[Top] [All Lists]

Re: [ontolog-forum] Mirror neurons in language use

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Ed Barkmeyer <edbark@xxxxxxxx>
Date: Tue, 19 Jan 2010 14:07:27 -0500
Message-id: <4B5602EF.9070307@xxxxxxxx>
All,    (01)

I am by no means an expert in this area, but I have been dabbling in 
this subject for the last several years.  For those who have an interest 
in the "evolution of the language facility", I would recommend a 
layman's book by Christine Kenneally called "The First Word -- The 
Search for the Origins of Language".  It is essentially a catalogue of a 
large part of the related research between Chomsky and 2005, sorted by 
topic.  She tries to be neutral, but she clearly has her heroes.  And 
her bibliography includes everything I had read theretofore (and many 
things I haven't the least interest in).    (02)

And now for the mandatory debate with John.    (03)

John F. Sowa wrote:    (04)

> The neuroscientists have done an enormous amount of very good work,
> and the amount of detail is accumulating rapidly.  However, they
> readily admit that the amount that they still don't know is vastly
> more than what they do.  Many of them also make various speculations
> that go beyond the data.  Some of the speculation is confirmed by
> later research, but some is later refuted or qualified.
>       (05)

And in the writings in the trade, you see both the scientists who are 
careful not to say more than they can substantiate, and those who think 
they need to do so, if for no other reason than to spark further 
research in those areas.    (06)

> A lot has been written about "mirror neurons", and I'm sure that
> they are critical to much of human thinking.  But Ramachandran goes
> beyond the data.  In particular, he relates them to the so-called
> "Great Leap Forward", when humans "suddenly" acquired the ability
> to do symbolic thinking.      (07)

More carefully, the Great Leap Forward is a documented paleontological 
phenomenon.  In a period of about 10,000 years beginning about 50000 
years ago, mankind expanded dramatically in its settlement of the globe, 
and man began making more sophisticated tools and demonstrated several 
other advances.  The common theory is that this was the result of 
evolving "symbolic thinking" or "language", but that theory is not well 
substantiated (yet).  Not coincidentally, the people (homo sapiens) who 
demonstrated these abilities and expanded to fill the globe were 
physiologically different from other hominids of the time.    (08)

> That time, which is often estimated around
> 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, rules out the Neanderthals, who split
> off from Homo saps about 300,000 years ago.
>       (09)

And intentionally.  Neanderthal man existed from about 130000 years ago 
to perhaps 20000 years ago, but demonstrated nearly no increase in 
sophistication for the first 80000 years.  Then, during and after the 
Great Leap Forward, Neanderthal man also began to display some of the 
cultural and technical facilities of homo sapiens.  This causes one to 
ask how much of the GLF was "nature" and how much was "nurture" -- the 
environment, the baseline of practice, and their social consequences.    (010)

> Since there is no evidence of writing beyond a few thousand years
> ago, the evidence for the so-called "symbolic thinking" is extremely
> indirect, such as beads, painting, and other non-utilitarian artifacts.
>       (011)

Exactly.    (012)

> But note the following article:
>     http://www.physorg.com/news182439329.html
>     New research suggests Neanderthals weren't stupid
> Excerpt:
>     Neanderthals used makeup and jewelry, challenging the idea that
>     they were cognitively inferior to early modern humans, according
>     to research published in the _Proceedings in the National Academy
>     of Sciences_. Radiocarbon dating by researchers at Oxford University
>     suggests that pigment-stained and perforated marine shells were
>     almost certainly used as pendants by Neanderthals in Spain 50,000
>     years ago.
>       (013)

Which is also about the time that homo sapiens began to outnumber 
Neanderthals on the Iberian peninsula. 
So the alternative theory is that the Neanderthals weren't so stupid 
that they couldn't copy and use the stuff that homo sapiens came up 
with.  There is paleontological evidence that homo sapiens and homo 
Neandethalis lived side by side in parts of Europe for at least 20000 
years.  And it is pretty clear that there were some cultural transfers 
over that time.  Late Neanderthal settlements (-40000 to -30000) show 
several elements of homo sapiens culture.    (014)

The bottom line is that something happened around 50000 years ago, homo 
sapiens began to dominate, apparently because of technical and cultural 
superiority, and the Neanderthals and other hominids gradually 
disappeared over the next 20000 years, probably because they could not 
compete.  We know about some of the physiological differences, and we 
suppose that symbolic thinking and language abilities may have been 
associated with those differences.  But there is also a lot of evidence 
for the gradual nature of the evolution of these capabilities, and it 
may well be that multiple small changes came together to produce 
effective abilities, and social and environmental factors made them 
useful.     (015)

> Some people say that mirror neurons are critical to empathy, but
> others have reported strong evidence for an understanding of death
> and empathy for individuals who are dying or recently dead in
> chimpanzees and elephants.  Even cats and dogs show that they know
> when their humans or their kittens and puppies are in trouble.
>       (016)

I don't even want to go there.  Research on "empathy" seems to be 
neuroscience and pheromone chemistry and stuff I think of as "paranormal 
research", to say nothing of the theological views.  There there be dragons.    (017)

> The following note is also very interesting, but the title suggests
> far more than the data:
>     http://www.physorg.com/news182581342.html
>     Scientists crack brain's codes for noun meanings
> ...
> That is *not* cracking the code.  They discovered evidence that
> the associations in the brain link the same kinds of things that
> AI programs have been linking for the past half century.      (018)

Exactly.  But what do you expect from science news writers?  Catchy 
title, correct research information, speculative connection. Popularized 
science should not be read on a salt-free diet. ;-)    (019)

-Ed    (020)

Edward J. Barkmeyer                        Email: edbark@xxxxxxxx
National Institute of Standards & Technology
Manufacturing Systems Integration Division
100 Bureau Drive, Stop 8263                Tel: +1 301-975-3528
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8263                FAX: +1 301-975-4694    (021)

"The opinions expressed above do not reflect consensus of NIST, 
 and have not been reviewed by any Government authority."    (022)

Message Archives: http://ontolog.cim3.net/forum/ontolog-forum/  
Config Subscr: http://ontolog.cim3.net/mailman/listinfo/ontolog-forum/  
Unsubscribe: mailto:ontolog-forum-leave@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Shared Files: http://ontolog.cim3.net/file/
Community Wiki: http://ontolog.cim3.net/wiki/ 
To join: http://ontolog.cim3.net/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?WikiHomePage#nid1J
To Post: mailto:ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx    (023)

<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>