Recently in Evolution (Mammals Together) Category

Why Language Specific Infant Wailing?


This is a comment on a blog commenting on a story.

Recent studies have been showing that infant brains are undergoing the phonological acquisition process as soon as they are born (and likely before). Studies have shown that babbling (ca 7 months) is influenced by their caregiver's languages Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies, e.g. B de Boysson-Bardies, L Sagart, C Durand (1984) and that babies recognize and prefer to focus on people speaking the native language of their caregivers.

The latest study is one announcing that babies change their pitch placement according to linguistic environment. To be fair, Mark Liberman of Language Log has some methodological issues, but I will assume for argument's sake that the language-specific wailing hypothesis is correct.

My actual concern is a comment made by blogger Nicolas Cladière (who is NOT the author of the original study). And that comment is:

To me, this suggests an interesting evolutionary hypothesis. If newborns are able to produce language-specific cries from their very first day, it could be because the production of such cries increases the likelihood that mothers and other caregivers take good care of the newborn. Note that under this hypothesis, the fact that newborns' cry melodies are similar to their caregivers' tongue melody is not necessarily related to the fact that they are learning a language. We could imagine two perfectly independent systems. On the one hand a baby crying system tuned to the caregivers' tongue prosody to elicit attention and on the other hand a baby language production system maturing more slowly. Of course, the alternative hypothesis is that when they are born, newborns' language systems have already matured to the point where sound production is influenced by previous exposure to their linguistic stimuli. And this may, or may not, help elicit response by caregivers.

It IS an interesting hypothesis, but one I don't find plausible. For one thing, I would suspect that the vast majority of mothers are raising their children in the context of a larger community in which other mothers and children are speaking the same language. That is most children in State College PA are being raised in an American English community, while those in a small town in Japan will be raised in a Japanese community. What you have are multiple mothers all speaking the same language.

If you are raising a child in an environment where everyone is speaking the same language, then all the infants will presumably be crying in the same language. Mothers who are distinguishing their own infant cries from in this environment must rely on some other mechanism independent of language.

Another objection I have is how difficult it would be to ignore a non-native infant cry. Again, I suspect that it's hard to ignore a wailing infant in general. Infants have loudness and target pitches on their side. Assuming an evolutionary approach, one could argue that there is a very distinct advantage for a cry to draw the attention of any adult even if the caregiver (or anyone else in the tribe) is not available. If there is a language specific effect, I think it would be more subtle than not.

So...if we do have language specific cries from an infant, what would it mean? It could mean that a child is doing some phonological practice on the side. The process itself may have no direct evolutionary advantage, it it leads to an outcome that has a huge advantage - being able to speak a language with native speaker proficiency.

Teaching in the Wild?


I ran into a great interview with primatologist Rebecca Saxe (NOVA/WGBH) about the relative inability of chimps to teach in the same ways humans do. I wrote one entry on my Teaching with Technology blog about some of her observations, but I noticed some other observations that I thought I would mention here.

One comment Saxe made was that human children have two pointing gestures. The first that emerges is children pointing to something they want right now! Apparently many species, including chimpanzees, share this gesture.

The second pointing gesture is when a child points at he or she wants to show to parents for some other reason (e.g. bunny rabbit!). According to Saxe, parents look for this gesture and become excited since it is an early form of interaction. A communicative pointing instinct?

I would want to check to see if most cultures had this gesture (Saxe may have data, but it wouldn't appear in this article), but since all cultures interpret basic facial expressions the same way, it seems plausible to me. In fact this pointing gesture seems to be the quintessential reason why some scholars speculate that language and gestures are related.

The other interesting question is if other species can "teach". It seems clear that humans may be the only primates to have this level of cultural transmission, but what about dolphins, orcas and dogs? A BBC news story commented that dolphins may name themselves while scientists are finding evidence of cultural differences among dolphin and orca pods (e.g. some orcas are "killer whales" who eat meat and other are vegetarian orcas).

Even dogs may show cultural differences as documented in Stanley Coren's How Dogs Think. Coren even discusses that dogs such as Saint Bernard rescue dogs and herder dogs may actually train each other.

We know that dogs and dolphins can be trained to do quite a wide variety of tasks. They have to be pretty darned good learners, especially if they can learn in the homo sapiens educational system.

Ah...The Gathering Instinct


As many of us learned from a PBS documentary, humans were "hunter-gatherers" in the days agriculture developed. Since this "hunting and gathering" has gone on for much longer than agriculture, many anthropologists and biologists have speculated on what impact this has had on humanity as a species.

Normally though, I hear more references to the "hunting" instinct and its impact on our species. Topics have included the thrill of "the chase", cooperation within the hunting band and speculations on the thrill of the "kill" (not to mention the thrill of the grill). Those who believe that some of the weirder aspects of human behavior can be explained by evolution tend to believe that many humans still have a "hunting" instinct of some sort.

Rarely however, do I hear discussions of the "gathering" instinct (at least not so much in popular science). Yet "gathering" is probably the more productive of our food gathering strategies - although hunting does give you the higher value "protein".

So in one of those odd caffeinated moments in the car, I asked myself we still "gather" as well as "hunt"? And then it hit me - we shop!

More importantly, we often shop even if we don't need to. After all, do the Gossip Girls really need another pair of shoes? Do I really need to buy another novel when I have a stack on my bed table? Of course not. And gadget gurus - if you've been able to cope without the iPhone did you really need to be in line at 4 AM on the first sale day? Just asking....

It's not just in modern Western culture either that shops. Archaeology is full of evidence for cultures going to great lengths to obtain the right gemstones, the best dyes and even the best flint for your flint tool set (those things work!) And there has always been a luxury food market. They don't call chocolate the "food of the gods" for nothing.

So is anyone investigating this all-important human activity? Yes actually, and some very interesting regults can be found at Design of Desire. Marketers have always been interested in exploiting the shopping instinct, but it's also good that there's some neuro and cognitive science behind this too. As much as we may not want to admit, our desire to gather and hoard really does drive a lot of our economic behavior.

(OK - That was such a good site - I had to share it with you!)

Mammals Together Category


I'm a believer in the power of culture, but I confess here that I'm also a believer in the mammalian instincts that drive a lot of our cultural choices (especially stranger aspects like gossip, fashion and professional sports).

Before you think it sounds like I'm reducing humans to blind instinct, I should mention that I think that mammals (especially the social mammals like chimps, dolphins, dogs, elephants and others) are turning out to be a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

I think it's interesting to compare human behavior to other mammalian behavior. There are some obvious differences (thankfully, we have given up the social butt sniffing of dogs). But some things never change - like the efficiency of peer to peer learning (see dogs teaching other dogs the rules of the household).

One book I recommend is How Dogs Learn by Stanley Coren in which he describes a St. Bernard rescue work training program conducted entirely by the St. Bernards. Dogs can apparently develop individual cultures and workplace habits by themselves.

Fortunately, humans will always have cultural heritage and old-fashioned "free will" to fall back on in a pinch!

Dolphins Name Themselves


This is about a year out of date, but scientists did find that dolphins used different series of whistles to identify each other.

Apparently chimps still rely on identifying voices rather than name alone. Dolphins, on the other hand can recognize names even from a speech synthesizer. Scientists claim that dolphins choose their own names as infants (instinct or culture?)

Linguists are constantly asked about animal language, but this has been the most exciting evidence of I've seen for a complex communication system in another species. Chimp two word signing hasn't been nearly as exciting (sigh).

Language Geek Notes

1 - Dolphin phonology is apparently based on the whistle (not surprising), but no human language is (even though imitating whistles/bird calls is a reasonably common skill)