The flâneurs of this café électronique will
have to provide their own espresso – but the science that
you'll overhear is pretty exciting all by itself, virtual caffeine for the
What we all need to reset our circadian rhythms is an instantaneous
Educated birds and bonobos have been getting better at language, but linguists keep raising the hurdles for
Department of Lists covers what other recommenders are recommending these days.
Department of Reading
There are books from
Short comments but mostly excerpts, in the Whole Earth Review style.
The NHK/Nova/BBC special last year introduced you to Kanzi, the bonobo with an understanding of English equal to a two-and-a-half year old child.|
Language and Species
is the book on the evolution of human language abilities by
(University of Chicago Press, 1990).
| "[We] can understand neither ourselves nor our world until we have fully understood what language is and what it has done for our species. For although language made our species and made the world we inhabit, the powers it unleashed drove us to understand and control our environment, rather than explore the mainspring of our own being. We have followed that path of control and domination until even the most daring among us have begun to fear where it may lead. Now the engine of our quest for power and knowledge should itself become the object that we seek to know."|
"The paradox of consciousness -- that the more consciousness one has, the more layers of processing divide one from the world -- is, like so much else in nature, a trade-off. Progressive distancing from the external world is simply the price that is paid for knowing anything about the world at all. The deeper and broader [our] consciousness of the world becomes, the more complex the layers of processing necessary to obtain that consciousness."
The Animal Mind
Carol Grant Gould
(Scientific American Library, 1994).
| "What makes the wasp's behavior more like that of a computer than an architect is the lack of any comprehension of the goal. Instead, the insect focuses on a series of immediate tasks. This distinction between "local" tasks, which could be accomplished by innate programming alone, and "global" goals, which may require a more complete perspective and understanding of the need a behavior serves, will be crucial to our analyses of more complex behavior."|
"While innate processing, instinctive behavior, internally orchestrated motivation and drive, and innately guided learning are all essential and important elements of an animal's cognitive repertoire, they are not likely to be part of that more esoteric realm of mental activity that we associate with thinking, judgment, and decision-making. But what is thought, and how are we to recognize its operation in other creatures within that most private of organs, the brain? What behavioral criteria can permit us to distinguish between the true thought that we are wont to believe goes into our aesthetic, moral, and practical decision-making on one hand, and the intricate programming that can create the illusion of thought in at least certain other animals? Or could it be, as advocates of artificial intelligence suspect, that all thought, including ours, is just the consequence of clever programming?"
(Well, you could have taken the fast links -- and then used the bounce-back buttons)
Resetting Circadian Rhythms
by Ten Time Zones
in Only One Day
copyright ©1995 by
Problem: You are boarding an overnight over-the-pole flight in North America that will get you into Europe in the morning. The following day, you'll need to get up at 0630 for a full day of business. But 0630 there is (yawn) 9:30pm back home.
Actually, for me, it is usually worse because I've been staying up late, getting ready for the trip, and so have slept late for the last few days. Thus I have a 10-11 hour time shift to make, night into day in a big way. But I can usually do it in just one night: I'm normally alert the first business day in Europe and sleeping well the rest of the week. The method is simple and requires nothing more than a sleeping mask and earplugs for the airplane flight.
I arrived at the method because, as a physiologist, I've been following some of the sleep researchers' studies on resetting circadian rhythms with bright lights. Melatonin is released by the pineal gland during darkness, and it's something of a master hormone. Influence it and you influence many of your body's other biological clocks. And I'd also noticed another result from the sleep researchers: about half your eight hours of sleep are only a very light sleep. That's when you are seemingly half awake, mulling things over repetitively without making much progress. Yet it's restful.
Westbound is easier, as it's just one very long day and you finally get to bed at a locally normal hour. In-flight naps and alcohol are okay except in the evening, destination time. Get up the next morning at a normal hour and go for a long walk, avoiding naps for the rest of the day.
No guarantees, but this method has been working for me for a few years now, and I used to be jetlagged for four days. I carry along some melatonin pills to take if I have trouble getting to sleep, but they're seldom necessary.
Animal Language Abilities
and What the Linguists Study
copyright ©1995 by
|No matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor but honest.|
Problem: Chimpanzees, our closest cousins, have about three dozen vocalizations. But they're all meaningful in themselves: A chimp's loud waa-bark is defiant, angry. A soft cough-bark is, surprisingly, a threat. Wraaa mixes fear with curiousity ("Weird stuff, this!") and the soft huu signifies weird without hostility ("What is this stuff?"). Combinations are not used for special meanings. Humans also have about three dozen units of vocalization -- but they're all meaningless! Even syllables like /ba/ and /ga/ are meaningless unless combined with others to make meaningful words such as bat.
Vervet monkeys in the wild use four different alarm calls, warning of each of their typical predators. They have other vocalizations that call the group together or warn of the approach of another group of monkeys. But they're all single purpose calls. Vervets may repeat them to intensify their meaning, but they don't combine two of them to create a third meaning. If the chimp's waa-wraaa-huu (literally: defiant-angry, curious-fear, then simply weird) is to mean something different than huu-wraaa-waa, then the chimp is going to have to suspend judgment, ignore those standard meanings of each call until the whole string has been received and analyzed.
The honey bee has, at least in the context of a simple coordinate system, broken out of the mold of one-sign-one-meaning. The bee returning to her hive performs a "waggle dance" in a figure-8 that communicates a number of items of information about the location and quality of a food source that she has just visited. The angle of the figure-8 axis points toward the food. The duration of the waggle dance is proportional to the distance from the hive, e.g., three loops around the figure-8 would suggest 60 meters away to the average Italian honey bee observing the dance (though 150 meters to a German one, a matter of genes rather than the company in which the bee had been reared).
Still, the linguists are not very impressed:
All other creatures can communicate only about things that have evolutionary significance for them, but human beings can communicate about anything.... Animal calls and signs are structurally holistic [and] cannot be broken down into component parts, as language can.... Though in themselves the sounds of a language are meaningless, they can be recombined in different ways to yield thousands of words, each distinct in meaning.... In just the same way, a finite stock of words... can be combined to produce an infinite number of sentences. Nothing remotely like this is found in animal communication. [Ray Jackendoff, Patterns in the Mind, 1993]
With enough experience, various animals can learn a wide range of words, symbols, or human gestures – but one must be careful to distinguish between comprehension and the ability to originate fancy communications. They don't necessarily go together.
One psychologist's dog understands about 90 items; the 60 it produces don't overlap very much in meaning with the receptive ones. A sea lion has learned to comprehend 190 human gestures – but doesn't gesture back with the same productivity. Bonobos have learned an even greater number of symbols for words and can combine them with gestures to make requests. A gray parrot has learned, over the course of a decade, a 70-word vocabulary that includes 30 object names, seven colors, five shape adjectives, and a variety of other "words" – and can make requests with some of them.
None of these talented animals is telling stories about who did what to whom; they're not even discussing the weather. But it is clear that our closest cousins, the chimpanzee and the bonobo, can achieve considerable levels of language comprehension with the aid of skilled teachers who can motivate them. The most accomplished bonobo can interpret sentences he's never heard before, such as "Kanzi, go to the office and bring back the red ball," about as well as a 2.5-year-old child. Neither bonobo nor child is constructing such sentences, but they can demonstrate by their actions that they understand them. And comprehension comes first, production later, as language develops in children.
All of this animal communicative ability is very impressive, but is it language? The term language is used rather loosely by most people. First of all, it refers to particular dialects such as English and German and Dutch (and the Middle German of 1300 from which each was partially derived). But language also designates the overarching category of communication systems that are especially elaborate. Bee researchers use language to describe what they see, and chimpanzee researchers do too. Where do animal symbolic repertoires become humanlike language?
It's not obvious. Webster's offers "a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meaning" as one definition of language. That would encompass the above examples. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh suggests that the essence of language is "the ability to tell another individual something he or she did not already know" which, of course, means that the receiving individual is going to have to use some Piagettian guessing-right intelligence in constructing a meaning.
But humanlike language? Linguists will immediately say "No, there are rules!" They will start talking about the rules implied by mental grammar and questioning if they are present in any of the nonhuman examples. That some animals such as Kanzi can make use of word order to disambiguate requests does not impress them. The linguist Ray Jackendoff is more diplomatic than most, but has the same bottom line:
A lot of people have taken the issue to be whether the apes have language or not, citing definitions and counter-definitions to support their position. I think this is a silly dispute, often driven by an interest either in reducing the distance between people and animals or in maintaining this distance at all costs. In an attempt to be less doctrinaire, let's ask: do the apes succeed in communicating? Undoubtedly yes. It even looks as if they succeed in communicating symbolically, which is pretty impressive. But, going beyond that, it does not look as though they are capable of constructing a mental grammar that regiments the symbols coherently. (Again, a matter of degree – maybe there is a little, but nothing near human capacity.) In short, Universal Grammar, or even something remotely like it, appears to be exclusively human.And what's grammar, let alone Universal Grammar? That's a story for another day. Suffice it to say that there can be levels of complexity to language, just as there are to music. You can't say that polyphonic music isn't music, merely because it lacks Bach's use of the contrapuntal techniques of stretto, parallel voice-leading, and mirror inversions of themes. But you can say that it isn't Bach.
Adapted from my book, How Brains Think in the Science Masters series from Basic Books (HarperCollins) in the USA, Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the UK, and various translation editions elsewhere (including China). It expands on my Scientific American article.