Asian father and son talking

Albert Einstein is synonymous with genius in the popular mind. And he is. His formulation of the relationship of matter mass E= mc² has entered the language and consciousness of every literate person on earth. Still, as widely embracing as this formula is, it is not all-embracing. Physicists are still struggling to discover the “theory of everything”, a unified field theory that will explain phenomena on the macro-scale of the universe, the micro-scale of quantum mechanics, and the mysterious force we call ‘dark energy’.

Charles Darwin on the other hand, is coming close to explaining almost ‘everything’. Chemical reactions involves competition among trillions of molecules, and the best pair fit to interact will mate and produce “offspring” -a brand new baby molecule. Animals compete in a variety of way, and the ones best adapted to the environment will survive and thrive. But what about culture? We describe cultures as evolving over time, but what we really mean is that they change, not necessarily in Darwinian terms. Well, turns out that culture evolves in a Darwinian sense as well, and in astonishing ways.

Nature! No, nurture! Why can’t we all get along?

Classical linguists zealously defended the cultural origin of their specialty against any suggestion that Genetics, or Natural Selection, or anything that smacks of “hard science” had a role in the evolution of language. The differences of opinion (and the barely concealed mutual disdain) reached such a fevered pitch that the two specialties stopped talking to each other. The “structuralists”, the most famous among them Noam Chomsky, an MIT linguist, argued that the syntactical framework of language is hard-wired in specialized regions in the brain. “Culturalists” vehemently dismissed this assertion, citing voluminous data from field work on languages of isolated tribes in the jungles of South America and Africa showing that languages are so dissimilar as to preclude common brain circuits. Of course, as is often the case, they were both right. The brain indeed has specialized areas that make language possible, but by themselves do not dictate the genesis of language. Culture took advantage of those neurological structures to form the thousands of languages that sprouted throughout human existence.

My tools made me talk

In a fascinating article in Science Dennis Normile summarizes the proceedings of two back-to-back meetings, the Ninth International Conference on the Evolution of Language, Tokyo, March 13-16, 2012 and the Evolutionary Linguistics Forum, 19 March, 2012. Lo and behold, the twain did meet, and talked, and shed a bright light on wonderful developments in the field. Here are a few examples.

Evolutionary developmental theorists (dubbed Evo Devo) as far back as Charles Darwin in The descent of Man speculated that there may be a connection between language and stone toolmaking. As Michael Arbib, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles put it “You look at the archaeological relics and try to infer the behavior involved” in making them.

The inferences start with the earliest known examples of human technology, Oldowan cutting tools. Dating back 2.6 million years, they are

simple stone flakes with sharp edges knapped off crude “cores” using “hammerstones.” Such tools gradually became more refined, achieving a high level of sophistication about 700,000 years ago with Late Acheulean handaxes.

 High-tech by comparison, these were deliberately crafted into oval or teardrop shapes in multistep manufacturing processes that required planning and significant skill. One hypothesis is that the cognitive capabilities that supported toolmaking gave the toolmakers language-ready brains; then the benefits of instructing succeeding generations in how to make tools drove the emergence of language. This is the key: the need to transmit information is mother of invention of language. How do you go about demonstrating it?

groups led by Dietrich Stout, an archaeologist at Emory University in Atlanta, and Thierry Chaminade, a cognitive neuroscientist at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, have taken to actually reproducing stone tools while tracking neural activity with positron emission tomography. In a series of experiments reported over the past 5 years, they showed that Oldowan toolmaking activates the left ventral premotor cortex, a region previously shown to be involved in both manual grip coordination and phonological processing. Late Acheulean tool production relies on those same regions, they found, plus other areas of the brain, including the inferior frontal gyrus, which is associated with abstraction and hierarchical organization (needed for executing subgoals along the way to a final product, for example), as well as larger scale discourse and language processing.

Of course, language  evolution driven by tools is happening right in front of our eyes. For somebody who has never twitted in his life the language that is evolving because of the limitation of 140 characters on Twitter is a revelation. It is highly intuitive and easy to master, which are prerequisites to a successful dissemination of language. A UCLA linguistic professor pointed out that in a few years we will finally arrive at the language of the future: the hieroglyphics! Just consider single letters representing whole words (U, R,) and emoticons representing emotional content and you’d realize that Twitterese is already a hieroglyphic language.

Birds do it…

We are not the only animals that communicate. If we just stopped and listened to the world around us we’d hear a symphony of languages. Dogs bark to express happiness, or alarm, or aggressiveness; and if you listen closely you could discern which is which. Elephants communicate over miles and miles to convey their location, their distress, sadness, happiness -a complete vocabulary of cognition and emotion.

And of course, the birds. Their dazzling variety of songs has attracted language researchers trying to deconstruct their complex structure in an effort to build a “dictionary” of bird songs. The interesting facts that emerge from this research is that the basic capability of singing is hard-wired, the rough outline of the song is genetically transmitted as well. But the nuances, which give the songs their color and texture, are learned behavior, transmitted from one generation to the next. When we take our morning walk we hear within three miles a whole variety of songs by

the same species, the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) . But they all share the same general outline ( the leitmotif, in music), which makes it so easily recognizable as a song sparrow song. Such variation within a few hundred feet cannot be genetically determined -it is culturally transmitted.

Speaking of bird songs, what about music? The music-making is an ancient trait of humans. Flutes made by early European settlers about 40,000 years ago were found in caves in Germany. Did music undergo Darwinian natural selection? The fascinating answer in the next posting.



Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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