More Crazy “Science” / Human Language Speculation

This article, and related research, (use links), comes under my favorite heading: Our brains are smarter than we are. 

Psychology Today / Steven Kotler

New Ideas About the Origin of Language – Did Language Develop Because Trade Developed?

May 01, 2010

There’s some new research (link is external) coming out of the University of Rochester that sheds a bit of light on the origin of language in humans. What these researchers were looking into was if there’s one certain area of the brain that gives humans advanced language capabilities over other animals. (Assumption – OUR language is de facto superior, regardless of the fact that it would be of absolutely no use to “other” animals, which have their own communication systems that are adaptations to THEIR environments) To this end, they designed a great experiment (which was published in the latest edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) to determine if different brain regions were used to decipher sentences with different types of grammar. (This is not as straightforward as it sounds. 1. These are contemporary artifacts of language used by contemporary humans, which CANNOT be assumed to have been present in early human language 2. We have seen in numerous articles, experiments and studies how the limits of what can be factually “known” by using brain imagery is IGNORED)

Languages like English use word order to establish meaning. “John hugs Susan” means John is subject doing the hugging, while Susan is the one feeling the squeeze. But other languages, like say Spanish, rely on inflection-and suffixes tacked onto the ends of words-to convey subject-object relationship (while word order remains interchangeable).

Sign language, though, can do both. (The assumption is, that sign language, which requires visual activity, is assumed to be processed just like verbal language) So the researchers put native signers (people who are deaf from birth) inside an MRI machine and showed them video of other native signers signing 24 sentences twice. One time they would sign using the sentence with the word-order arrangement, the next time would use inflection for emphasis. What the researchers found is that there are two separate parts of the brain used to process these two types of different sentences – (In people who are deaf from birth. We’re chopping the brain into pieces again, and using these subdivisions to “justify” wild speculation about the origin and evolution of human language.)

A sentence that draws its meaning from word order draws on the parts of the prefrontal cortex that we use to put information into sequences, while the inflection type lights up the temporal lobe which specializes in dividing language into separate parts. (Circular reasoning: if we already “know” that these “brain parts” do what the study is “looking for”, then why bother with the study? It’s “obviously” just a repeat of “conclusive” prior studies.)

This suggests that one of the crucial distinctions between human and animals lies not in the architecture of the brain, rather in the ways we establish connections between locations within that architecture. (Does it? This relies on the assumption that the “chopped into pieces” brain model is correct, which it isn’t, and that human language is explained by “different” connections between anatomically generated “parts” (useful in dissection) This ignores the rest of the physiology necessary to human speech, and the “other” attributes that aid communication: body language, visual perception, hand gestures, etc.)

Richard Granger, head of the Brain Engineering department at Dartmouth University, has come to similar conclusions. Granger has spent much of his career looking for the parts of the human brain (that) are actually different from other animal’s brains. “The first thing you need to know is you can count the neurological differences between humans and animals on the fingers of both hands,” he told me not too long ago. “Mostly they’re tiny, inconsequential blips. None account for things like language, for any skill we would put under the Cartesian heading of ‘human specialness.'” (Cartesian: Mind Body duality again. Are we looking for “language origin” or “human specialness”? )

What accounts for those skills, according to Granger, is brain size. (SIZE, not “magic specialness”! At last, something “real”)

“If brains are computers than (and) both humans and animals have the same hardware and the same software, ours just comes in a bigger box. Because of that bigger box, our neurons have more space to make more connections with other neurons. In the wiring diagram of the brain, we have more wires. And this bigger box and these few more wires are the source of our superpowers. (What superpowers? Compared to….?)

This is essentially the argument Granger, alongside UC Irvine psychiatrist Gary Lynch, made in their recent book Big Brain (link is external). It’s also what the University of Rochester experiment points towards, but it raises a very interesting question.

If, as these ideas seem to claim, the development of language actually required  the recruitment and wiring together of a bunch of preexisting computational structures within the brain, this begs the question of causation. (Here we go!) Meaning all mammals have these same brain structures so why did this ability develop in humans and not in other animals? (Yes, as my comment above: Every animal on the planet is “inferior” to us because they can’t “talk to us” They are literally “dumb” – anthropomorphism. However, this focal function of “computational power” as the superpower of the human brain could account for our utter lack of wisdom and forethought concerning the consequences of our “superpowers” – like destroying the planet)

According to Richard Leakey, Homo sapiens did not posses the necessary anatomy to produce language until about 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. Meanwhile, Steven Pinker has argued that since all modern humans have identical language abilities along with a universal grammar, it makes sense (not really) that language appeared concurrently with the first appearance of modern humans about 200,000 years ago. Furthermore, there was a more than a tripling of brain size during the period between the first appearance the genus Homo (in the form of Homo habilis – that’s Homo erectus) about two million years ago until Homo sapiens appeared, suggesting that the brain developed in that period partly in order to accommodate the new language centers. (Anticipatory evolution again)

So, here are our “choices” so far:

1. anatomically, language “appeared” 300,000-400,000 years ago.

2. language “appeared” 200,000 years ago (based on the assumption that “modern humans” appeared 200,000 years ago – and they were ‘just like us” in every way, including the use of verbal language just like ours today)

3. The “magical” proposition that since “human language” was the ultimate goal of evolution, the brain began “ramping up” in size 2 million years ago, in anticipation of becoming our modern superpower brain.

But wait!

There is a totally different theory which looks at the spread of tool use–a spread that could only have happened if language existed for various tribes to tell others about how to make and use these tools. (Here’s where I absolutely loose it! Why does no one acknowledge that VISUAL processes and learning existed PRIOR to verbal language, and remain the “preferred” method of teaching many old and new skills and arts? It’s ridiculous and ignorant prejudice on the part of “brain scientists” to not even acknowledge visual thinking.

Conscious tool making (as opposed to using whatever rock is at hand) didn’t begin until about 200,000 years ago, (remember, conscious means verbal processing, so unless you are “creating” a tool using “magic words”, don’t call it conscious. At best, words may be used for emphasis in tool-making; “watch this, look carefully, hit here, this is best” etc. No early human gave a lecture or wrote a booklet on How to Make a Nifty Tool!)  but it wasn’t until about 35,000 years ago that tool making became a really dynamic process, suggesting that real language might not have developed until 35,000 years ago.

Where does this “absolutism” come from? From modern human assumptions about the unquestioned superiority of modern social humans; a narrative that requires a cobbled together causation (linear progression) that connects selected or imaginary “dots” that ENDS IN “US” (ie – EuroAmerican academic narcissists.)

But there’s something in the University of Rochester research that makes this last part especially interesting. Matt Ridley has a new book coming out called The Rational Optimist (link is external). It’s a fantastic read essentially arguing that specialization and the trade that emerged from specialization was the essential driver of human cultural evolution. It’s a great book and one I’m not going to destroy by summarizing here, but I do want to mention that there may be a direct link between Ridley’s argument and these new ideas about language.

See New York Times review of the book:

Ridley argues that one of the main drivers of cultural evolution is the exchange of ideas that comes from trade (among many other examples, he points out that when governments get rigid then economic monopolies develop-with everything being done for the good of the king-and this has a stunning tendency to destroy civilizations). But trade requires communication between groups of people who speak different types of languages. (Again – we’ve got “nonsense” – One can’t trade “ideas” without “object” trade, which requires verbal language, but trade is prevented by people who ALREADY have developed mutually unintelligible language!)  And since communication requires having a brain that is flexible enough to understand different forms of sentence structure (What – the “two types” – the contemporary English word order and Spanish inflection types?)  it can be argued that it was trade between different groups of early humans that forced the brain to start recruiting other structures to try to understand the bizarre tongues being spoken by other speakers. (OMG! This is stupid.)

No one on the planet has ever “traded” with other humans without knowing how to speak the “bizarre” language of “foreigners” (Bizarre = not English?) No one has ever merely pointed to an “object of desire” in the possession of a “bizarre foreign speaker” and offered, by gesture or demonstration, an object of “like value” to that person.

A reasonable speculation would be that “language” began as “sign language” which is far better at being “universal” than is verbal communication.

If this idea is correct then the tool use argument comes a lot closer to the truth about the development of language than Leakey or Pinker’s ideas, which also mean that language is a much more recent development than many believe.

“Language” is used far too generically: any “early” human vocalization or verbal language, is far more likely to resemble that of chimps and monkeys than that of “modern social” language, which is indeed very recent, less precise in communication, and only “useful” in hypersocial modern cultures. And, it’s a safe bet that chimp to chimp and gorilla to gorilla communication is far more “precise” and understood than human to human communication! Inter-species communication between predator and prey, or one prey species to another is also very precise… 

On the other hand, sign language has been learned, and used effectively by chimps and gorillas!

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