Deacon featured on PLoS Neuroanthropology

Neuroanthropology has moved to PLoS Neuroanthropology.

Our recent feature was Terrence Deacon’s article on the evolution of language in PNAS (May, 2010). You may like to read our in-depth post. Here’s a teaser:

Deacon (2010) puts forward an argument that language was not exclusively the product of the interorganismic processes of natural and sexual selection. Interorganismic processes include differential reproduction, divergence, drift, recombination and environment-correlated preservation (niche complementation). Deacon hypothesises that language evolved from the space for innovation afforded by the relaxation of selective pressures and the recruitment of intraorganismic evolution-like processes. Intraorganismic processes include redundancy, degeneracy, epigenetic accommodation, and synergy-correlated preservation (redistribution and complexification).

To read our more in-depth summary visit PLoS Neuroanthropology. And you can also check below the fold for a video of Deacon lecturing, as well as links to other coverage of Deacon’s work.

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The new linguistic relativism: Guy Deutscher in the NYTimes
How does language affect thought and perception? It’s a question we’ve looked at here at on a number of occasions, but Prof. Guy Deutscher, offers a nice general survey of the current state of play in the research over at The New York Times in ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think?’ Posts on language tend to attract a lot of traffic, so I’d encourage you to take a look.

Prof. Guy Deutscher
Prof. Deutscher is an accomplished linguist, who has written a number of general works as well as specialist works, including research on Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon and Assyria. Deutscher is honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester, and the article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, to be published by Metropolitan Books.

Deutscher lays out a number of different areas of research that suggest language affects thought, especially in the areas of gender, spatial perception, time, and colour perception, and suggests some areas where profound linguistic differences offer tantalizing possibilities for studying the subtle ways that linguistic practice can influence cognition.

Although I feel Deutscher is unreasonably harsh on Whorf, in part because some contemporary understandings of Benjamin Whorf paint him as a more radical linguistic determinist than I find him to be, the research Deutscher discusses is well worth considering, and it’s a nifty piece to share with our regular readers.

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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 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 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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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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Great Expectations: Conference on Brain Plasticity

Back in February, the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in Copenhagen hosted a fantastic looking conference, “Great Expectations: The Plasticity of the Brain and Neurosciences at the Threshold: Nature and Nurture – And Beyond…” The conference was organized by GNOSIS Research Centre – Mind and Thinking Initiative.

It had a great line-up: Steven Rose, Douglas Hofstader, Maxine Sheet-Johnson, Timothy Ingold, and a host of Danish scholars whose work we can now all expore. The three days of the conference each addressed a different theme: Brain Plasticity, Awareness and Intentionality, and Beyond Dualisms.

You can read the Introductory Statement on the conference. Here’s one paragraph from the end:

Neuroscience seems to have learned from its critics. Reductive and neurocentric positions have to give way to the ideas that the plastic brain is capable of learning for life, and that both bodily movement as well as social activity leaves clearly formed traces in the development of the brain. Whenever we pray, learn to ride a bicycle, or read a book, the brain changes. The brain is not destiny. Are there no limits, human and neurobiological, to how much we can learn and to the extent that upbringing might effect changes in the brain?

The best thing is that you can get the videos from all the talks. So here is Steven Rose on The Future of the Brain – Promises and Perils of the Neurosciences (preceed by an intro to the conference), Jesper Morgensen on Any Limits to Neuroplasticity?, and Tim Ingold on The Social Brain.

You can access the entire program and all the videos at the Great Expectations conference website.

Thinking through Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1908-2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the true giants of anthropology, passed away this past week on 30 October, just shy of 101 years old.

As Maurice Bloch writes, Lévi-Strauss was ‘the last survivor of these great beasts such as Sartre, Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu,’ the theorists who have given contemporary anthropology, and social theory around the world, a French accent and Gallic cadence.

Excellent obituaries appeared in a number of places, two of my favourites being the one by Bloch in The Guardian, and another by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times (thanks, Jovan!).

I’m not going to retread the substance of these obituaries, nor will I repeat what was better (and more quickly) written by other commentators online such as Rex at Savage Minds, Marshall Sahlins at the AAA website (for the 100th birthday), Richard Price, a student of Lévi-Strauss, and Robert Mackey at the NYTimes website, The influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss (a piece that links to a number of video clips in English and French, including interviews with other scholars). Instead, I’m going to write briefly about the relation of Lévi-Strauss to the study of brain and culture from my perspective.

I’ve been wanting to write a post on Lévi-Strauss for a while, and even started it once, because I’ve been grappling with the question about how neuroanthropology aspires to produce theoretical and empirical projects that are distinct from what is typically called ‘cognitive anthropology.’ Lévi-Strauss’ work is crucial to the foundation of cognitive anthropology, as a range of authors have argued (see Sperber 2008, for example), so he’s a critical point of departure for neuroanthropology.

Although I admire Lévi-Strauss, and I’m perfectly content to be considered close classificatory kin to cognitive anthropology, there are some characteristics of Lévi-Strauss’s thought, structuralism (the theoretical school Lévi-Strauss dominated, but which did not encompass all of his work [see Doja 2008]), and contemporary cognitive anthropology with which I fundamentally disagree. So although this post is written in respect, it has elements of opposition, perhaps even the false binarism that arises whenever one is trying to highlight distinctiveness in the midst of significant overlap. Beware the theoretical belligerence of small difference!
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