Post by Day Brown
I dont get emotional about the lines of text on this screen. They are
just pixels, and neither praise nor condemnation garners my attention.
I can see where those lacking the scholarship or reason do get upset,
but even then, sometimes I learn something from the rants.
Regarding the Chinese, I didnt know they lacked verb tenses. But this
stands in sharp contrast to Tocharian which has the most extensive
system of tense and case that I've every read about. "IT depends on
what the meaning of is, is" would not have worked in Tocharian; tense
and case were always clear. I dont read Tocharian, I'm still reading
about it, and there is much to consider.
P61, Tocharian Historical Phonology and Morphology, Douglas
Adams:"4.23, THE ENDINGS OF THE IMPERATIVE. The normal second person
singlular imperative in Proto-Indo-European was the bare stem, while
the second person plural was the bare stem plus *-te (just as in the
indicative). Thus we might have *es(te) 'be!' or *age(te) 'lead!'. Such
imperative have almost disappeared in Tocharian being replaced by
modalized perfects or aorists."
He goes on to outline it, noting that what Tocharian has left is stuff
like "pick me up!" or "Give me!" the kind of thing kids say to moms.
From what Adams has to say, it seems impossible to translate the Ten
Commandments into Tocharian because there aint no word for "Shalt".
Which gets to the issue you raise about what can be communicated. Some
people just dont get it. But some things get handed down forever. Which
fits with what neurologist Ramachandran has to say about pattern
recognition algorithms in the occipital lobes.
The most remarkable example I know of has to do with a cave in Europe
that they found a large clay model of a bear with the remnants of a
bear skin that once covered it still there. Along with a bear skull
with the bear femurs thrust thru the eye sockets. Then a friend showed
me an anthro book on the Ainu, who still worshiped the great bear god.
They would capture a bear cub in spring; the women would nurse it at
the breast, and when mature, it was sacrificed to carry messages from
the tribe into the spirit world. After that ritual, there's another in
which the bear skin is draped over a bear model, and on the floor
infront of the shrine, they place a bear skull with the crossed femurs
thrust into the eye sockets. something like 30,000 years later.
We see the variety in instinctive behavior patterns among dogs, which
tho they vary more than the hominids in size, shape, color and
intelligence, nonetheless are all the same species. FMRI brain scans
are being used by neurologists like Ramachandran to outline some of the
pattern software that we see manifest as art.
We also see the unwarrented dismissibility of modern hominids wanting
to think of themselves as the 'sons of god' and different from all
other animals, and how that too is an instinctive behavior pattern of
Re Ramachandran ~ After reviewing a series of his lectures from Oxford
I came upon the very thing I have been looking for ... although the
path I have taken has been richer than any direct root could have been.
Thank you again for this direction. Below I quote the end of his
lecture on Synesthesia.
"Now finally I would like to turn to language, how did language evolve?
This has always been a very controversial topic and the question is
look, here we have this amazing ability called language with all the
nesting of clauses, this hierarchical structure of language, this
recursive embedding of clauses, our enormous lexicon and it's an
extraordinarily sophisticated mechanism. How could it possibly have
evolved through the blind workings of chance through natural selection?
How did we evolve from the grunts and howls and groans of our ape-like
ancestors to all the sophistication of a Shakespeare or a George Bush?
Now there have been several theories about this. Alfred Russell Wallace
said the mechanism is so complicated it couldn't have evolved through
natural selection. It was done by god, divine intervention. Maybe he's
right but we can't test it so let's throw it away. Next theory was by
Chomsky. Chomsky said actually something quite similar although he
doesn't use the word god. He said this mechanism is so sophisticated
and elaborate it couldn't have emerged through natural selection,
through the blind workings of chance but god knows what happens if you
pack one hundred billion nerve cells in such a tiny space, you may get
new laws of physics emerging. Aha, that's how you explain language so
he almost says it's a miracle although he doesn't use the word miracle.
Now even if that's true we can't test it so let's throw it away. So
then what actually happened? How did language evolve? I suggest the
clue, the vital clue comes from the booba/kiki example, from
synesthesia and I'd like to replace this idea with what I call the
synesthetic boot-strapping theory of language origins, and I'll get to
that in a minute.
So the next idea is Pinker's idea and his idea is look there's no big
mystery here. You're seeing the final result of evolution, of language
but you don't know what the intermediate steps are so it always looks
mysterious but of course it evolved through natural selection even
though we don't know what the steps were. Now I think he's right but he
doesn't go far enough because as a biologist, we want the devils and
the details. We want to know what those intermediate steps are, not
merely that it could have happened through natural selection. Of course
it happened through natural selection. There is nothing else so let's
take the lexicon, words. How did we evolve such a wonderful huge
repertoire of words, thousands of words? Did our ancestral hominoids
sit near the fireplace and say, let's look at that. OK, everybody call
it an axe, say everybody axe. Of course not! I mean you do that in
kindergarten but that's not what they did. If they didn't do that, what
did they do? Well what I'm arguing is that the booba/kiki example
provides the clue. It shows there is a pre-existing translation between
the visual appearance of the object represented in the fusiform gyrus
and the auditory representation in the auditory cortex. In other words
there's already a synesthetic cross-modal abstraction going on, a
pre-existing translation if you like between the visual appearance and
the auditory representation. Now admittedly this is a very small bias,
but that's all you need in evolution to get it started and then you can
start embellishing it.
But that's only part of the story, part one. Part two, I'm going to
argue, there's also a pre-existing built-in cross-activation. Just as
there is between visual and auditory, the booba/kiki effect, there's
also between visual in the fusiform and the motor brocas area in the
front of the brain that controls the sequence of activations of muscles
of vocalisation, phonation and articulation - lips, tongue and mouth.
How do I know that? Well let's take an example. Let's take the example
of something tiny, say teeny weeny, un peu, diminutive - look at what
my lips are doing. The amazing thing is they're actually physically
mimicking the visual appearance of the object - versus enormous, large.
We're actually physically mimicking the visual appearance of the object
so what I'm arguing is that also again a pre-existing bias to map
certain visual shapes onto certain sounds in the motor maps in the
Lastly, the third factor - I think there's also a pre-existing
cross-activation between the hand area and the mouth area because they
are right next to each other in the Penfield motor map in the brain and
let me give you an example, and I got scooped. Charles Darwin first
described this. What he showed was when people cut with a pair of
scissors you clench and unclench your jaws unconsciously as if to echo
or mimic the movements of the fingers. He didn't explain why but I'd
like to give it a name. I call it synkinesia - and that's because the
hand and mouth areas are right next to each other and maybe there is
some spill-over of signals. Now so what? Well, imagine your ancestral
hominids evolving a system of gestures for communication, and this
would have been important because vocalisation, you can't engage them
in your hunting. Now the right hemisphere produces guttural emotional
utterances along with the anterior singular. Now your mouth and tongue
are already, there's a pre-existing translation of the visual symbols
into mouth lip and tongue movements. Combine that with guttural
utterances coming from the right hemisphere and anterior cingulate,
what do you get? You get the first words, you get proto-words.
So now you've got three things in place - hand to mouth, mouth in
brocas area to visual appearance in the fusiform and auditory cortex,
and auditory to visual, the booba/kiki effect. Each of these is a small
effect but acting together there's a synergistic boot-strapping effect
going on and an avalanche effect, culminating in the emergence of
language. Finally you say well what about the hierarchical structure of
syntax? How do you explain that? Well I think like when you say he
knows that I know that he knows that I know that I had an affair with
his wife. How do you do this hierarchic embedding in language? Well
partly I think that comes from semantics, from the region of the TPO
where I said you'd engage in abstraction and I already explained how
abstraction might have evolved, so partly abstraction feeds into
syntactic structure, but partly from tool use. Early hominids were very
good at tool use and especially what I call the sub-assembly technique
in tool use where you take a piece of flint, make it into a head - step
one. Then you haft it onto a handle - step two, and then the whole
thing becomes one entity which is then used to hit you the subject, you
hit the object. You do something to the object and this bears a certain
operational analogy with the embedding of noun clauses. So what I'm
arguing is what evolved for tool use in the hand area is now exapted
and assimilated in the brocas area to be used in syntactic hierarchic
embedding. So now look, each of these has a small bias but acting in
conjunction they culminate in language. It's very different from Steve
Pinker's idea which is that language is a specific adaptation which
evolved step by step for the sole purpose of communication. What I'm
arguing here is no, it's the fortuitous synergistic combination of a
number of mechanisms which evolved for other purposes initially and
then became assimilated into the mechanism that we call language. This
often happens in evolution but it's a style of thinking that has yet to
permeate neurology and psychology and it's very odd that neurologists
don't usually think of evolution given that nothing in biology makes
any sense except in the light of evolution as Dobzhansky once said.
So let me summarise what we've done. We begin with a disorder that's
been known for a century but treated as a curiosity. And then we showed
that the phenomenon is real, what the underlying brain mechanisms might
be, and lastly spelt out what the broader implications of this curious
phenomenon might be. So what have we done here with synesthesia? Let's
take a look. One day we might be able to clone the gene or genes,
because if you find a large enough family you might be able to do this.
Then we can go on to the brain anatomy and say look, it's expressed in
the fusiform gyrus and you get lower synesthesia. You go to angular
gyrus you get higher synesthesia. If it's expressed all over you get
artsy types! Then from the brain anatomy you go to detailed perceptual
psychophysics. Either the pop-out effect, you know the 2s against the
5s which you can measure, and then finally all the way to understanding
abstract thought and how it might have emerged, metaphor, Shakespeare,
even the evolution of language - all of this in this one little quirk
that people used to call synesthesia. So I agree wholeheartedly with
what Huxley said in the last century just across the road here at the
University Museum, contrary to Benjamin Disraeli's views and the views
of Bishop Wilberforce. We are not angels, we are merely sophisticated
apes. Yet we feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts,
craving transcendence and all the time trying to spread our wings and
fly off, and it's really a very odd predicament to be in, if you think