Posts Tagged ‘ evolution ’

Does language make humans different from other animals? [short version]

Up for consideration this time is the extent to which language makes the human species distinct from other species of animal.  It is worth noting that animal communication is most frequently referred to as such: communication. Most research has used the terms animal communication and human language, which suggests from the outset of researching this question a previously established difference between species’ modes of communicative interaction. But are our forms of communication actually all that different from those of other animals? The main difference seems to be regarding the use in language of speech and ‘conventional symbols,’ which surely, albeit perhaps under different guises, is necessary for the exchanges in any communication.

Aitchison (1983) specified that four [of ten] criteria were particular to the human species: displacement, semanticity, structure dependence and creativity. These four criteria, in summary, indicate that humans are capable of talking about things, people and instances, true or false, outside of the here-and-now spatial and temporal environment by using a formalized, abstract set of words, symbols and intonations each of which can have many different meanings when used within different contexts and between different individuals.

As our closest relations, a lot of research into animal language has been using apes. One of the more noted of these studies was conducted by Savage-Rumbaugh who taught a Bonobo chimpanzee, ‘Kanzi’, to use a form of sign language.

The aspect that is arguably the defining feature of human communication is the quality of its semanticity/meaning, but perhaps it is the plethora of social contexts within which we use language that truly distinguishes human and animal communication,  for example, ‘what shall I wear to my interview?’ This sentence alone contains sociological features that would not occur in animal worlds i.e. clothing and employment.

So human language’s complexity does seem to be the distinguishing factor between human and non-human animals. However it is worth bearing mind that the precursor to this distinguisher was and is in fact perhaps routed not in the cognitive capacities of our species, but in the anatomical speech restrictions, as selected [or not] for through the course of evolution, of other species and therefore it is not just language, per se, that is the crux of this distinction. If amount of communication material available to different species were measured against their communicative levels and all results standardized, perhaps the actual distinction between human and non-human animals would be less apparently extreme.

The full version of this post can be found here.

Evolution, creationism, intelligent design & the huge lack of proof for any of it.

Or more accurately:

Evolution, creationism, intelligent design and the huge lack of proof —as far as any layman can understand— for any of it.

I recently read a Guardian article by Oliver Burkeman about how the way we live our lives now may have an effect on the longevity of our descendants. However, the article was interestingly couched in the Evolution versus Creationism debate and it sparked my interest. Burkeman describes the incident in 1960s Maryland, at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in which, having found a day missing, thousands of years in the past, one of the astronomers remembered a passage from the bible where Joshua asks God to stop the world for a day, which God —being the thoroughly good egg that he is— obliged. This, of course, proved the existence of God and his omnipotent powers of creation and, indeed, cessation.

So the Adam & Eve thing—and I understand this may be opening a can of worms here so feel free to correct my patchy knowledge. God creates a man (simples) and a woman (no mean feat) and everything’s wonderful until Lilith (the woman) wouldn’t ‘lie beneath him’. I’m lead to believe that this is both metaphoric and literal. So she gets packed off for having to much free thought and possibly a more exciting view of sex than St. Peter (the alcoholic woman-hater responsible for the transcript of some stories passed down orally—chinese whspers, anyone?— for 200 years that regular folk call ‘the Bible’). So God, not wanting the only man alive to be lonely or possibly for the purposes of procreation, makes Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, conveniently giving Adam the option to blow himself should Eve decline (at her own peril, evidently). Anyway, skipping to the end part, Eve persuades Adam to eat the apple of knowledge, God throws his toys out of the pram and exerts his almighty autorita to kick them out of Eden. At which time the only man and woman created stumble ashamedly into a village full of people, who probably also had clothes on.

‘Nough said.

Now, the Big Bang Theory (which is explained in great yet understandable detail here), that’s science, right? (As opposed to psyience perhaps). We’ve all heard of e=mc2,but to the lay person, the average joe who is not so good at maths or algebra, let alone physics or astrophysics, it’s about as much mumbo jumbo as Adam & Eve. Of course, there’s Evolution too. Dinosaurs and such. But seriously, for the layperson, that too is a lot to get your head around. A rather amusing video regarding what is termed ‘the Atheist Delusion’ is here. It puts in perspective the whole debate, assuming it doesn’t offend you first.

Natural selection is simpler. As Oliver Burkeman puts it:

In the way it’s generally understood, the whole point of natural selection – the so-called “modern synthesis” of Darwin’s theories with subsequent discoveries about genes – is its beautiful, breathtaking, devastating simplicity. In each generation, genes undergo random mutations, making offspring subtly different from their parents; those mutations that enhance an organism’s abilities to thrive and reproduce in its own particular environment will tend to spread through populations, while those that make successful breeding less likely will eventually peter out.

…From two elementary notions – random mutation and the filtering power of the environment – have emerged, over millennia, such marvels as eyes, the wings of birds and the human brain.


Not any more, apparently. Research has now shown that the relationship between genes and the environment is not actually one-way, i.e. genes produce random mutation>  the mutation is either suited to the environment and stays or unsuited to the environment and gets the boot. As David Shenk points out, according to new research, it is two-way. Environments can shape genetics too, such as the viruses that make up part of the human genome.

And here again we have a lot of confusing evidence that as laypeople it becomes hard to understand. It comes down, perhaps, to who you trust, what makes the most sense to you, the individual. After that, it’s just getting on with it. However, in the light of the studies mentioned in the Burkeman article, it’s worth remembering that the effects your environment has on you does not extend just to you. Stressed chickens whose abilities are impaired breed chicks with those impaired abilities, even when they’re raised without stress.

In the words of David Shenk:

If a geneticist had suggested as recently as the 1990s that a 12-year-old kid could improve the intellectual nimbleness of his or her future children by studying harder now, that scientist would have been laughed right out of the hall.

Not so now. Although on the brightside, your grandchildren won’t have these traits/impaired abilities as they are only affective of the first subsequent generation.

So think happy thoughts:):-

The atheist delusion video

Many thanks to Peter Harrison for [en]lightening my day today :):-

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