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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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VI. Earth Life Emergence: Development of Body, Brain, Selves and Societies

4. Organisms Evolve Rhythmic Protolanguage Communication

Pellegrino, Francois, et al, eds. Approaches to Phonological Complexity. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009. A typical chapter such as “Scale-Free Networks in Phonological and Orthographic Wordform Lexicons” by Christopher Kello and Brandon Beltz traces a regnant pathway from thermodynamic and statistical mechanic realms to human dynamical conversation and textual discourse. How might we then imagine this long course as a cosmic genetic code rising to its own voice, cognizance and personhood?

Complexity approaches, developed in physics and biology for almost two decades, show today a huge potential for investigating challenging issues in Humanities and Cognitive Sciences and obviously in the study of language(s). Theoretical approaches that integrate self-organization, emergence, non linearity, adaptive systems, information theory, etc., have already been developed to provide a unifying framework that sheds new light on the duality between linguistic diversity on the one hand and unique cognitive capacity of language processing on the other hand. (Publisher’s website)

Prather, Jonathan, et al. Brains for Birds and Babies: Neural Parallel between Birdsong and Speech Acquisition. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 81/B, 2017. Akin to Prosody in Birdsong by Carien Mol, et al, in this issue (Abstract below), University of Wyoming, University of Tokyo, and Utrecht University (quite global) find deep commonalities from avian to sapient classes. As the quotes note, similar lateral, asymmetric divisions, periodic syntax, melodious meanings and more are present in these widely separate entities. An “evolutionary convergence” of “behavioral parallels between birdsong learning and speech acquisition” are seen to suggest a basic, independent source. And as in many such papers, a recapitulative theme courses through.

Language as a computational cognitive mechanism appears to be unique to the human species. Here we review important neural parallels between birdsong and speech. In both cases there are separate but continually interacting neural networks that underlie vocal production, sensorimotor learning, and auditory perception and memory. As in the case of human speech, neural activity related to birdsong learning is lateralized, and mirror neurons linking perception and performance may contribute to sensorimotor learning. In songbirds that are learning their songs, there is continual interaction between secondary auditory regions and sensorimotor regions, similar to the interaction between Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas in human infants acquiring speech and language. (Prather abstract excerpt)

There is brain lateralization in speech and language in human babies, infants and adults. Roughly, the left hemisphere is involved in syntax and semantics, while the right hemisphere is activated during processing of prosodic structure. More generally, lateralization of neural structure and function are prominent features in humans and a broad range of other species. (233) Language is associated with a network of specialized spanning frontal, temporal and parietal areas, and there is a stark asymmetry in the contributions of the left and right hemispheres. For example, areas in the left hemisphere are associated with focal syntax, temporal properties of speech, and the brief transitions that are present in the sounds. In contrast, corresponding in the right hemisphere are more associated with prosody, spectral properties of speech, and emotional valence of the vocal sounds. (234)

Birdsong shows striking parallels with human speech. Previous comparisons between birdsong and human vocalizations focused on syntax, phonology and phonetics. We consider the similarities between birdsong structure and the prosodic hierarchy in human speech and between context-dependent acoustic variations in birdsong and the biological codes in human speech. Moreover, we discuss songbirds’ sensitivity to prosody-like acoustic features and the role of such features in song segmentation and song learning in relation to infants’ sensitivity to prosody and the role of prosody in early language acquisition. Finally, we make suggestions for future comparative birdsong research, including a framework of how prosody in birdsong can be studied. (Mol abstract excerpt)

Roeske, Tina. Multifractal Analysis Reveals Music-like Dynamic Structure in Songbird Rhythms. Nature Scientific Reports. 8/4570, 2018. MPI Empirical Aesthetics and Grinnell College behavioral neurobiologists apply the latest sophisticated analysis to find intrinsic mathematical patterns which suffuse and orchestrate melodious avian twitters. Once ever again, a universal self-similarity distinguish each instance and scale from cosmos to communications.

Music is thought to engage its listeners by driving feelings of surprise, tension, and relief through a dynamic mixture of predictable and unpredictable patterns, a property summarized here as “expressiveness”. Birdsong shares with music the goal to attract its listeners’ attention and might use similar strategies to achieve this. We here tested a thrush nightingale’s rhythm, as represented by song amplitude envelope (note timing, duration, and intensity), for evidence of expressiveness. We used multifractal analysis, which is designed to detect in a signal dynamic fluctuations between predictable and unpredictable states on multiple timescales. Results show that rhythm is strongly multifractal, which suggests that birdsong is more dynamic due to subtle note timing patterns, often similar to musical operations like accelerando or crescendo. (Abstract edits)

Saldana, Carmen. Compositional Hierarchical Structure Evolves through Cultural Transmission. Journal of Language Evolution. 4/2, 2019. University of Edinburgh linguists including Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith illuminate similar nested stages in both cases of evolutionary communication and human social conversation. In regard, still another glimpse of how this further phase of genomic and cerebral manifestation is achieved into the presence of this universal scale.

language learners to express and understand an infinity of meanings from finite sources (i.e., a lexicon and a grammar). Understanding how such structure evolved is central to evolutionary linguistics. Previous work combining artificial language learning and iterated learning techniques has shown how basic compositional structure can evolve from the trade-off between learnability and expressivity pressures in language transmission. In the present study we show how the same mechanisms involved in the evolution of basic compositionality can also result in a compositional hierarchical structure. (Abstract)

Searcy, William. Animal Communication, Cognition, and the Evolution of Language. Animal Behavior. Online April, 2019. An editorial introduction to a special issue with this title. As scientific realizations form that all manner of creatures from primates and birds onto invertebrate insects. See for example Evolutionary Roads to Syntax (Klaus Zuberbuhler), Rules, Rhythm and Grouping: Pattern Perception by Birds, Communication in Social Insects, and Syntactic Rules in Avian Vocal Sequences and the Evolution of Compositionality (Suzuki herein).

Smith, Andrew, et al, eds. The Evolution of Language. Singapore: World Scientific, 2010. The copious Proceedings of the 8th EVOLANG International Conference held in Utrecht, April 2010. This biannual gatherings is distinguished by presenters and commentators such as Eva Jablonka, Tecumseh Fitch, Merlin Donald, Nathalie Gontier, Michael Arbib, Kathleen Gibson, Derek Bickerton, and so on. Topics span genes, neurons, and cultures to a hominid “protolanguage” in gestural, musical, and lexical stages. Search Bouchard and Barnard for typical papers. What kind of cosmos, via its intended human phenomenon, might learn to speak, write, and read, so as to describe and narrate itself?

Steels, Luc and Eors Szathmary. The Evolutionary Dynamics of Language. BioSystems. Online November, 2017. The ICREA, Institut de Biologia Evolutiva informatics scientist and Parmenides Center for the Conceptual Foundations of Science, Munich theoretical biologist collaborate to achieve a unique insight about how linguistic forms and lore came to be. As the quotes convey, a similar apply of Darwinian cycles of candidate populations and selective retentions can just as well explain how speech, lexicons, grammar, and meaningful content evolved and developed. A further aspect is an avail of computational methods to trace and enhance an emergent intelligence. A universal evolutionism can also be applied to our definitive human trait to talk, write, read, and learn. See also Evolutionary Dynamics of Language Systems by Simon Greenhill, et al in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Online October, 2017).

The well-established framework of evolutionary dynamics can be applied to the fascinating open problems how human brains are able to acquire and adapt language and how languages change in a population. Schemas for handling grammatical constructions are the replicating unit. They emerge and multiply with variation in the brains of individuals and undergo selection based on their contribution to needed expressive power, communicative success and the reduction of cognitive effort. Adopting this perspective has two major benefits. (i) It makes a bridge to neurobiological models of the brain that have also adopted an evolutionary dynamics point of view, thus opening a new horizon for studying how human brains achieve the remarkably complex competence for language. And (ii) it suggests a new foundation for studying cultural language change as an evolutionary dynamics process. The paper sketches this novel perspective, provides references to empirical data and computational experiments, and points to open problems. (Abstract)

Human languages are the archetypal examples of a code, in the sense of "a small set of arbitrary rules selected from a potentially unlimited number in order to ensure a specific correspondence between two independent worlds." The two independent worlds in this case are the world of speech, gesture or written marks on the one hand, and the world of meaning on the other. The set of rules of a language consists of its lexicon (associating words or morphemes with meanings and functions) and its grammar (prescribing how larger units are built and how the meaning of these combinations is assembled to form the meaning of the whole). (1)

Here we suggest a novel perspective. We propose that language learning can be understood as based on similar principles as biological evolution, which contrasts with the widespread view that language learning is merely instructional, a stepwise accumulative inductive inference. Evolutionary dynamics requires that there is a population of units (genes, cells,organisms, colonies) possessing at least these features: (1) multiplication, (2) inheritance, variability, and (4) some hereditary traits affecting the survival/fecundity of the units. If these criteria are met, the population can undergo evolution by natural selection, resulting in the discovery and fixation of fitter variants. (2)

We have put forward a bold new unifying perspective on language development, namely to see it as another instantiation of the evolutionary paradigm that underlies several other biological systems, such as species evolution or the adaptive immune system. We proposed that the construction is the fundamental unit of evolution in the case of language. A construction is a usage pattern on how to relate meaning with form through the intermediary of syntactic and semantic categories. Construction schemas multiply with variation in the brains of individuals and they undergo selection, so that 'fitter' variants, i.e. variants that contribute towards adequate expressive power, steady communicative success, and a reduction of cognitive effort, become part of the preferred language. (7)

Suzuki, Toshitaka, et al. Syntactic Rules in Avian Vocal Sequences as a Window into the Evolution of Compositionality. Animal Behavior. Online April, 2019. In a special issue on Cognition and Language, University of Tokyo, Zurich, and Uppsala neurolinguists consider how birds achieve meaningful content and communication from their rhythmic twitters. An overall message might be that life’s long evolutionary development has altogether been trying to compose itself unto our late sapience expression and hopefully, if we can come to our individual and collective senses, reprise and recognition.

Understanding the origins and evolution of language remains a deep challenge, because its complexity and expressive power are unparalleled in the animal world. One of the key features of language is that the meaning of an expression is determined both by the meanings of its constituent parts and the syntactic rules used to combine them; known as the principle of compositionality. Although compositionality has been considered unique to language, recent field studies suggest that compositionality may have also evolved in vocal combinations in nonhuman animals. Here, we discuss how compositionality can be explored in animal communication systems and review recent evidence that birds use an ordering
rule to generate compositional expressions composed of meaningful calls. (Abstract)

Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. New York: Zone Books, 2015. The Yale University professor of music and the humanities retraces how primates and hominids came to and communicated by rhythmic compositions, broadly conceived, before all manner of linguistic utterances began. Once again an original propensity for prosodic, communicative intonations is identified to have arisen first.

What is the origin of music? In the last few decades this question has been reinvigorated by new archaeological evidence and the fields of cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary theory. Starting at a period of human prehistory before Homo sapiens or music, Tomlinson describes the incremental attainments that led to musical gestures and soundings. He traces in Neandertals and early sapiens the accumulation and development of these capacities, and their coalescence into modern musical behavior across the last hundred millennia. Tomlinson builds a model of human evolution that revises our understanding of the interaction of biology and culture across evolutionary time-scales, enriching current models of our deep history. He draws in other emerging human traits: language, symbolism, a metaphysical imagination and complex social structure, and the use of advanced technologies.

Townsend, Simon, et al. Compositionality in Animals and Humans. PLoS Biology. August, 2018. Comparable, relative degrees of intelligence have now become attributed to all manner of creatures, so as to form a deep continuity. Here University of Zurich and University of Neuchatel, Switzerland linguists further find evidence for a long continuum of communicative abilities. See also Call Combinations in Birds and the Evolution of Compositional Syntax by T. Suzuki, et al in this issue.

A key step in understanding the evolution of human language involves unraveling the origins of syntactic structure. One approach seeks to reduce the core of syntax in humans to a single principle of recursive combination for which seems absent in other species. We argue for an alternative approach. We review evidence that beneath the complexity of human syntax, there is an extensive layer of nonproductive, nonhierarchical syntax that can be fruitfully compared to animal call combinations. This is an essential groundwork to explore and integrate before we can sufficiently elucidate what made it possible for human language to explode its syntactic capacity, transitioning from simple nonproductive combinations to the loquacious complexity that we now have. (Abstract edits)

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