change is related to the undisputed changes in the chromosomal structure that separates us from the apes. The dispute shows how few of the basics are non-controversial. There is plenty to be sorted out yet.
The ultimate prize remains clear—an understanding of how it was that a species of talkers emerged and spread over the globe. Did it require some kind of radical break with our ape ancestry? There are proponents on both sides of that one. If there was a break, was it syntactic or something else? If there was no break, how did we come to prosper so much more than our peer species? Was that an effect of language itself, in which case language may have evolved us as much as we evolved it.
We are likely to know a little more in April 2010 when the next Evolang conference is scheduled to take place in Utrecht. (Brr!)