This conference will provide a state-of-the-art update on this fast-moving field, and will focus on overlaps between and evolution of spoken language and music, researching employing artificial grammar learning, and comparative work in these areas with a wide range of animal species.
You can watch Russell Gray give three lectures about evolutionary approaches to language, cognition and culture at this year’s Nijmegen lectures. Gray covered a huge range of studies from tool use by New Caledonian Crows and crafting stone tools by hominids to quantitative work on historical linguistics and charting the evolution of political systems.
I had hoped to celebrate Darwin day with a longer post discussing how language is often viewed as a challenging puzzle to natural selection. My main worry is that the formal design metaphor used in much of linguistics has been used, incorrectly IMHO, to divert attention away from studying language as a biological system based on organic logic. If this doesn’t make much sense, then you can do some background reading with Terrence Deacon’s paper, Language as an emergent function: Some radical neurological and evolutionary implications. Alas, that’s all I have to say on the matter for now, but if you’re looking for something related to Darwin, evolution and the origin of language, then I strongly suggest you head over to the excellent Darwin Correspondence project and read their blog post on the subject:
Darwin started thinking about the origin of language in the late 1830s. The subject formed part of his wide-ranging speculations about the transmutation of species. In his private notebooks, he reflected on the communicative powers of animals, their ability to learn new sounds and even to associate them with words. “The distinction of language in man is very great from all animals”, he wrote, “but do not overrate—animals communicate to each other” (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 542-3). Darwin observed the similarities between animal sounds and various natural cries and gestures that humans make when expressing strong emotions such as fear, surprise, or joy. He noted the physical connections between words and sounds, exhibited in words like “roar”, “crack”, and “scrape” that seemed imitative of the things signified. He drew parallels between language and music, and asked: “did our language commence with singing—is this the origin of our pleasure in music—do monkeys howl in harmony”? (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 568).
I’ve just found a new online game called the museum of parallel art (thanks to my friend Robin). The info on the trailer reads as follows:
Visiting the virtual Museum of Parallel Art is a very special experience you’ll share with someone. You’ll express your thoughts and feelings towards art with cards, or try to view the world as your peer and guess the cards he or she has played. Comparing cards will prompt conversation and is sure to connect you two.
This game was originally made in 48 hours by Neverpants (Dom2D, technobeanie & seventysevian), featuring art both classic and new, with contributions by many amazing artists like Anthony Clark, Justin Chan, Nic ter Horst, Tom Eccles, Aliceffekt and way more! Randomly generated from a database of over 200 “paintings” and a multitude of cards, the Museum of Parallel Art is different every time you visit.
Basically, it’s an online game where you go through a digital museum with 10 cards which you need to assign to 6 random paintings. You decide which card represents which painting the best. Then a partner does the same thing, but instead of making their own connections, they have to guess which cards the first person placed on each painting.
Why am I mentioning this on replicated typo? It seems to me that this game could potentially make a fun language game experiment because choosing the same card to represent a painting is tantamount to deciding on a signal to represent that painting. Researchers could potentially use this paradigm as a fun way to look at the effects of iconicity on bootstrapping communication systems, or look at how communication strategies arise over repeated instances of the game.
An article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun already hypothesised that during the second round of the game, the cards had much less transparency between the paintings they were meant to represent. Though perhaps this might just be because of the paintings being randomly generated from a set of hundreds of paintings. It’s also interesting to think about the levels of theory of mind you need to play this game, or the effects of having a shared history with the person you are playing with.
You can download and play the museum of parallel art here: http://www.freeindiegam.es/2014/02/museum-of-parallel-art-neverpants-various-artists/
Many of you are probably already aware of the Edge 2014 question: what scientific ideas are ready for retirement? The question was derived from the Kuhnian-esque, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, quote by theoretical physicist Max Planck:
A new scientific theory does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Some of the big themes that jumped out at me were bashing the scientific method, bemoaning our enthusiasm for big data and showing us how we don’t understand and routinely misapply statistics. Other relevant candidates that popped up for retirement were culture, learning, human nature, innateness, and brain plasticity. Lastly, on the language front, we had Benjamin Bergen and Nick Enfield weighing in against universal grammar and linguistic competency, whilst John McWhorter rallied against strong linguistic relativity and Dan Sperber challenged our conventional understanding of meaning.
And just so you’re aware: I’m not necessarily in agreement with all of the perspectives I’ve linked to above, but I do think a lot of them are interesting and definitely worth a read (if only to clarify your own position on the matters). On this note, you should probably go over and read Norbert Hornstein’s post about the flaws of Bergen’s argument, which basically boil down to a conflation between I-languages and E-languages (and where we should expect to observe universal properties).
In classical Greek mythology, Procrustes was a criminal who produced an iron bed and made his victims fit the bed…by cutting off any parts of their bodies that didn’t fit. The metaphorical use of the word means “enforcing uniformity or conformity without regard to natural variation or individuality.” It is in this spirit that Woese characterized much of modern biology as procrustean, because rather than adapt its explanations to the facts, the facts are forced to lie in a bed of theory that is taken for granted–and thus, the facts must fit!
There are some interesting speakers at this workshop with some talking about language evolution:
What made us human? Biological and cultural Evolution of Homo sapiens
Erice, Sicily, October 14-19, 2014
Purpose of the workshop:
The science of human evolution has recently been changing rapidly. We know that Homo sapiens is the last surviving branch of a once-luxuriant tree of hominid species. For until very recent times, our lineage shared the planet with several other human species, like Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis. Following its biological and anatomical birth in Africa, around 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens spread around the world following multiple paths of expansion that we can now track using the techniques of molecular biology, ancient DNA studies and paleoanthropology. In this global, ecological and demographic scenario, at one point our species began, somewhere, to express cognitively modern behaviors: a “symbolic intelligence” so peculiar that scientists view it as the hallmark of human creativity and uniqueness itself. Was there a gap between our biological birth and our mental birth? Was the process a gradual or a punctuational one? What triggered the so-called Paleolithic Revolution? How did our cultural evolution interact with our biological evolution? What might have been the role of other human species? Is articulate language our “secret weapon”? In the form of an interdisciplinary meeting involving prominent experts in primatology, paleoanthropology, genetics, anthropology, ethology and philosophy, the Erice International School of Ethology proposes a special workshop on human evolution, to ask, “What exactly was it that made us human?” This is perhaps the most fundamental question of all about human nature, for scientists, philosophers, theologians, and anyone interested in our history.
Quentin Atkinson (University of Auckland); Peter Brown (University of New England, Armidale, Australia); Emiliano Bruner (Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos); Francesco D’Errico (Université Bordeaux 1); Dean Falk (Florida State University); Pier Francesco Ferrari (University of Parma); John Dupré (University of Exeter); Robert D. Martin (The Field Museum, Chicago); Robert Desalle (American Museum of Natural History, New York); Will Harcourt-Smith (Lehman College, City University of New York); Philip Lieberman (Brown University); Giuseppe Longobardi (University of York); Giorgio Manzi (La Sapienza Università, Rome); Paola Palanza (University of Parma); Stefano Parmigiani (University of Parma); Telmo Pievani (University of Padua); Thomas Plummer (Queens College, City University of New York); Yoel Rak (Tel Aviv University); Jeffrey Schwartz (University of Pittsburgh); Ian Tattersall (American Museum of Natural History, New York), Bernard Wood (George Washington University, Washington DC).
Change and diversity in human evolution. The emergence of genus Homo. The earliest stone tools and cognitive implications. Homo floresiensis. Early and Middle Pleistocene hominids of Africa. Brain evolution in genus Homo. Neanderthal origins, biology and lifestyles. Morphology of Homo sapiens and origins in Africa. DNA and putative Neanderthal/Homo sapiens hybridization. Homo sapiens dispersal around the world. Brains, culture and early imagery. Symbolic intelligence. Genes and languages. Language and the evolution of human cognition. The evolution of modern human cognition.
Further info here: https://sites.google.com/site/whatmadeushuman/
The University of Edinburgh are offering a Chancellor’s fellowship and are keen to attract applicants particularly in the area of language evolution. The position is a 5 year post doc that is expected to result in a permanent position. More details are available here, including Chancellor’s fellowships in other areas of linguistics.
There’s been much anxiety about opportunities for early career researchers, but the last two years have seen a bumper crop of jobs in cultural evolution, including projects in Reading, St. Andrews, Tübingen, Rome and ANU Canberra. The future’s bright!
Pierre-Yves Oudeyer just popped this up on YouTube and it’s worth a watch for those interested in the evolution of speech and language.
This is a job advert for a computational linguist/cultural evolutionist at the Australian National University in Canberra. It’s basically the dream job for a modeller – you’ll get to help design the data that a team of field linguists collect, then be handed loads of linguistic and demographic data to model. And 5 years is a huge amount of job security for an early career researcher.
The official advert follows:
This position is being re-advertised with a new deadline of March 2nd 2014.
Applications are invited from suitably qualified scholars for a postdoctoral fellowship to work with Prof Nick Evans’ Laureate Fellowship project, ‘The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity’. The role of this position will be to develop appropriate computationally-based models of language change and diversification in small-scale and multilingual language communities, in close collaboration with a team of field linguists who will be gathering on-the-ground data from field sites in Aboriginal Australia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, and small-scale communities in Australia (English) and Latin America (Spanish or Portuguese). Full details of the position and a background description of the project can be found at: http://jobs.anu.edu.au/PositionDetail.aspx?p=3715
This is a five year fixed term research position within the School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, commencing June 30th, 2014.
The successful applicant will have a PhD in a relevant discipline. S/he will carry out independent and team based research as per project plan and focus on computational modelling of language evolution within the overall team, who will be collecting data and feeding that data back into the models being developed. The appointee will work under the supervision of the Laureate Project Leader and work closely with other team members and PhD students working on the project in the design and analysis of linguistic data to be gathered across a range of small-scale speech communities, since the goal of the project is to achieve a new type of interaction between detailed sociolinguistic field research on small-scale communities and computational approaches to modelling linguistic change and diversification. They will interact informally with a wide range of scholars in Linguistics and neighbouring disciplines.
The purpose of this position is to provide computational modelling expertise within the overall team, so as to (a) develop models of how micro-variation iterates over many generations to produce linguistic change (b) model the effects of multilingualism and societal scale and structure on the evolution of linguistic diversity and disparity (c) work with project members gathering linguistic and social data in a range of small-scale speech communities to design appropriate data structures for the representation and analysis of linguistic, cultural and demographic data (d) test theoretical models against the actual linguistic data collected by project members, and feed that data back into the models being developed. Ample opportunities for publication will exist, both individually and with various combinations of project members.
For further information, please contact:
Prof Nick Evans
Ph: +61 (0)2 6125 0028
Call for participants for an interdisciplinary workshop “On the Emergence of Consensus and Misunderstanding: Models and Experiments“. The workshop will be held at La Sapienza University in Rome, Italy, 24-25 of February, 2014.
Understanding the origins and evolution of consensus and misunderstanding is one of the most stimulating areas of research in cognitive and social sciences. This challenging question touches on all aspects of cognition and social interaction, calling for creative thinking and casting fundamental issues in cognitive science in a new light.
This workshop aims to highlight issues surrounding consensus and misunderstanding by showcasing two core lines of research: theoretical modeling and experiments. Modelling is a crucial tool in the investigation of how consensus and dominant norms emerge in societies, or rather, how fragmentation and misunderstanding phenomena occur. This is relevant for the dynamics of language, opinions and other cultural traits, and the processes of individual and collective decision making. From the level of the single individual, to pairs in interaction, to populations of heterogeneous agents, formal models are ubiquitously used to make systematic observations, uncover regularities, advance hypotheses, and test their predictions. However, while such “bare-bones” models can illuminate the skeletal dynamics at work, it is becoming more and more urgent to parallel computational investigations with carefully devised social experiments. Such experiments must aim to investigate specific aspects of how individuals make decisions and how these decisions affect large-scale dynamics at the population level. Increasingly, the opportunity to run large-scale web-based experiments makes the collection of data regarding actual social behaviour more feasible.
This workshop will focus around talks and discussion featuring ongoing empirical work relevant to emergent consensus and misunderstanding, from both modeling and experimental approaches. Bringing together perspectives from psychology, physics, linguistics, and philosophy, the workshop will provide an interdisciplinary approach catered to the nature of the broad phenomena of consensus and misunderstanding.
If you are interested in presenting a poster or talk at the workshop, go to the registration page and provide a short abstract in the “Abstract” field. You will receive information regarding your presentation (i.e., poster or talk) by January 5, 2014.