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VI. Life’s Cerebral Faculties Become More Complex, Smarter, Informed, Proactive, Self-Aware

5. Organisms Evolve Rhythmic Protolanguage Communication

Chen, Zhuo and John Wiens. The Origins of Acoustic Communication in Vertebrates. Nature Communications. 11/369, 2020. Henan Normal University, China and University of Arizona behavioral ecologists parse ways that animals of every phylum chatter in one form or another to convey semiotic signals. In my New England migrating geese keep honking to each other. Dolphins constantly whistle to maintain pods. In some broader way it may seem that an animate nature is trying to say something to itself, which now involves our planetary selves.

Acoustic communication is crucial to humans and other tetrapods including birds, frogs, crocodilians, and mammals. However, large-scale patterns in its evolution are largely unstudied. Here, we study the origins of acoustic communication in terrestrial vertebrates using phylogenetic methods and show they are much associated with nocturnal activity and is strongly conserved over time. Finally, we find that acoustic communication evolved independently in most major tetrapod groups, often with ancient origins (~100–200 million years ago). (Abstract excerpt)

Cuffari, Elena, et al. From Participatory Sense-Making to Language. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Online November, 2014. We note this paper by Worcester State University and University of the Basque Country philosophers based on the enactive view of Humbereto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and others for its perception of human agency as most of all a “languaging” project. In such a view, one might add, phenomenal peoples could be seen as the universe’s way of describing, translating and expressing itself into conscious recognition, and co-creation.

Everaert, Martin and Johan Bolhuis. The Biology of Language. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 81/B, 2017. Utrecht University linguists introduce a special issue with 17 papers as this linguistic evolutionary retrospective becomes increasingly amenable to study. Some paper titles are The Growth of Language, A Biolinguistic Perspective, Prosody in Birdsong, Rhythm in Language Acquisition, and Brains for Birds and Babies. Among the authors are Noam Chomsky, Charles Yang, Stephen Crain, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Robert Berwick, Angelica Friederici, and Marina Nespor.

Human infants develop language remarkably rapidly and without overt instruction. We argue that the distinctive ontogenesis of child language arises from the interplay of three factors: domain-specific principles of language (Universal Grammar), external experience, and properties of non-linguistic domains of cognition including general learning mechanisms and principles of efficient computation. (Yang, et al, Growth of Language)

Ferretti, Francesco, et al. Origin and Evolution of Language: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Topoi. 37/291, 2018. Roma Tre University, Italy and Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany linguist philosophers introduce a special issue on this title subject. Along with a review of the papers such as What are the Units of Language Evolution by Nathalie Gontier and An Updated Evolutionary Research Programme by Francisco Suman, it scopes out a preferred embodied, action-oriented premise.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. Preface to the Special Issue on the Biology and Evolution of Language. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 24/1, 2017. As our worldwide retrospect learns how linguistic capacities arose over life’s long, episodic creaturely and cerebral advance, the University of Vienna cognitive biologist introduces 19 papers that span many conceptual and empirical approaches. We note, for example, Lessons from the Genome by Simon Fisher, Evolution of the Neural language Network by Angela Friederici, How can we Detect When Language Emerged by Ian Tattersall, and Darwinian Perspectives on the Evolution of Human Languages by Mark Pagel.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. The Biology and Evolution of Language: “Deep Homology” and the Evolution of Innovation. Gazzaniga, Michael, ed. The Cognitive Neurosciences. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. The University of Vienna theoretical linguist draws upon these new insights (search Shubin) into developing life’s tendency to repeat basic forms and motifs at every scale and for each creature to claim that our human grammatical speech and discursive content must be similarly endowed and understandable by this deep context.

The last decade has seen rapid and impressive progress in understanding the biology and evolution of complex “innovative” traits (e.g., insect wings or vertebrate eyes, and the fruits of this understanding are beginning to have an impact on our understanding of that most innovative of human trait: language. Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) has added a new twist to this distinction, with the discovery that traits shared due to convergent evolution (such as vocal learning in humans and birds) may nonetheless be based on homologous genes and developmental pathways. Such “deep homologies” may involve convergence at the phenotypic level and homology at the genotypic level, and illustrate the need to rethink traditional ideas about homology. Here I suggest that language is also likely to have its share of deep homologies, and that the possibility provides a powerful rationale for investigations of convergently evolved traits in widely separated species. (Abstract)

The discovery of deep homology provides an exciting new range of empirical possibilities for scientists interested in the evolution of complex innovations, including human language. The very concept of deep homology would have been considered fanciful 20 years ago, and its reality has profound consequences for both the concept of homology and our understanding of the evolution of complex innovations. (874) In this new era, the identification of deep homologies may play a central role. This is excellent news for comparative biologists, because it suggests that a far broader range of vertebrates, and even nonchordates, may offer valuable windows into the genetic basis of that most human of traits: language. (881)

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. What Animals can Teach us About Human Language: The Phonological Continuity Hypothesis. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 21/68, 2018. In another special issue on The Evolution of Language, the University of Vienna cognitive biologist continues his project to trace an evolutionary lineage from biosignals rudimentary to loquacious human capacities. As the Abstract notes, a thread may be a working system of relations between speech sounds, aka phonology, which ramify and embellish as animals advance in neural circuitry and behavioral repertoire. See also his chapter The Biology and Evolution of Speech in the Annual Review of Linguistics (4/255, 2018).

Progress in linking between the disparate levels of cognitive description and neural implementation requires explicit, testable, computationally based hypotheses. One such hypothesis is the dendrophilia hypothesis, which suggests that human syntactic abilities rely on our supra-regular computational abilities, implemented via an auxiliary memory store (a ‘stack’) centred on Broca's region via its connections with other cortical areas. Because linguistic phonology requires less powerful computational abilities than this, at the finite-state level, I suggest that there may be continuity between animal rule learning and human phonology, and that the circuits underlying this provided the precursors of our unusual syntactic abilities. (Abstract)

Fitch, W. Tecumseh and Erich Jarvis. Birdsong and Other Animal Models for Human Speech, Song, and Vocal Learning. Arbib, Michael, ed. Language, Music, and the Brain. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013. In a Strungmann Forum volume, an extensive chapter by University of Vienna and Duke University Medical Center neurobiologists and linguists which merits notice for several reasons. First to register findings of innate evolutionary affinities between parakeets and people – nature surely uses the same pattern over and ever. A recent citation of this as “deep homology” (search Shubin) is thus seen to be confirmed. As a consequence, a persistent “convergence” must be an inherent quality of life’s development, which then implies an “independent” agency at work. Such a correspondence can be traced not only to an original ancestor, but also should be seen to imply a common genetic source. And at once might one wonder who are we persons that arise from and are able to reconstruct all this scenario, as if a singular cosmic genesis trying to sing, speak, remember, and learn whom she and he might become?

This chapter highlights the similarities and differences between learned song, in birds and other animal models, and speech and song in humans, by reviewing the comparative biology of birdsong and human speech from behavioral, biological, phylogenetic, and mechanistic perspectives. Our thesis is that song-learning birds and humans have evolved similar although not identical, vocal communication behaviors due to shared deep homologies in nonvocal brain pathways and associated genes from which the vocal pathways are derived. The convergent behaviors include complex vocal learning, critical periods of vocal learning, dependence on auditory feedback to develop and maintain learned vocalizations, and rudimentary features for vocal syntax and phonology. The lesson learned from this analysis is that by studying the comparative behavioral neurobiology of human and nonhuman vocal-learning species, greater insight can be gained into the evolution and mechanisms of spoken language than by studying humans alone or humans only in relation to nonhuman primates. (Abstract excerpts)

This repeated, independent evolution of a functionally similar trait – complex vocal learning – means that convergent evolution could be a powerful route for understanding constraints on evolved systems and for testing hypotheses about evolution. (503) In this sense, deep homology is similar to the independent evolution of wings from the upper limbs. That is, the brain pathways for vocal learning among distantly related species are apparently not homologous in that they were not inherited from a common ancestor, but the motor pathway circuit from which they may have independently emerged may be a homolog, inherited from their common ancestor. (504) Finally, and surprisingly, it appears that some aspects of birdsong depend on similar genetic and developmental mechanism, providing an example of deep genetic homology. (505)

Frohlich, Marlen, et al. Multimodal Communication and Language Origins: Integrating Gestures and Vocalizations. Biological Reviews. Online June, 2019. As the Abstract notes, University of Zurich, Basel, and Geneva behavioral anthropologists including Carel van Schaik gather altogether many modes of signed contact between creatures from somatic to semiotic conveyance. Overall one gets a sense of life’s regnant evolution ever try to gain its expressive voice and vision.

The presence of independent research traditions in the gestural and vocal domains of primate communication has led to discrepancies in how cognitive concepts came to be. Recent evidence from behavioural and neurobiological research now implies that both human and primate communication is inherently multimodal. We review evidence that there is no clear difference between primate gestures and vocalizations for language intentionality, reference, iconicity and turn‐taking. We note that in great apes, gestures seem to fulfill an informative role in close communication, whereas the opposite holds for human interactions. This suggests an evolutionary transition in the carrying role from the gestural to the vocal stream. (Abstract edits)

Genter, Timothy, et al. Recursive Syntactic Pattern Learning by Songbirds. Nature. 440/1204, 2006. The ability to embed phrases and sentences within themselves, defined as recursive, iterative grammar, has heretofore been attributed as a uniquely human feature. For the first time this University of Chicago study reports that European starlings can equally achieve “self-embedding, context-free grammar.” Could we so imagine the whole evolutionary kingdom might be trying to learn to sing and speak?

Gil, David and Yeshayahu Shen. Metaphors: The Evolutionary Journey from Bidirectionality to Unidirectionality. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Volume 1824, 2021. In this issue about our past linguistic lineages (how peoples came to sing, speak, write, and read), as the Abstract cites, MPI Science of Human History and Tel Aviv University scholars parse and identify this communicative transition as a salient trend and advantageous advance.

Metaphors, a ubiquitous feature of human language, reflect mappings from one conceptual domain onto another. Although founded on bidirectional relations of similarity, their linguistic expression is typically unidirectional, governed by conceptual hierarchies pertaining to abstractness, animacy and prototypicality. The unidirectional nature of metaphors is a product of various asymmetries characteristic of grammatical structure, in particular, those related to thematic role assignment. This paper argues that contemporary metaphor unidirectionality is the outcome of an evolutionary journey whose origin lies in an earlier bidirectionality. Invoking the Complexity Covariance Hypothesis governing the correlation of linguistic and socio-political complexity, the Evolutionary Inference Principle suggests that simpler linguistic structures are evolutionarily prior to more complex ones, and accordingly that bidirectional metaphors evolved at an earlier stage than unidirectional ones. (Abstract excerpt)

Goldin-Meadow, Susan and Charles Yang. Statistical Evidence that a Child can Create a Combinatorial Linguistic System without External Linguistic Input. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 81/B, 2017. University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania psychologists study youngsters with impaired hearing to investigate if languages occur by happenstance, or arise from a universal source. Indeed, the presence of an innate “productive grammar” is once more confirmed. In so doing, a tacit recapitulation between childhood and hominid to human cultures is suggested.

Can a child who is not exposed to a model for language nevertheless construct a communication system characterized by combinatorial structure? We know that deaf children whose hearing losses prevent them from acquiring spoken language, and whose hearing parents have not exposed them to sign language, use gestures, called homesigns, to communicate. In this study, we call upon a new formal analysis that characterizes the statistical profile of grammatical rules and, when applied to child language data, finds that young children’s language is consistent with a productive grammar rather than rote memorization of specific word combinations in caregiver speech. Our findings thus provide evidence that a child can create a combinatorial linguistic system without external linguistic input. (Abstract excerpt)

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