Language extinction ain’t no big thing?

Language diversity around the world is decreasing and Razib Khan of the Discover science blog, Gene Expression, doesn’t think you should care. I was going to let it slide because I don’t like getting in little blog tiffs, but then Khan went and tried to co-opt Neuroanthropology.net into the whole thing, so he forced my hand.


I had started to do a quick survey of the obvious, easily Googled data that might support or refute Khan’s argument, but decided that it was petty to point out the glaring logical, empirical and philosophical problems with his arguments, so I was just going to let it go. But then Khan took the liberty of demeaning my discipline and even linked through to my own site to supposedly support his argument, so I’m going to take the liberty of blogging while angry, which is kind of like drunk texting only more time consuming. I’m not really worried that Khan will actually read this post carefully, however, as he apparently didn’t bother to read closely the post to which he actually linked.

Khan doesn’t think linguistic diversity matters. After all, language diversity correlates with poverty, he argues. The evidence he produces for this is a graph that is apparently more of a thought experiment than any sort of actual data plot. So I thought I might just explore this question with a little anecdotal data like comparisons between nominal GDP/capita and numbers of indigenous languages in Ethnologue and how well these seem to correlate. I’m neither a statistician nor do I want to devote more time to this, but I want to just present some evidence in the discussion (especially because he implies anthropology is a kind of salon game for the intelligentsia and for fact-challenged jargon heads).

Normally, I try to be a pretty positive online presence, not prone to hurling invective or belittling other writers, but there are a few things that get me really hacked off, and one of them is conservative Social Darwinism thinly veiled with pseudo-science, as if this is just ‘nature’s’ way of sorting out the winners from the losers. Razib Khan’s example makes me particularly angry because he links in the direction of Neuroanthropology.net like something we argue supports this (please take down the link, Khan, if you read it – we don’t need your traffic if it comes from people who think we’re in your corner). Moreover, Khan’s argument demonstrates an extraordinary callousness, suggesting that concern about language rights assured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other UN human rights documents are just a kind of bourgie latté sippers’ hysteria that people concerned about the ‘real world’ don’t share.

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Four Stone Hearth brought to you by Zenobia

That's MacTut, laddie!

Zenobia: Empress of the East is hosting the latest edition of Four Stone Hearth, the anthropo-carnival. It it’s 97th edition, the carnival this time brings us a pile of good stuff, and although Judith admits she prefers her subjects long dead, and buried in hardened volcanic ash, she brings us a wide range of the fun and fascinating. From Pompeii to monkey adoption, prognasticating octopus to the first cuneiform tablet ever found in Jerusalem to King Tut’s surprisingly small penis, you know that Four Stone Hearth is going to bring you the best of virtual anthropology. And the best is damn good.

So if you’re wondering whether Tut was cursed to be both under-endowed and Scottish (ouch), whether passive sentences are really hard to understand or if it’s just the ‘paper-airplane effect’ in action, or if the Dutch truly have found the answer to the question of overcoming human differences — orange — the what are you still reading this for!? Get ye to Four Stone Hearth!

And by the way, am I the only her person who winds up shouting at the television set, ‘Caster Semanya’s GENDER was never in question! It was her SEX, dammit!’ simply because I hate the way that the word ‘gender’ seems to have simply become a euphemism for whether someone has a winky or not? Okay, maybe it’s just me.

Life without language

Thought without symbols — life without language — it’s a cognitive reality that is virtually impossible for most modern humans to fathom. For the vast majority of us, our thought processes have been profoundly shaped by the introjection of language into our cognitive worlds, the taking on board of a massive intellectual prosthesis, the collective product of countless generations. Human thought, for the majority, is not simply the individual outcome of our evolved neural architecture, but also the result of our borrowing of the immense symbolic and intellectual resources available in language. What would human thought be like without language?

Author Susan Schaller


The question of the relationship between language and ‘mind’ (a word I hate using), or between symbolic resources and cognitive abilities (there, that’s equally vague!), is philosophically intriguing, but hard to address in anything other than the hypothetical.

Herodotus tells the story of the Pharoah Psammetichus (Psamtik I), who allegedly gave two newborn children to a shepherd to raise without language, taking care of them and paying close attention to their first words. Psammethicus hoped to learn which language was the oldest, which one infant allegedly revealed by calling for ‘bekos,’ the Phrygian word for ‘bread.’ In fact, most historically recorded cases of feral children, however, suggest that they do not develop any language ability at all, perhaps even failing to develop symbolic abilities (or maybe not enough researchers speak Phrygian).

We might try to imagine thinking without language, but, of course, we’d be doing that with language itself. In my own work, I’m interested in thought — or maybe I should say perception and action — that is only partially rendered into language (high speed, perceptually-driven decision making and action in sports). But what would thought be like for those without language?

The rare case of individuals without language offers some potential window in on life across the intellectual Rubicon, if we had developed mentally without immersing ourselves in the shared symbols and communicative reality of language. Although we tend to think that only those who are profoundly intellectually disabled, criminally neglected or raised by non-humans fail to learn language, in fact, adolescents and adults without language may not be as rare as we think. Author Susan Schaller has written about the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who grew up in a house with hearing parents who could not teach him sign language in her book, Man without Words.

The website, Works and Conversations, has a discussion of Schaller’s story, how she became interested in sign language through a fluke accident, but especially her work with Ildefonso, who had grown up without learning sign language or any other form of communication. The piece, Leap of Faith, the Story of a Contemporary Miracle, was written by Richard Whittaker in 2009 (although I only recently came across it). It’s a fascinating interview, and, although I may disagree with Schaller in certain ways, I think her story of trying to teach Ildefonso, not merely sign language, but the symbolic process itself, is absolutely fascinating.

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We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?

The most recent edition of Behavioral and Brain Sciences carries a remarkable review article by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ The article outlines two central propositions; first, that most behavioural science theory is built upon research that examines intensely a narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates who are, as the authors write, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or ‘WEIRD’).

More controversially, the authors go on to argue that, where there is robust cross-cultural research, WEIRD subjects tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits. They don’t ignore universals – discussing them in several places – but they do highlight human variation and its implications for psychological theory.

As is the custom at BBS, the target article is accompanied by a large number of responses from scholars around the world, and then a synthetic reflection from the original target article authors to the many responses (in this case, 28). The total of the discussion weighs in at a hefty 75 pages, so it will take most readers (like me) a couple of days to digest the whole thing.

It’s my second time encountering the article as I read a pre-print version and contemplated proposing a response, but, sadly, there was just too much I wanted to say, and not enough time in the calendar (conference organizing and the like dominating my life) for me to be able to pull it together. I regret not writing a rejoinder, but I can do so here with no limit on my space and the added advantage of seeing how other scholars responded to the article.

My one word review of the collection of target article and responses: AMEN!

Or maybe that should be, AAAAAAAMEEEEEN! {Sung by angelic voices.}

There’s a short version of the argument in Nature as well, but the longer version is well worth the read.

Of course, I have tons of quibbles with wording or sub-arguments, ways of making points, choices of emblematic cases and the like in the longer BBS article (and I’ll get to a couple of those below the ‘fold’), but I don’t want to lose my over-arching sense that there is so much right in this piece. So before I get into the discussion, I just want to thank all of the authors, not just Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan, but also the authors of the responses, who pulled it together when I didn’t try. The collection is a really remarkable discussion, one that I find gratifying in such a prominent place, and I do hope that the target article has a significant impact on the behavioural sciences.

If you have one blockhead colleague who simply does not get that surveying his or her students in ‘Introduction to Psychology’ fails to provide instant access to ‘human nature,’ this is the article to pass along. If that colleague still doesn’t get it, please stop talking to them. Really. You. Are. Wasting. Your. Breath. If Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan don’t shake their confidence, I’m not sure what can.

The weirdest people in the world?

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Proceedings from ASCS 09 Conference online

The Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science, held in Sydney last year, are now online for anyone to access. Thanks to the editors, Wayne Christensen, Elizabeth Schier, and John Sutton, for pulling the whole collection together!

I didn’t get to stay for the whole conference because I was running around doing preparation things for the Australian Anthropological Society Conference that we held in December. Nevertheless, I saw some really good papers, and some of the others are especially interesting for those of us interested in neuroanthropology. Please peruse the whole list, but for a discussion of cultural variation in cognition, of special interest might be: Nian Liu’s Tuesday, Threesday, Foursday: Chinese names for the days of the week facilitate Chinese children’s temporal reasoning, Zhengdao Ye’s Eating and drinking in Mandarin and Shanghainese: A lexical-conceptual analysis, Collaborative remembering: When can remembering with others be beneficial? by Celia B. Harris, Paul G. Keil, John Sutton and Amanda J. Barnier, and Expanding expertise: Investigating a musician’s experience of music performance by Andrew Geeves, Doris McIlwain, and John Sutton.

I also like the look of Evaluation of a model of expert decision making in air traffic control, by Stefan Lehmann and colleagues, but I haven’t had the time to really read it (and won’t get time for a few days). Ben Jeffares’ paper was excellent in presentation, but I haven’t yet checked out the written version yet: The evolution of technical competence: strategic and economic thinking.

My paper from the conference, Cultural variation in elite athletes: Does elite cognitive-perceptual skill always converge?, is available as a pdf. I have to admit, it’s a shallower paper than I usually like to present, but I had to cover a LOT of turf, and it’s primarily a proposal for a research program, reviewing the neurological and behavioural places where I expect we might find the clearest evidence of cultural difference in neural dynamics. I’ll take the liberty of reposting the abstract:

Anthropologists have not participated extensively in the cognitive science synthesis for a host of reasons, including internal conflicts in the discipline and profound reservations about the ways that cultural differences have been modeled in psychology, neuroscience, and other contributors to cognitive science. This paper proposes a skills-based model for culture that overcomes some of the problems inherent in the treatment of culture as shared information. Athletes offer excellent cases studies for how skill acquisition, like enculturation, affects the human nervous system. In addition, cultural differences in playing styles of the same sport, such as distinctive ways of playing rugby, demonstrate how varying solution strategies to similar athletic problems produce distinctive skill profiles.

I’d love to hear any responses to the piece. I don’t usually present in cognitive science, as I’m more comfortable in my home discipline of anthropology, working from a pretty solid base of anthropology into the border of brain-culture research, so I’d be interested to learn what scholars situated more confidently in cognitive science think of the piece.

Videos from The Encultured Brain – NOW AVAILABLE!

Dear Loyal Readers (and Passers By) —

It gives me great pleasure to announce that you can apparently now access streaming .wmv files of the four long-format talks that were given at The Encultured Brain Conference at the University of Notre Dame in October 2009. No, you do not have to rush out to your video store, nor do you need to send me a stamped self-addressed envelope as well as a surprisingly large fee for ‘postage and handling.’ Yes, it has taken a while, so file this in the ‘much better late than never’ box, and enjoy.

At the moment, we do not yet have them posted on YouTube, but we are working on that, so there will likely be a second message very soon (maybe more) with the videos. I’d like to write some commentary on each as well, but I want to watch them again before I do so. The reason I say ‘apparently’ the videos are accessible is because I am a bit of a slow adapter, and between my computer and my current from-home Internet connection, I cannot watch them, but I’m certain our readers are more technologically sophisticated and media savvy than I am.

The talks can be linked to through:

Daniel Lende, Opening Address: “Neuroscience and the Real World”
Patricia Greenfield, Keynote Address 1: “Mirror Neurons and the Ontogeny and Phylogeny of Cultural Processes.”
Harvey Whitehouse, Keynote Address 2: “Explaining Religion.”
Greg Downey, Closing Address: “A Brain-Shaped Culture: Ambitions, Acknowledgments and Opportunities.”

If you want to read more before committing your computer to a streaming video, the abstracts for the talks are below the fold.
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Charlie Rose is back on the brain


Heidi Tan from the Charlie Rose show sent me an announcement about a recent broadcast because we had previously posted on discussions of the brain on Rose’s show (Find part one of that series here on YouTube or, better yet, go to the Charlie Rose website for the whole series of [currently] four episodes). Last night’s episode, ‘The Social Brain,’ included discussion with panelists Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University, Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma (Italy), Gerald Fischbach of the Simons Foundation, Kevin Pelphrey of Yale University and co-host Eric Kandel of Columbia University. The group discusses social interaction, mirror neurons, autism, aggression, learning and the need for greater research on the ‘social brain.’

“Although many aspects of social behavior are learned, one of the striking things we’re going to hear about is that some aspects of social behavior are determined by individual genes that have profound effects on how we act, whether we bond together as individuals, degrees of aggression, and other things.” (Eric Kandel, Nobel Laureate, Columbia University)

If you missed last night’s episode catch it again tonight on Bloomberg Television® at 8PM and 10PM ET, or listen to the interview simulcast on Bloomberg Radio. Bloomberg Radio is broadcast on 1130AM in the New York Metropolitan area and is available on XM and Sirius. There’s also a version online, but because my Internet connection is so slow right now, I can’t really watch it: go to http://www.charlierose.com/ if you want to check it out.

A transcript of the discussion can be found here.

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