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VI. Earth Life Emergence: Development of Body, Brain, Selves and Societies

4. Organisms Evolve Rhythmic Protolanguage Communication

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?

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)

Griesser, Michael, et al. From Bird Calls to Human Language: Exploring the Evolutionary Drivers of Compositional Syntax. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 21/6, 2018. In this language issue, Jagiellonian University, Uppsala University, and Kyoto University animal ecologists add further proof of recurrent similarities across widely separate species. Bird and human brains are seen to quite converge in both function and communication.

Gyori, Gabor, ed. Language Evolution: Biological, Linguistic and Philosophical Perspectives. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2001. A selection of papers from meetings of the Language Origins Society which cover three areas of language evolution: its resultant structure, function and communication, and the views of philosophers on these subjects. A typical paper is “Symbolic Cognition” by Gyori which discusses the phylogenetic, ontogenetic and cognitive development of knowledge.

Hodge, Bob and Lorena Caballero. Biology, Semiotics, Complexity: An Experiment in Interdisciplinarity. Semiotica. 157/1-4, 2005. As evolution and development reconverge, the discovery of the same homeobox genes at regulatory work in every organism suggest a deep homology between the study of signification and molecular program. In a universe most distinguished by such an informational quality, an inherent fractal self-similarity can be noted between language and life. See also Hodge’s paper in Social Semiotics (13/3, 2002).

Looking at disciplinarity in these two areas, biology and semiotics, we propose a preliminary hypothesis. The pattern of similar but not identical configurations, at different levels and across sometime very disparate areas, has the characteristics of fractality. If these taxonomies are similar to each other and to taxonomies developed to organize the species and higher orders of the biota, as we have also suggested, this raises a crucial question. Are we dealing here with merely an analogy? Or is there a deeper basis? (487)

Hoeschele, Marisa. Preface to the Special Section on Animal Music Perception. Comparative Cognition and Behavior. Volume 12, 2017. As scientific, psychological and linguistic studies find that all kinds of creatures, aided by online videos from corvids to elephants, indeed have an ear for and dance to musical rhythms, a field of study has formed around it, search Honing. Some papers are Relation Chord Perception by Pigeons, Consonance Processing by Nonhuman Animals, and Animal Pitch Perception. In regard, these findings of music appreciation across the evolutionary spectrum, along with communicative skills.

Honing, Henkjan, ed. The Origins of Musicality. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018. The University of Amsterdam linguist edits a follow up volume to a Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B issue (Vol.370/Iss.1664, 2015) on realizations that a wide array of creatures indeed possess a deep propensity for all manner of rhythmic harmonies. Some chapters are Neural Overlap in Processing Music and Speech, Structure Building in Music, Language, and Animal Song, and Searching for the Origins of Musicality across Species.

Honing, Henkjan, et al. Without It No Music: Cognition, Biology and Evolution of Musicality. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Vol.370/Iss.1664, 2015. HH, University of Amsterdam, Carel ten Cate, Leiden University, Isabelle Peretz, Montreal University, and Sandra Trehub, University of Toronto introduce an issue to broadly consider innate animal sensitivities to beat, pitch, and rhythm. The project is said to be inspired by YouTube videos of birds dancing to rock tunes, which revealed unexpected eabilities. Some entries are Four Principles of Bio-Musicality by Tecumseh Fitch, a guiding scholar for the endeavor, Evolutionary Roots of Creativity, Principles of Structure Building in Music Language and Animal Song, Finding the Beat across Humans and Non-human Primates, and Cross-cultural Perspectives on Music and Musicality. Follow-up editions are a 2018 volume The Origins of Musicality edited by H. Honing, reviewed herein, and Honing’s own The Evolving Animal Orchestra: In Search of What Makes Us Musical (MIT Press, 2018).

Musicality can be defined as a natural, spontaneously developing trait based on and constrained by biology and cognition. What biological and cognitive mechanisms are then essential for perceiving, appreciating and making music? We argue for the importance of identifying these mechanisms and delineating their functions and developmental course, as well as suggesting effective means of studying them in human and non-human animals. It is virtually impossible to underpin the evolutionary role of musicality as a whole, but a multicomponent perspective on musicality that emphasizes its constituent capacities, development and neural cognitive specificity is an excellent starting point for a research programme aimed at illuminating the origins and evolution of musical behaviour as an autonomous trait. (Abstract excerpt)

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