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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  December 2002

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE December 2002

Subject:

Re: Genetic basis of language

From:

Michael H Goldhaber <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 2 Dec 2002 02:22:24 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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text/plain (300 lines)

Ivan, thanks for your response and explanation. with the proviso about
semantic space, I now see what you were trynig to get at, and  agree as
best as I can tell. .
Michael

Ivan Handler wrote:

> Michael,
> I agree with your analysis completely.  My aim was not to reduce
> language to a set of mechanical reflexes, rather to show that it is
> not necessary to assume that genes code for specific behaviors.
> Semantics clearly come out of social interactions which are provided
> for by a large range of behaviors we can engage in.  While language is
> not just a behavior per se, it depends upon very sophisticated
> behaviors such as the ability to vocalize particular sounds or move
> your fingers in particular ways.  I am sorry if I was not sharp enough
> on this distinction in previous postings.
>
> Again, I do not want to imply that my simple model is the best model
> for showing how language could have come into being without any
> specific "language genes," it just shows that it is possible to create
> such a scenario based on what we know of the evolution of human
> physiology and its relations to other items such as the average size
> of a social group.  This was in response to Jose's posting in which he
> expressed anxiety over the idea that many of us were attempting
> exclude genes from any role to play in human evolutionary biology.  I
> was attempting to demonstrate that it is not necessary to assume that
> genes work to express specific behaviors, that it is just as possible
> that they work to select for large ranges of behaviors (as can be
> modeled abstractly by a "behavior space," a closed subset of a large
> dimensional euclidean space in my model) and that language could
> easily be seen as a kind of cultural exaptation of existing
> capabilities.  This is not a serious attempt to actually model
> language which seems beyond everybody's capabilities right now.
>
> Michael H Goldhaber wrote:
>
>> I think everyone is missing a key point. Language is not a behavior.
>> Behaviors
>> can be thought of as existing in themselves, not dependent on
>> meaning. To
>> engage in language is to engage in meaning that can only be
>> understood through
>> having an internal mental life. To call this behavior is simply to
>> miss a
>> vital distinction, and to make a huge step backwards. Behavioral
>> psychology,.making a similar distinction, has been largely
>> discredited.
>> Whatever kind of langauge one may be studying, be it a long-standing
>> language
>> or a recently invented creole or pidgin, is not possible without
>> engaging in
>> dialogue with speakers of the language, to find out what sentences
>> mean
>> (unless one find sa Rosetta stone relating it to a known language).
>> Ethologixts working with non-human animals of course are in no
>> position (at
>> least so far) to do this, so what they say about those animals'
>> behaviors is
>> in no way equivalent. Whether or not other animals do indeed have an
>> inner
>> life remains opaque to us, and will unless and until  we learn  to
>> speak with
>> them, which would in itself answer the question in the affirmative.
>> But then
>> we would no longer be limited to studying and commenting on their
>> behaviors.
>>
>> In particular, Ivan, even if one could construct a space of
>> behaviors (and I
>> don't understand the details of how you propose to do that) would
>> not be the
>> same as constructing a semantic space which would be necessary for
>> understsanding language. I do not believe that any kind of complete
>> semantic
>> space can be constructed a priori if such a space would encompass
>> all possible
>> meanings, since new meanings could always be constructed that would
>> reach
>> beyond the boundaries of any prior such space. If you are right
>> about the
>> possibililty of a behavioral space, that would prove the distinction
>> between
>> behvavior and language, by construction.
>>
>> To put the problem a different way, humans very clearly have
>> consciousness, a
>> consciousness that is heavily dependent on the complex symbolization
>> of
>> language, that, in other words arises from culture. Josť's attempt
>> to
>> understand culture as a result of local material conditions amounts
>> to an
>> absurd kind of materialism, in my opinion. Extremely different
>> cultures often
>> have been found in very similar environments, for example in
>> pre-columbian
>> Mexico.  To attempt to understand culture on the basis of physical
>> and
>> biological science is , to begin with, to ignore what culture is and
>> what
>> anthropolgoists, among others know. To do that in the name of
>> respecting the
>> "facts" is taking an attitude that elevates science over everything
>> else. That
>> attitude is not only arrogant and imperialistic towards other
>> disicplines,
>> but, sadly, ignorant.
>>
>> Michael
>>
>> Ivan Handler wrote:
>>
>>
>> > Jose,
>> > I don't think anyone is arguing that genetics have no impact on
>> > behavior.  The question is the kind of impact.  The problem with
>> > the
>> > genetic determinist program is that it assumes that specific
>> > behaviors
>> > must be controlled by specific gene loci.  It does not ask the
>> > broader
>> > question on what kinds of relations can exist betwee genes and
>> > behaviors
>> > first.
>> >
>> > I think there are many different ways of looking at this.  Dunbar's
>> > book, Grooming Gossip and the Evolution of Language presents a very
>> > interesting argument (which I assume bears some relationship to
>> > Bickerton's though I have not yet read his book).  Dunbar points
>> > out
>> > that brain size relative to body size is largest in primates.
>> >  Furthermore as the size of the average social group gets larger so
>> > does
>> > the relative size (relative to the rest of the brain volume) of the
>> > neocortex.  In fact the relative neocortex size gets roughly
>> > exponentially larger.  Even though Dunbar apparently accepts much
>> > of the
>> > genetic argument, his observations seem to point in another
>> > direction.
>> >
>> > Using  more just-so logic, it is easy to argue that the size of a
>> > social
>> > grouping can have selective advantages especially if the group has
>> > a
>> > strong social structure.  As the group gets bigger, the number of
>> > social
>> > interactions becomes exponentially more complicated.  This could
>> > lead
>> > one to deduce that large neocortexes are being selected to support
>> > large
>> > social groupings.  The fact that language came into being as larger
>> > groups came into existance may be more of an accident (at least at
>> > first) than something directly selected for.  Furthermore since
>> > primates
>> > do have cultures, the cultures changed as the brains allowed them
>> > to.
>> >  It is not clear that any kind of genetic change specifically for
>> > language would be needed in this scenario.  Cultural transmission
>> > is far
>> > faster and more adaptive than genetic change.
>> >
>> > Going further I can imagine a behavior space of all of the possible
>> > behaviors that a particuar animal species can exhibit.  If you take
>> > the
>> > animal's physical hierarchy in terms of body parts and biochemical
>> > processes, we can imagine a "generalized box metric" providing a
>> > distance measure between different behaviors (the metric would
>> > assign
>> > measures to each "leaf" component of the hierarchy, 2 behaviors
>> > distance
>> > would be the sum of the absolute values of the differences between
>> > each
>> > component).  I imagine that the total behavior of any species would
>> > be a
>> > small subspace of the total behavior space and the total behavior
>> > of any
>> > individual would be a vastly smaller subspace still.  One way of
>> > interpreting Dunbar's facts is that what is being selected for is
>> > the
>> > size of the behavior space, not any specific behavior.  The larger
>> > the
>> > behavior space, the larger the different ways that indivuals have
>> > to
>> > improvise solutions to problems that present themselves both in
>> > terms of
>> > basic survival and sociality.  Language is just another subset of
>> > this
>> > behavior space that necessarily expands as the space does.  It is
>> > not
>> > necessary to theorize the existance of specific language genes to
>> > have a
>> > materialist view of language.  This view also incorporates the fact
>> > that
>> > genes are important in the biology of animals that have language,
>> > but it
>> > does not impute any genetic bias toward any specific behavior.
>> >
>> > I am not attempting to claim this model is the best model of the
>> > relation between genes and human behavior.  I only use it to
>> > illustrate
>> > that the unquestioned assumptions behind genetic determinism are
>> > what we
>> > need to focus on.  Once you accept the idea that their must be
>> > specific
>> > couplings between language and behavior you have already begged the
>> > question.
>> >
>> > I am also skeptical of the idea of "progressive science."  To my
>> > mind
>> > what we as progressive scientists do is to expose how much of what
>> > is
>> > presented as conventional science is in fact biased along class,
>> > national, gender or corporatist lines.  Science depends upon the
>> > integrity of individual researchers to free themselves of these
>> > biases
>> > and any others as best they can.  Then the ideas that arise from
>> > all of
>> > the different scientific enterprises can compete on their merits
>> > without
>> > any hidden agendas.  "Progressive science" sounds too much like
>> > Lysenko,
>> > an attempt to determine a priori what is good science based on
>> > ideological affiliations or the number of "marxist" talismans
>> > presented
>> > in a text.  I am in favor of progressive scientists who are
>> > attempting
>> > to create a science that is free of these biases and is less
>> > elitist and
>> > more inclined to build bridges to the non-scientific community,
>> > rather
>> > than creating an edifice of so-called progressive science.
>> >
>> > -- Ivan
>> >
>> > Josť F. Morales wrote:
>> >
>> >
>> >> > "Josť F. Morales" wrote:
>> >> >
>> >>  In my opinion, in so far as we are talking about the way in which
>> >>  natural processes are relevant to a progressive view of something
>> >>  (ie. role of biology in human behavior), any description has to
>> >>  include an accurate description of the relevant aspects of the
>> >>  natural world.  It has to be based on the best understanding of
>> >>  the
>> >>  facts as we know them.  While, I am not an expert in the field of
>> >>  human behavior, at least to me, its self-evident that biology has
>> >>  to
>> >>  have something to do with human behavior.  Genetics is part of
>> >>  biology, so genetics has to have something to do with human
>> >>  behavior.
>> >>  What that "something to do" is as Cantiflas would say,  "alli
>> >>  esta el
>> >>  detalle"  (there is the detail).
>> >>
>> >>  I wouldn't want anything to do with a progressive view of
>> >>  something
>> >>  that doesn't have a grasp of the relevant facts.
>> >>
>> >>
>> >> > Let's suppose the behavior in question is voting behavior. Why
>> >> > is it
>> >> > in any way helpful or progressive to explain why, say, people
>> >> > vote
>> >> > Republican even partly by  biology and
>> >> > genetics? On the contrary, it seems evident to me that in this
>> >> > example, such
>> >> > an explanation would be unscientific and Nazi-like at the same
>> >> > time. The
>> >> > fact that without certain genes people couldn't cast ballots
>> >> > fails to
>> >> > shed
>> >> > light on their voting behavior.
>> >> >
>> >>  To answer you straight, I'd say voting behavior is like any
>> >>  choice
>> >>  and the capacity for choice derives from some brain structure
>> >>  dynamics that emerge from complex sensory-neuronal interactions.
>> >>  These are built from specific cellular characteristics that
>> >>  emerge
>> >>  from complex genic interactions.  What is the causality of the
>> >>  single
>> >>  neuronal gene to that dynamic complex sensory-neuronal structure
>> >>  is a
>> >>  relevant question.  Do we know how to answer it now? Probably
>> >>  not.
>> >>  However, we are probably in the best position we've ever been in
>> >>  to
>> >>  answer it.  Should progressives be interested in this?
>> >>  Probably.  I
>> >>  sure would like to know behavior arises.
>> >>
> --
> Ivan Handler
> Networking for Democracy
> [log in to unmask]
>
>

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