The First Family
The K.E. clan are the first family of linguistics. A dynasty with over thirty members, their seat is in London, England. But what have they done to merit their title? To put it bluntly, they can’t talk.
Over three generations, around half the family suffers from a disorder whose name changes from verbal dyspraxia to dysphasia depending on who’s writing the paper. The key characteristic of this disorder is that their speech sounds like gobbledegook to the rest of the family – indeed, the impairment is so severe they now rely on simple hand signals to get things done. The family was first discovered by Myrna Gopnik in 1990 and a quick glance at the family tree was enough to confirm that she was dealing with an autosomal dominant disorder caused by a mutation in just one gene. The unmutated gene would presumably code for the ability the sufferers lacked – namely, language! Journalists jumped at the news, and the language (or, even more remarkably, grammar-) gene meme dominated the popular picture of genetics for the rest of the decade.
Early research fuelled the press perception that this was the gene for language. For instance, the affected family members were shown to repeatedly fail Wug Tests. In a Wug Test the subject is given a drawing of a made-up animal and told this is a wug. Then they are given a drawing of two of these wugs and asked to complete the sentence: ‘Now there are two…’ The affected family members simply could not generalize the plural add ‘s’ rule to an unfamiliar noun like wug. Similarly, they could make no sense of sentences whose meaning depended on the rules of syntax – they were unable to answer the question: ‘The lion was killed by the tiger. Which one is dead?’ All this pointed to a specific inability to parse syntax.
Nonetheless, it was clear from just listening to the subjects that effect of the impairment was much wider than a mere grammatical deficiency. The affected family members couldn’t control the muscles in the mouth and tongue properly, making it very difficult to produce the tiny changes in tongue position that produce different phonemes. This manifested itself in the subjects struggling to repeat multisyllabic words that demanded quick sound shifts. Steven Pinker went as far as to conclude in the Language Instinct that the so-called language gene was really a gene affecting mouth and tongue muscle movements. He guessed that fine motor control of these muscles must have been a prerequisite for the evolution of vocal language.
Because the IQ Range of the sufferers overlapped with that of the unaffected family members (with one sufferer even having as high an IQ as 111!), commentators were able to claim that the disorder was independent of general intelligence – therefore it just had to be language specific and thus, as night follows day, the gene must also be language specific. Yet, when we look at the stats, the mean IQ of the unaffected group was 104, while that of the sufferers was 85 – with many of them classed as ‘mentally retarded.’ There is clearly a significant difference in IQ between the two groups! Nonetheless, perhaps the sufferers’ low scores can be blamed on poor performance in verbal reasoning caused by their language defect. Unfortunately in 1995 this explanation was proved wrong – the sufferers’ really were stupider, with low IQs in both verbal and non-verbal domains. Moreover, it was shown that the gene affected muscle control in generating facial expressions too. This gene it seemed was about far more than just language…
With the first of three Hobbit documentaries being released this year, it seems an appropriate time to announce the new revolution in the study of origins: Tolkien Science. Though evolution, with all its associated irony may well be the more appropriate word…
Tolkien Science has been brewing in the firey Mount Doom of scientific enquiry for decades and is now as indestructible as the One Ring itself. Yet it is still untaught in our schools, dismissed as mere science fiction, when it is in fact fantasy of the old sort: an imaginative conceptualization. Like Einstein who imagined himself riding on a beam of light and so discovered relativity, JRR Tolkien – an Oxford Professor and founder of our field – imagined himself on a quest to Mordor and, in doing so, discovered the origins of the universe. Between 1937 and 1955 he published a series of monographs synthesising knowledge from many fields into a coherent and, as I shall show, accurate account of the origins of the world. His his papers took the form of epic fantasy novels – befitting a man of such penetrating and creative intellect – but they were appended by detailed notes providing the data underlying the theory, much of which was only published after his death. It is a cause of celebration that his monographs are more widely read than either Darwin or Dawkins, and in the early years of the 21st century were made into a trilogy of powerful documentary films by the renowned New Zealand Tolkien Scientist Peter Jackson, which brought to the world’s attention this exciting new paradigm.
Unlike Darwin, whose theories were invented during the luxury of a round the world cruise, Tolkien’s quest to understand the history of the universe began on the battlefields of World War One. In the same way that humanity’s ego had rent Flanders’ Fields apart, Tolkien surmised that the world was once flat, but that the arrogance of men had caused it to have become round. The evidence for this came from the discoveries of German scientist Albert Einstein – that, when events of such gravity as the Doom of Numenor occurred, space could actually become curved. The stories of Atlantis, Mu and Hy-Brasil – all island nations flooded in a great cataclysm – passed down unchanged over the generations, give the theory that nice, convincing human element that allows it to transcend the Popperian planes to the level of scientific truth. Bearing in mind that geologists have never actually been under the earth’s crust to see if their tectonic plates really do float, the idea that the all-powerful Valar simply caused the shape of the world to change is a far more convincing explanation of continental drift.
Tolkien’s theories, which emphasize the effect of Valinor-based Powers, let us throw out the implausible geological yarns of mainstream science. Ice-ages in the Northern Hemisphere are more parsimoniously explained by the evil wrought by the cold-hearted Morgoth in the First Age and by the Witch King of Angmar in the Third. Nonetheless, like all true sciences, Tolkien science has its controversies. Another hypothesis claims Ice Ages are a figment of geologist imagination. Erratics are rocks found far away from home, usually said to have got there by hitching a lift on a passing glacier. Some Tolkien scientists, however blame erratics on trolls getting caught out in the sunlight. The strength of the theory is in its predictions: trolls are social creatures – as evidenced by Tom, Bert and Bill Huggins, who turned to stone together around a campfire. We would therefore expect to find tall rocks scattered in clusters around the landscape where trolls have frozen together. A visit to Stonehenge should suffice to convert the world’s geologists.
And so it begins. For years, evolutionary biologists have predicted that new human species would start popping up in Asia as we begin to look closely at fossilised bones found there. A new analysis of bones from south-west China suggests there’s truth to the forecast.
The distinctive skull (pictured, right) was unearthed in 1979 in Longlin cave, Guangxi Province, but has only now been fully analysed. It has thick bones, prominent brow ridges, a short flat face and lacks a typically human chin. “In short, it is anatomically unique among all members of the human evolutionary tree,” says Darren Curnoe at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
The skull, he says, presents an unusual mosaic of primitive features like those seen in our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago, with some modern traits similar to living people.
What’s more, Curnoe and Ji Xueping of Yunnan University, China, have found more evidence of the new hominin at a second site – Malu cave in Yunnan Province. Curnoe has dubbed the new group the Red Deer Cave people because of their penchant for venison. “There is evidence that they cooked large deer in Malu cave,” he says.
Exactly where the Red Deer Cave people belong in our family tree is unclear. Curnoe says they could be related to some of the earliest members of our species (Homo sapiens), which evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago and then spread across Asia to reach China. He prefers the idea that they represent a new evolutionary line that evolved in East Asia in parallel with our species, just as Neanderthals did – primarily because they look very different to early African hominins.
There are other possible interpretations. Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London, says their distinctive primitive features might suggest they are related to the enigmatic Denisovan people, known from a 30,000 to 50,000-year-old finger bone and tooth found in a Siberian cave.
We know that the Denisovans were living in East Asia, and from a DNA analysis, that they mated with our direct ancestors. The Red Deer Cave people, says Stringer, could even be the product of that mating.
Although we still do not know exactly where they came from, we do know that the Red Deer Cave people survived until relatively recently. Some of the newly described fossils are just 11,500 years old, suggesting that unlike Neanderthals they made it through the height of the last ice age.
They might not have been the only ancient humans to survive so late, saysMichael Petraglia at the University of Oxford. We already know of human skeletons with unusual archaic features in south Asia and India that are just 8000 years old.
The next step is to analyse DNA extracted from the Red Deer Cave bones, which will tell us more about their owner’s evolutionary history – whether they mated with any other hominins, for instance, and if they are truly a new species that evolved entirely in East Asia, as Curnoe believes, or are off-shoots of the Denisovan people.
Curnoe says an initial attempt to extract good DNA from the fossils failed. “We are doing more work now involving three of the world’s major ancient DNA laboratories,” he says. “We’ll just have to wait and see if we’re successful.”
From the Independent’s website. An interesting piece of prehistoric revionism in the light of, admittedly not yet incontrovertible, evidence. Though I wonder how long til some right wing group uses the knowledge to claim America’s true indigenous population are white Europeans?!
New archaeological evidence suggests that America was first discovered by Stone Age people from Europe – 10,000 years before the Siberian-originating ancestors of the American Indians set foot in the New World.
A remarkable series of several dozen European-style stone tools, dating back between 19,000 and 26,000 years, have been discovered at six locations along the US east coast. Three of the sites are on the Delmarva Peninsular in Maryland, discovered by archaeologist Dr Darrin Lowery of the University of Delaware. One is in Pennsylvania and another in Virginia. A sixth was discovered by scallop-dredging fishermen on the seabed 60 miles from the Virginian coast on what, in prehistoric times, would have been dry land.
The new discoveries are among the most important archaeological breakthroughs for several decades - and are set to add substantially to our understanding of humanity’s spread around the globe.
The similarity between other later east coast US and European Stone Age stone tool technologies has been noted before. But all the US European-style tools, unearthed before the discovery or dating of the recently found or dated US east coast sites, were from around 15,000 years ago - long after Stone Age Europeans (the Solutrean cultures of France and Iberia) had ceased making such artefacts. Most archaeologists had therefore rejected any possibility of a connection. But the newly-discovered and recently-dated early Maryland and other US east coast Stone Age tools are from between 26,000 and 19,000 years ago - and are therefore contemporary with the virtually identical western European material.
What’s more, chemical analysis carried out last year on a European-style stone knife found in Virginia back in 1971 revealed that it was made of French-originating flint.
Professor Dennis Stanford, of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and Professor Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter, the two leading archaeologists who have analysed all the evidence, are proposing that Stone Age people from Western Europe migrated to North America at the height of the Ice Age by travelling (over the ice surface and/or by boat) along the edge of the frozen northern part of the Atlantic. They are presenting their detailed evidence in a new book - Across Atlantic Ice – published this month.
At the peak of the Ice Age, around three million square miles of the North Atlantic was covered in thick ice for all or part of the year.
However, the seasonally shifting zone where the ice ended and the open ocean began would have been extremely rich in food resources – migrating seals, sea birds, fish and the now-extinct northern hemisphere penguin-like species, the great auk.
Stanford and Bradley have long argued that Stone Age humans were quite capable of making the 1500 mile journey across the Atlantic ice - but till now there was comparatively little evidence to support their thinking.
But the new Maryland, Virginia and other US east coast material, and the chemical tests on the Virginian flint knife, have begun to transform the situation. Now archaeologists are starting to investigate half a dozen new sites in Tennessee, Maryland and even Texas – and these locations are expected to produce more evidence.
Another key argument for Stanford and Bradley’s proposal is the complete absence of any human activity in north-east Siberia and Alaska prior to around 15,500 years ago. If the Maryland and other east coast people of 26,000 to 19,000 years ago had come from Asia, not Europe, early material, dating from before 19,000 years ago, should have turned up in those two northern areas, but none have been found.
Although Solutrean Europeans may well have been the first Americans, they had a major disadvantage compared to the Asian-originating Indians who entered the New World via the Bering Straits or along the Aleutian Islands chain after 15,500 years ago.
Whereas the Solutreans had only had a 4500 year long ‘Ice Age’ window to carry out their migratory activity, the Asian-originating Indians had some 15,000 years to do it. What’s more, the latter two-thirds of that 15 millennia long period was climatologically much more favourable and substantially larger numbers of Asians were therefore able to migrate.
As a result of these factors the Solutrean (European originating) Native Americans were either partly absorbed by the newcomers or were substantially obliterated by them either physically or through competition for resources.
Some genetic markers for Stone Age western Europeans simply don’t exist in north- east Asia – but they do in tiny quantities among some north American Indian groups. Scientific tests on ancient DNA extracted from 8000 year old skeletons from Florida have revealed a high level of a key probable European-originating genetic marker. There are also a tiny number of isolated Native American groups whose languages appear not to be related in any way to Asian-originating American Indian peoples.
But the greatest amount of evidence is likely to come from under the ocean – for most of the areas where the Solutreans would have stepped off the Ice onto dry land are now up to 100 miles out to sea.
The one underwater site that has been identified - thanks to the scallop dredgers – is set to be examined in greater detail this summer – either by extreme-depth divers or by remotely operated mini submarines equipped with cameras and grab arms.
a-curious-creature asked: Have you heard of Merlin Donald? We had a very interesting lecture and tutorial on his work today, focusing on memetic culture, and the general consensus was 'why hasn't anyone thought of this before?' I haven't made up my mind yet- another lecture next week, and we're relating back to Dreyfus, Gehlen, Herder etc., but the central idea that homo erectus must have had something to facilitate a co-operative society and form a basis for the development of language is intuitively convincing.
Yes I have! And for the benefit of those who haven’t I’ll rehash his ideas below.
Merlin Donald gave us an interesting picture of how the mind could have evolved, and showed how the interplay of culture and biology sculpted it over the last 500,000 or so years. I wouldn’t call it an empirical theory as such, but the ideas are well-worth examining.
He divides human cognitive evolution into four great epochs.
Originally, hominids could only think in ‘episodic’ terms. This is the sort of thinking we see in great apes, and dolphins, and octopus. Their behaviour consists of short-term responses to the environment, lived entirely in the present. Remember though that in Donald’s terminology thinking refers only to conscious thought. So these hominids would still have been driven by instinct to act in the long term (like swallows instinctively migrating), but would never consciously have sat down and thought: we need to leave some of those berries on that bush so it’ll be there next year.
The second epoch is the one you’re talking about. The word Donald uses is ‘mimetic’, not memetic though. (I can understand the confusion, memes are all about culture too!) He says the worldview of Homo Erectus was qualitatively different to that of the hominids that went before. In a way, if we accept that real consciousness requires a self persisting over time and with an awareness of itself doing that, then this Mimetic stage is Donald’s origin of consciousness. Erectus led a social life but I think the distinction is that, while chimps instinctively hunt together, Donald imagined Erectus communicating with each other and handing traditions down the generations in order to uphold the society. He says that this wasn’t based on language, as you know, but on facial expressions, signing, mimicry etc. Information could be exchanged, but slowly, and this is why it ‘took’ Erectus 400,000 years to discover fire.
Donald talks up the symbolic capabilities of the mimetic stage. There’s this lovely quote where he says its “The Great Homind Escape From The Nervous System.” He literally does view Erectus as inventing culture, and it is during this period we see the first crude bone sculptures etc. The crucial point is that mimesis allows skills to be transferred, so they can be ‘inherited’ in a non-biological fashion, as learned behaviour rather than instincts. Again, I think he’s emphasising the conscious nature of mimetic communication because, well, its vastly inferior in its precision to the instinctive bee dances!
So, after mimesis, comes mythic thought. And here lies the origin of true language, he says. He claims from analysis of 20th century hunter-gatherer tribes that the first use of language was in crafting a group identity through storytelling and mythologizing – creating a mental model of man’s place in the universe. I think this is a dodgy assumption. Okay, hunter-gatherer tribes are highly-verbal and have an advanced oral culture, as did all pre-literate peoples. That doesn’t imply, however, that that was langauge’s original use. Why would you go from basic mimesis used in practical situations to using words to tell complex stories? I’d’ve thought the selective advantage went to the tribe who used language to educate their kids better in stone use, or to work together in hunting, or to plan their future movements. Most theories of language origins seems to focus on those kinds of factors – e.g. fostered in-group cohesion by allowing hunters to plan strategies together and thus bring home more food.
Donald’s fourth stage is theoretic thought, in the last 30,000 years or so, and this is the sort that he associates with the development of bows and arrows, ceramics etc. To me, this seems the more pragmantic kind of thinking – the ability to communicate intuitive ideas about physics etc. In a way, I can buy his idea of storytelling before technology – I mean storytelling is useful in that you can communicate directions, and it is obviously crucial to creating a group’s identity in history.
Merlin Donald’s ideas rest however on a non-biological model of the brain. For him, once the mimetic threshold was passed in Erectus, humans had the cognitive ability to do anything: it just took the slow development of society to wake it up. But brain size had been expanding up to 100,000 years ago. There were gross changes in neurobiology, to which any account of psychological evolution must be connected.
Language origins research was famously banned in the 19th century by the linguistic society of Paris on the charge of being nothing more than idle speculation. Mimesis seems intuitively sensible, but to my mind it doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with generative grammar models of language (and hence language origins). The crucial thing in generative grammar is the combinatorial nature of language and the arbitratiness of the sign. Facial expressions etc are neither combinatorial (they aren’t made up of discrete units that can only combined following specific rules) nor are they arbitrary (their meanings aren’t learned as an arbitraty relationship, they are instinctive, and indeed, seen in chimps and bonobos). Donald’s transition to mythic thinking emphasized ‘content’, rather than grammar. If we accept that grammar is what is selected for, then development of grammar is independent of what ‘content’ is up to. We are left with two options. Chomsky’s idea that grammar ability emerged from a general increase in overall cognitive function – (distinct from Donald’s ideas of higher cognitive functioning stemming from cooperation caused by language use). Or we take Pinker and Bloom’s language organ: whereby genetic mutations give rise to specific module of the mind that provides us with a language faculty. This has always struck me as a bit of a hopeful monster – language use is dependent on one random lucky mutation in one person. Think about it – if a mutation gave rise to language in one person, who’s he meant to talk to and accrue the benefits of language?! This is why Donald’s theories that emphasize social factors are worth listening to, and, are indeed, intuitively convincing.
Terrence Deacon’s ideas, however, allow us to rescue Donald’s emphasis on ‘content.’ For Deacon the crucial part of language is its symbolic capacity. He would differ from Donald though in that he sees symbolic learning as existing in great apes – in the episodic, as well as mimetic stages! He thinks symbolic learning is just a version of indexical learning. This is borne out by the way chimps have been taught to associate arbitrary signs and symbols with the real world. This looks scarily like behaviourism so we have to ask ourselves are the chimps associating the idea of the banana with the token, or are they associating the token with the tasty reward? For Deacon, what’s special about language is the way the symbols are referred indexically to each other, rather than out there in the world. This could maybe be incorporated into the idea of a mythic stage, of a language system developing independent of the world.
Finally Deacon skewers Pinker and Bloom. The fact there is a universal grammar underlying all languages is an observable fact. Therefore, these linguistic universals must have a biological origin, namely a language organ. Deacon says instread that language and the brain co-evolved. Language is an evolving system, remember, so Deacon says that the languages or grammars best at getting themselves into human brains (the easiest to learn) were naturally better adapted and so proliferated. As the brain changed, selective pressure on grammar changed. Today, humans are fairly similar in neurological makeup, so languages are basically the same at a basic level. In this way, Deacon envisages that the means of communication best at getting themselves transmitted in brains spread among populations, and the brains best at transmitting these forms of communication, due to the advantage it conferred, had greater reproductive success. In this way, language evolved to be easy for the child’s brain to learn, and the child’s brain evolved to be good at learning language. Deacon’s work is good for Merlin Donald in that it focusses on language as a cultural artefact, ever-changing, and sculpting the brain, rather that being a fixed mental organ.
So, yeah, that was good to get off my chest. What do you study? Linguistics? Anthropology?