November 26 (today) is the great American holiday, celebrating no particular mythological or patriotic event. so nobody is excluded. I'm celebrating with longtime friends and have no time to write a post. Barring some surprise news, my next post will be on Dec 6/7.
I just watched the third part of the PBS television series on "Becoming Human." It barely discussed the origins of speech or language, which I suppose is just as well. Better to say nothing than to say something superficial and pretend that it is the whole story. Still, I'm struck by the fact that they did a three hour report tracing the human lineage over about 6 million years and had very little to say about the issues discussed routinely on this blog. The speech triangle, voluntary control of vocalizations, words, syntax ... nope.
This post is a bit off topic, but an entertaining elephant video was recently released. Scientists recorded sounds of elephants making an audible warning that lions were hunting in the area. Then, when no lions were about, they replayed the recording. It is fun to watch the elephants turn and head for the hills. http://utopiascientific.org/Videos/EleHerdScare.html
I will be posting several reports this week (Monday through Wednesday). The University of Nicholas Copernicus in Torun, Poland is hosting a conference on protolanguage (Ways to Protolanguage) and I plan
to post reports regularly as it goes on. So stay tuned.
Infants master speech so easily that many adults are astonished by how hard it is to get machines to repeat the trick. Ask a computer to type, “Machines can recognize speech,” and on a good day you might get back, “Machines can wreck a nice beach.” To learn how computers are faring with speech I hooked up with my cousin Richard Wiggins at SpeechTEK 2009, a conference just off Times Square where exhibitors demonstrated the latest efforts at getting machines to recognize speech and to produce spoken language.
Louis and Mary Leakey explored Olduvai Gorge for about 30 years before finding their first bipedal ape, which they named Zinjanthropus. The discovery pushed the story of human evolution back beyond 1.5 million years.
Three events—a death, an anniversary, and a reading—have gotten me thinking about how much our view of humanity and human origins has changed in the past half century.
The death was that of Eunice Shriver whose most notable achievement was in changing the way people think about the intellectually disabled.
Fifty years ago (July 17, 1959) the Zinjanthropus fossil (now known as Paranthropus boisei) was found by Mary Leakey. The find changed the focus of where paleontologists looked for the oldest human ancestors, and pushed all the dates for human origins much further back.
Finally, I got around to reading an article in the April Current Anthropology by the anthropologist/primatologist Clifford Jolly titled, “Fifty years of Looking at Human Evolution,” (first page here).
Back in those days, by the way, the question of language origins was still forbidden. It was less than fifty years ago that I raised the question in a college discussion and was told that I was not allowed to ask about where language came from. The ban imposed a century earlier by the Paris Society of Linguistics was still in effect. The collapse of that ban is an indication of how much inquiry into human origins has changed.
Jolly describes the dominant view of 50 years ago:
The favored scenario interpreted the hominin fossil record as evidence of a simple evolutionary trajectory, and all hominins were the product of a single set of adaptive trends. … the key hominin behavior was considered to be the use of artifacts. … The accepted paradigm was therefore a single-phase scenario, according to which the first hominins were smaller, dumber, clumsier, slower, and probably hairier than us, but as soon as they stood up and started to use artifacts, they were on an unbranching highway to humanity. [pp. 187-188]
With the assumption of erect posture regular use of tools became obligatory. [quoted on p 188].
The passage of fifty years has not changed the popular press so much. I reviewed a book a few years back, Thumbs, Toes, and Tears by Chip Walter (review here), that argued upright walking led directly to speech.
Jolly focuses on the complex path from our last common ancestor with chimpanzees to us today. The route was not
last common ancestor --> bipedal ape --> proto-us --> us.
There were many bipedal apes flowing from that last common ancestor. And many proto-us forms following the bipedal apes. But an important difference between 2009 and 1959 is that today we also recognize a lot more different forms of us.
Culturally the great difference of the last half century has been the rise of a plural view of humanity. That’s where Eunice Shriver fits into the story, for she devoted much of her adult life to finding room in society for the mentally handicapped. More than women, more than black folk, the mentally disabled were excluded, generally placed in institutions to molder outside the grave. Notions of deviance and abnormality have not completely disappeared, but a much wider inclusiveness has taken hold. Without that wider view it would be difficult for me to ask a question raised more than once on this blog: if Down Syndrome children can talk and yet are less intelligent than the smartest chimpanzees who never talk, how can we suppose that intelligence is the basis of speech? It’s thanks to the work of Eunice Shriver and many others that the question can be taken seriously. Fifty years ago (when people with Down Syndrome were generally called Mongoloids or even Mongolian Idiots) there was no idea that such people deserved any place in thinking about what it means to be human.
Finding out what it means to be human is the part of this inquiry of deepest interest to the lay public. Fifty years ago, the favorite answers were that humans alone used reason, tools, and symbols. Jane Goodall’s of chimpanzees in the wild quickly disabused experts of the tools claim, while David Premack’s experiments with chimpanzees in the lab showed they could use logic and symbols. Those observations left two possible accounts on what is the foundation of human uniqueness. First, being human rests on something we have generally overlooked, or, second, being human is nothing special.
The second choice has always had its advocates, and they were especially strong among psychologists fifty years ago when stimulus-response behaviorism dominated the field. We’ve just had a controversy on this blog about whether Noam Chomsky’s famous review of B.F. Skinner’s work refuted the behaviorist position (See Poverty of the Stimulus: Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4), but it certainly knocked it off its pedestal. Chomsky’s position has been that language is the most obvious unique feature of humanity. All cultures have rich languages, while no other species has it even a little bit. Which is all very well, but pointing to language just rephrases the question: why is it that people speak and other animals do not?
Three answers dominate the scene today:
Recursion: Humans have a unique ability to organize words (and perhaps other thoughts as well) recursively. This idea has been pushed by Noam Chomsky, Marc Hauser, and Tecumseh Fitch.
Symbols: Archaeologists focus on the use of symbolic meanings that leave artistic and ornamental traces.
Community membership: Language requires multiple speakers, which in turn requires individuals who are willing to report and learn what another thinks. This idea is hard to justify using the selfish-gene theory of natural selection, but E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson have proposed a way around this problem (see: A Vote for Group Selection http://ebbolles.typepad.com/babels_dawn/2007/12/a-vote-for-grou.html )
Turning to face the future and consider what the next fifty years will bring, I think the hardest part is that we are facing an increasing number of oddities. Jolly concludes his essay by saying, “the rest of nature… provides analogies that… can help to clarify the processes involved with each of the phase shifts [along the pathway to modern humanity]” , but analogies really only help with things found elsewhere in nature. We have been stuck forever on the question of why our ancestors became bipeds, largely because there seem no analogies elsewhere in nature to suggest and it was Jolly himself who decades ago pointed out that examples of bipedal actions in living primates and other animals merely shows that that behavior cannot explain why humans became bipeds. These other animals are able to do things, like stand on their hind legs and look around, without becoming bipedal. So why did our ancestors become become uncompromising bipeds? We have no analogy with other animals.
And why did our ancestors change from having black sclera to the whites of the eyes? It lets us see where our neighbors are looking, but how did that become an advantage?
Our ancestors reduced the nursing period of young, enabling a fertile female to bear more young in a lifetime. The desirability of that change is self-evident to any Darwinian, but what happened to make the change possible?
We will find many more fossils during the next 50 years and DNA work is really going to bring detail to the story, but until we start understanding where and why these unique things came I’m not sure the story is going to tells us more about who we are than we know today.
Starting with the previous post I will include a link for downloading a PDF of the post. They make for easier printing and forwarding to interested parties. I never quite know how a project on this blog will turn out, but I hope that all future posts will include this feature.
During the past week, daily traffic on this site has quadrupled because of a sudden interest in a post from last November about dolphins and language (see: Why Only Humans Talk). The web resource called stumbled upon has enabled many people to tell one another about the post and the word keeps spreading. If you, o reader, are not a user of the stumbled upon system, you might want to check out the post anyway, to see what the fuss is about. The phenomenon also explains why most of this week's comments have been about that post and of a somewhat more whimsical nature than usual.
These charming spinner dolphins turn out to be as lethal as a wolf pack and twice as group oriented. (Photo from Oregon State University.)
A meditation on dolphins has gotten me to come at speech origins from a fresh direction and made me see again how amazing it is that our lineage ever hit upon language.
I have never been much of a dolphin enthusiast, but an interesting report an account of dolphin cooperation in feeding has been published in the Acoustical Society of America journal (press release here) and adds a twist to a recent post (see: On Being Human). Could it be that dolphins are more human than the apes are?
Cover page of a report on how to talk about political issues from a progressive/liberal perspective.
"Vote for me," is an imperative, the kind of thing a chimpanzee would communicate if chimpanzees lived in democracies.
I’m straying a bit in this post from the origins of speech to discuss language’s latest technological manifestation, focus-group-tested phrases. The long 2008 American presidential election is finally ending and one of the things it shows is how, for all the sophistication of modern public relations techniques, the basics of what effective language does has not changed much over the ages. Rhetoric is effective when it gets a group to perceive things in the same way.