Tag Archives: Steven Pinker

Talk like a post-human

A followup to Talk Like a Neanderthal Day

Thinking about how Neanderthals might have talked is one way to get at language evolution and how language works. Another way to do this is through science fiction. I’m not thinking so much of constructed languages like Quenya, Klingon, or Dothraki. There are whole communities of people out there – conlangers – busy inventing and learning such languages; some fun introductions are here and here. But mostly these languages are meant to fall within the range of variation of existing human languages. I’m thinking instead of some science fiction stories that imagine more radical alterations of language.

For example,

The Persistence of Vision. John Varley (1979)

A few decades into the future, the United States is falling apart. A drifter stumbles into a community of deaf-and-blind “Kellerites” who are doing pretty well for themselves in the New Mexico desert. They communicate partly by spelling out things in handtalk. “By handtalk I mean the International Manual Alphabet. Anyone can learn it in a few hours or days.” But Varley recognizes that handtalk is not a real language. For a real language the community uses shorthand. “Shorthand was not code for English or any other language; it did not share construction or vocabulary with any other language. … Each word was something I had to learn and memorize separately from the handtalk spelling.”

The Kellerites are fictional, but sign language is not. In Talking Hands, Margalit Fox (who also writes obituaries for the New York Times) writes about a Bedouin community in Israel with a high incidence of congenital deafness. Deaf kids there have spontaneously come up with their own sign language. This is a real language, not derived from Arabic or Hebrew, with “phonemes” that are combined to make signs that are more-or-less arbitrarily paired with meanings to yield words that can be combined into phrases and sentences according to rules of grammar. A nice detail: deaf babies exposed to sign language will start off “babbling” with their hands, just as hearing babies babble by making sounds. The human Language Acquisition Device (Chomsky’s phrase), an “instinct to acquire an art” (Darwin’s phrase), will work with whatever material it can get ahold of.

So Varley gets a lot right; I suspect he did some research on sign language for this story. If the deaf-and-blind ever did form their own community, and come up with their own language, it would be a full-blown language a lot like his shorthand.

On the other hand, this bit, with the Kellerites merging linguistic intercourse with the other kind of intercourse, is a little over the top:

But talk was talk, and if conversation evolved to the point where you needed to talk to another with your genitals, it was still a part of the conversation.

Or, as Eliza Doolittle said, “How kind of you to let me come.”

Gulf. Robert Heinlein (1949)

A tightly written spy tale, set a century or two in the future, where the United States went through World War III, went communist, and then got over it. It reads like a James Bond story as written by Francis Galton. The protagonist learns that there is a secret community of super-geniuses, who call themselves New Man (an allusion to real-life super-genius von Neumann? By the way, “Neander” also means “new man”). They work behind the scenes to keep humanity safe from itself. This sometimes involves some anti-fa vigilantism: “Two weeks from now there will be a giant pow-wow of the new, rejuvenated, bigger-and-better-than-ever Ku Klux Klan down Carolina way. When the fun is at its height, when they are mouthing obscenities, working each other up to the pogrom spirit, an act of God is going to wipe out the whole kit and caboodle. … Sad.”

And New Men have their own super-language, Speedtalk. Speedtalk violates one of the key design features of real languages, the duality of patterning. Real languages have one level of meaningless phonemes combined according to rules to make syllables (so spy fits the sound pattern of English, but psi – if you try to pronounce the p – does not). One or more syllables are then arbitrarily paired with meanings to make words, and then there is a second level where another set of rules determines what combinations of words make grammatical phrases. Even sign languages work this way.

But Speedtalk instead has just one level, pairing up individual phonemes with meanings. This is quite a stretch. In real languages, the inventory of words is orders of magnitudes greater than the inventory of phonemes. But Heinlein tells us that adding variations in length, stress, and pitch is enough “to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English [800+ words] so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in a ‘normal’ language, one Speedtalk word to an entire sentence.”

There’s more to Speedtalk than this. Heinlein was very taken with an intellectual fad of his time, General Semantics. General Semantics hovered somewhere between a serious intellectual endeavor and complete crackpottery. Firmly on the crackpot side of the line is Count Alfred Korzybski, who gets a chapter in a debunking book by Martin Gardner. Korzybski’s magnum opus Science and Sanity is all about how reforming language is the key to creating the first truly rational civilization. This means the verb “to be” has got to go. As Heinlein puts it. “One can think logically in English only by extreme effort, so bad is it as a mental tool. For example, the verb ‘to be’ in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every one of which is false-to-fact.”

Entertaining, but silly. The score today is: “to be” 1, General Semantics 0. If you want some real semantics, Pinker beats Korzybski.

The Citadel of the Autarch. Gene Wolfe (1982)

This is Book Four of a tetralogy. Millions of years in the future, Earth has sunk to a medieval level, albeit littered with bits and pieces of advanced technology indistinguishable from magic. Wolfe really, really likes to have you figure things out, instead of telling you, but you can work out that the action takes place in South America. An endless war is going on against the Ascians, a totalitarian state to the north. An Ascian prisoner of war tells a story, constructed entirely of canned slogans, while another character, Folia, interprets.

It starts off like this

The Ascian began to speak: “In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.”

Folia interpreted: “Once upon a time …”

“Let no one be idle. If one is idle let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them.  It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the House of Starvation.”

“There was a remote farm worked in partnership by people who were not related.”

“One is strong, another beautiful, a third a cunning artificer. Which is best? He who serves the populace.”

“On this farm there lived a good man.”

“Let the work be divided by a wise divider of work. Let the food be divided by a just divider of food. Let the pigs grow fat. Let the rats starve.”

“The others cheated him of his share.”

And so on.

Of course the story and its interpretation are fanciful. A functioning language has to be more than a collection of stock phrases. But the story illustrates something about the way real languages work. People don’t just communicate by encoding and decoding literal meanings, but by inferring one another’s communicative intentions, always thinking “I wonder what he meant by that.” There’s a whole branch of linguistics, linguistic pragmatics, that studies how this works. And pragmatic inference in language is just one instance of a special, powerful human aptitude for creating shared intentions. This aptitude means that there are always ways to subvert official speech, in any language, even Ascian or Newspeak. Or Korean: the news last year was that North Korea had banned sarcasm.

Officials told people that sarcastic expressions such as “This is all America’s fault” would constitute unacceptable criticism of the regime.

Note: Gene Wolfe is a combat veteran of the Korean War.

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Learn This One Weird Trick … (Part One)

… that humans use, and now you can too!

There are people who think that human beings are nothing special. Sure (the argument goes) people have uniquely large brains. But all sorts of creatures have unique features. Elephants are the only animals with trunks. Tamarins and marmosets are the only primates that give birth to twins. Platypuses are the only venomous mammals. Spotted hyenas are the only mammals whose females sport pseudo-penises (through which they give birth!). And so on. If we could ask members of these species they’d claim that they’re the special ones.

But of course we can’t ask them, and in any case, this isn’t a very convincing argument. Human beings have an absolutely outsize impact on the Earth, and the advent of human beings looks like one of the major evolutionary transitions, comparable in importance to the origin of the eukaryotic cell or multicellular life. But even if we buy this, it still leaves open the question of whether there’s a key adaptation – a One Weird Trick – that accounts for the exceptional course of human evolution. Here are some candidates that being are being batted around these days:

1) The cognitive niche. The basic idea is at least as old as Aristotle, that human brings are defined by their capacity for Reason. A modern version of this is advocated by evolutionary psychologist John Tooby and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. Pinker in particular has elaborated the argument that humans are uniquely adapted to acquire and share knowledge, by virtue of a suite of cognitive, social, and linguistic adaptations. We’ve already touched on several aspects of this: Human beings seem to have taken the capacity for thinking about physical space and retooled it for thinking about the abstract cognitive space of possession – a social relationship. (Other abstract cognitive spaces include kinship, time, and change-of-state.) And humans seem to harness the machinery for processing the sounds of interacting solid objects in creating major categories of phonemes. For a more complete exposition, here’s an academic article by Pinker, and a talk on youtube.

2) Culture. Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson, who’ve done a lot of mathematical modeling of cultural evolution, are skeptical about the “cognitive niche” argument. Too much culture, they argue, is things that have been learned by trial-and-error, and are passed on from one generation to the next without people understanding why they work. Boyd and Richerson appeal, as anthropologists have for generations, to the importance of culture. We mentioned earlier their argument that the frequency of climate change in the Ice Age was nicely calibrated to favor social learning rather than individual learning or instinct. Joseph Henrich provides a recent defense of the importance of culture. Contra Pinker, he thinks humans often don’t have a good cause-and-effect understanding of the things they do, but depend heavily on imitation and the accumulated wisdom of the elders.

Coming up: Part Two. Recursion and Shared Intentionality

My handaxe

1.31-1.23 million years ago

By today’s date, Acheulean tools are well developed in Africa, and found in India too. Sophisticated tools like the Acheulean hand axe probably tell us something not just about cognition in relation to tool making, but also about social cognition. You wouldn’t make a hand axe, use it, and abandon it. Nor would you go to all the trouble if the biggest, baddest guy in the group was immediately going to grab it from you. So there is probably some notion of artifacts-as-personal-possessions by the time Acheulean appears.

Possession is a social relationship, a relationship between two or more individuals with respect to the thing possessed. Robinson Crusoe didn’t “own” anything on his island before Friday came along.

Linguists have noted something interesting about the language of possession that maybe tells us something about the psychology of possession: Expressions for possession are often similar to expressions for spatial locations. Compare spatial expressions:

João went to Recife.
Chico stayed in Rio.
The gang kept Zezinho in Salvador.

and corresponding constructions for possessions:

The Crampden estate went to Reginald.
The Hampden estate stayed with Lionel.
Thag kept axe.

Of course the Crampden estate didn’t go anywhere in physical space, but it still traveled in the abstract social space of possession. In some cases just switching from inanimate to animate subject will switch the meaning from locative to possessive. The Russian preposition y means at/near when applied to a place (People are at Nevsky street) but possession when applied to a person (Hat is “at” Ivan = Ivan has hat.)

What may be going on here: people (and many other creatures) have some mental machinery for thinking about physical space. That machinery gets retooled/borrowed/exapted for thinking about more abstract relationships. So the cognitive psychology of space gets retooled for thinking about close and distant social relationships, or time ahead and behind. In other words, we may be seeing a common evolutionary phenomenon of organs evolved for one purpose being put to another purpose – reptile jaw bones evolve into mammalian inner ear bones, dinosaur forelimbs evolve into bird wings. You can find Steve Pinker making this argument in his book The Stuff of Thought. For a while most of the evidence of repurposing spatial cognition for more abstract relationships came from linguistics, but there’s now some corroboration from neurology.

And I’ve made the argument for the particular case of kinship: regularities in kin terminology across cultures tell us something about pan-human ideas of “kinship space.” (My kin and my body parts are arguably the most basic, intrinsic primitive sorts of possessions, since long before my handaxe.) This implies that the evolutionary psychology of kinship has not just an adaptive component (adaptations for calculating coefficients of relatedness and inbreeding), but also a phylogenetic component  (homologies with the cognitive psychology of space).

 

We’ll see other possible examples, involving e.g. the evolution of speech sounds, as we move along.

Culture wars

Since 1981, the World Values Survey Association has been carrying out surveys around the world regarding people’s values, asking respondents, for example, whether most people can be trusted, and whether they are proud of their country. A lot of the variation in values across countries falls along two axes, survival versus well-being and self-expression, and tradition versus secular rationality, shown as the x and y axes in the chart below.

world-values-values

In societies high on survival and low on well-being people tend be less trusting and less happy, and to value money and material well-being more than emotionally rewarding careers. In societies high on traditional authority, people are more patriotic and more religious.

We can also plot countries around the world by their positions on the two axes, as in the chart below.

world-values-countries

A few observations: Confirming everyone’s stereotypes, Sweden is extreme both in post-materialism, and in post-traditionalism. The Anglosphere is more traditional than the Continental Protestant world, and Latin America more traditional than the Continental Catholic world. Soviet Communism did a moderately effective job of destroying traditional values, and a really good job of leaving people miserable.

Values change over time. Economic changes tend to result in changing values, while changing values tend to result in changing political institutions. More specifically, the growth of industrial employment tends to move societies up the y-axis, away from traditional values, without shifting them much on the x-axis. The history of rapidly industrializing late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Europe reflects this value shift, with new ideologies and leaders spurning traditional authority while fighting to make sure their followers came out on top in the struggle for existence.

More recent economic changes, toward post-industrialism, tend to move societies rightward on the x axis. The declining levels of violence documented by Pinker, as well our halting progress toward a more democratic world, are reflections of this. These are encouraging developments, but matters are complicated by the fact that this movement is highly uneven, both across and within countries. We no longer see the stark divisions of Cold War era. But in many areas around the world, people find themselves in a house divided against itself on cultural matters. Paradoxically (as I tweeted yesterday), this can make for more conflict.

 

The modern synthesis and the blank slate

March 1941-March 1946

For most of the later nineteenth century after the publication of On the Origin of Species. biologists were skeptical of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolutionary change – natural selection. It was only in the twentieth century that this began to change. When Mendel’s work on heredity was rediscovered in 1900, it was originally seen by many as antithetical to Darwinism. But with the pioneering theoretical work of Fisher, Haldane, and Wright, and the subsequent empirical work of Mayr, Dobzhansky, Simpson, Huxley, Stebbins, and others, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s theory of heredity were combined in what came to be called “the modern synthesis.” Julian Huxley’s book Evolution: The Modern Synthesis marked the coming of age of the theory.

In an earlier post I noted how Lyell and Darwin’s embrace of gradualism in explaining the past (as well as George Eliot’s celebration of Dorothea Brooke’s “unhistoric acts” and “hidden life”) had something to do with the political climate in England in the years after the French Revolution and Napoleon. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis was first published in 1942. It’s no surprise that the modern synthesis too was a product of its time, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offered gruesome antithetical demonstrations of how not to think about evolution, genes, and behavior.

Not coincidentally, at the same time that biologists in England and the United States were advancing the modern synthesis, social scientists – cultural anthropologists, behaviorist psychologists – were coming to embrace a strong blank slate view of human nature. (Carl Degler tells the American side of the story in In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought.) There grew up something amounting to a peace treaty between evolutionary biology and the social sciences, with the two fields agreeing to respect each others’ spheres of influence. Social scientists would leave biology to the biologists, accepting, for example, that neither a good upbringing nor acquired skills can improve your genes. Biologists in turn would largely steer clear of addressing social behavior. For example, the theory of sexual selection, which Darwin developed, and Fisher elaborated, was mostly dropped from the modern synthesis as it matured. Huxley argued (pretty unconvincingly in retrospect) that the elaborate mating dances and ornaments found in so many species were not a product of sexual selection, but merely helped to let individuals choose the right species of mate. Westermarck’s pioneering work on the evolutionary psychology of incest avoidance and the incest taboo was largely shelved in favor of the shakier theories of Freud and Lévi-Strauss. Even Darwin’s work on emotional expression, which might have seemed fairly anodyne politically, was largely rejected by anthropologists. And the study of prehistory was affected as well.

It was only beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of sociobiology, that evolutionary biologists returned to seriously addressing social behavior. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), by E. O Wilson, made a nod to Huxley in its subtitle. It also announced the end of an intellectual peace treaty, and the opening of an intellectual war that persists up to the present.

Learn This One Weird Trick … (Part One)

… that humans use, and now you can too!

There are people who think that human beings are nothing special. Sure (the argument goes) people have uniquely large brains. But all sorts of creatures have unique features. Elephants are the only animals with trunks. Tamarins and marmosets are the only primates that give birth to twins. Platypuses are the only venomous mammals. Spotted hyenas are the only mammals whose females sport pseudo-penises (through which they give birth!). And so on. If we could ask members of these species they’d claim that they’re the special ones.

But of course we can’t ask them, and in any case, this isn’t a very convincing argument. Human beings have an absolutely outsize impact on the Earth, and the advent of human beings looks like one of the major evolutionary transitions, comparable in importance to the origin of the eukaryotic cell or multicellular life. But even if we buy this, it still leaves open the question of whether there’s a key adaptation – a One Weird Trick – that accounts for the exceptional course of human evolution. Here are some candidates that being are being batted around these days:

1) The cognitive niche. The basic idea is at least as old as Aristotle, that human brings are defined by their capacity for Reason. A modern version of this is advocated by evolutionary psychologist John Tooby and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. Pinker in particular has elaborated the argument that humans are uniquely adapted to acquire and share knowledge, by virtue of a suite of cognitive, social, and linguistic adaptations. We’ve already touched on several aspects of this: Human beings seem to have taken the capacity for thinking about physical space and retooled it for thinking about the abstract cognitive space of possession – a social relationship. (Other abstract cognitive spaces include kinship, time, and change-of-state.) And humans seem to harness the machinery for processing the sounds of interacting solid objects in creating major categories of phonemes. For a more complete exposition, here’s an academic article by Pinker, and a talk on youtube.

2) Culture. Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson, who’ve done a lot of mathematical modeling of cultural evolution, are skeptical about the “cognitive niche” argument. Too much culture, they argue, is things that have been learned by trial-and-error, and are passed on from one generation to the next without people understanding why they work. They appeal, as anthropologists have for generations, to the importance of culture. We mentioned earlier their argument that the frequency of climate change in the Ice Age was nicely calibrated to favor social learning rather than individual learning or instinct. Joseph Henrich provides a recent defense of the importance of culture. Contra Pinker, he thinks humans often don’t have a good cause-and-effect understanding of the things they do, but depend heavily on imitation and the accumulated wisdom of the elders.

Coming up: Part Two. Recursion and Shared Intentionality

My handaxe

By today’s date, around 1.3 million years ago, Acheulean tools are well developed in Africa, and found in India too. Sophisticated tools like the Acheulean hand axe probably tell us something not just about cognition in relation to tool making, but also about social cognition. You wouldn’t make a hand axe, use it, and abandon it. Nor would you go to all the trouble if the biggest, baddest guy in the group was immediately going to grab it from you. So there is probably some notion of artifacts-as-personal-possessions by the time Acheulean appears.

Possession is a social relationship, a relationship between two or more individuals with respect to the thing possessed. Robinson Crusoe didn’t “own” anything on his island before Friday came along.

Linguists have noted something interesting about the language of possession that maybe tells us something about the psychology of possession: Expressions for possession are often similar to expressions for spatial locations. Compare spatial locations;

João went to Recife.
Chico stayed in Rio.
The gang kept Zezinho in Curitiba.

and corresponding constructions for possessions

The Crampden estate went to Reginald.
The Hampden estate stayed with Lionel.
Thag kept axe.

Of course the Crampden estate didn’t go anywhere in physical space, but it still traveled in the abstract social space of possession. In some cases just switching from inanimate to animate will switch the meaning from locative to possessive. The Russian preposition y means at/near when applied to a place (People are at Nevsky street) but possession when applied to a person (Hat is “at” Ivan = Ivan has hat.)

What may be going on here: people (and many other creatures) have some mental machinery for thinking about physical space. That machinery gets retooled/borrowed/exapted for thinking about more abstract relationships. The cognitive psychology of space gets retooled for thinking about other abstract relationships too: close and distant kin, time ahead and behind. (You can find Steve Pinker making this argument in The Stuff of Thought.) In other words, we may be seeing a common evolutionary phenomenon of organs evolved for one purpose being put to another purpose – reptile jaw bones evolve into mammalian inner ear bones, dinosaur forelimbs evolve into bird wings. We’ll see other possible examples, involving e.g. the evolution of speech sounds, as we move along.