Gary Marcus
The Birth of Mind
Perseus Books 2004


124: Commonalities and Differences Between Humans and Chimpanzees; Uniquely Human; Language

Homo sapiens, the loud mouthed ape.
Humans are both similar and different from our close animal cousins. In, for example, our body structure, our group dynamics, our perceptual systems, our aggression, and our sustained systems of maternal care, we surely have something in common with the chimp.
Yet we are also plainly different. In our culture, our language, and in our thoughts, we have the capacity to contemplate beauty, justice, calculus, and the meaning of life, concepts that we imagine no chimp has ever dreamed of.

Language, of course, must be a key to what makes our species unique. If learning is the genome’s most powerful trick for moving beyond itself, language is arguably the most powerful tool for learning – the mother of all learning mechanisms and the single thing that most makes humans different. Language allows us to communicate information in ways that no other medium could match. It is clearly critical for the rapid transmission of culture, and it may even be a necessary component of some kinds of thought.

We often have the impression that we think in words. Scientific opinion is divided as to whether we really do. As a medium for communication, it [language] allows elders to teach the young; as a medium for thought, it almost certainly helps us to store and retrieve information more efficiently, and it may even help us to reason more efficiently.

Not everybody would agree would agree that language is a medium for thought. Jerry Fodor, for example, has argued that language must separate from a “language of thought”, or “mentalese”, because there is a slippage between language and thought. There are, for example, thoughts that cannot be expressed with language and “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomena in which we know there’s a word for something but can’t quite come up with it. The psychologist Lila Gleitman has argued, rightly in my view, that there is little good experimental evidence showing last cognitive differences between speakers of different languages. She suggested instead that that “linguistic systems are merely the formal and expressive medium that speakers devise to describe their mental conceptual representations,“ and that “linguistic categories and structures (serve as) more-or-less straightforward mapping from preexisting conceptual space, programmed into our biological nature."

Perhaps the most compelling argument for a difference between language and thought is one raised by Fodor and Steven Pinker: the contrast between sentences which are ambiguous (Does the bank mean a financial institute or a riverbed in “Lloyd sat next to the bank”? […]) and thoughts in mentalese, which presumably are unambiguous. When I think to myself … I know what I mean. But what do these arguments show? They show that there can be thoughts without language, but no language without thought, but not that language plays no role in thought. Babies, monkeys, aphasics (…) all have thoughts even if they cannot speak, and we all have thoughts that we can’t put into words – emotions, sensations, and so forth – but that shows only that some thoughts are not linguistic, not that no thoughts are.

126: I would like to suggest that language makes certain types of thought – including the kind of conscious, reflective reasoning you are engaged right now – possible.
Language has the potential to affect our thoughts in at least two ways: first by “framing” the content of our ideas; second, by affecting what we remember. By “framing”, I mean that language can, like a flashlight (or hand gesture) point our attention in particular directions. When Henry Kissinger says that “mistakes were made”, he aims to use Language to divert from the embarrassing question of who made the mistakes. Language is all about emphasis: As Lila Gleitman pointed out, saying “Meryl Streep is my sister is entirely different from saying “Your sister met Meryl Streep”. As every good spin doctor must know, to frame a sentence is to frame a thought.

When it comes to memory, language’s most obvious role is to help us rehearse information in our heads, as when you repeat a phone number to yourself.
Language may also facilitate thought by providing simple hooks for complex concepts.
Language may also play a crucial role in long-term memory by providing a special way of encoding complex information. To understand this point, it helps to think about computers at work. A computer’s memory is made up of a long string of “bits” that can be either zeros or ones, but those zeros and ones mean nothing without an organizational scheme, or what computer programmers call “data structure”, a way of taking a particular set of zeros and ones that stand for a particular kind of entity, such as a number, a name, or an intensity for a picture element (pixel). What a particular computer program represents is a function of the particular types of data structures it can encode; some programs may store only pictures but not names, others the other way around.

Language’s greatest contribution may be in providing a data structure for storing relationships between entities and bits of information about those entities, or what linguists call subjects (say G. W. Bush) and predicates (felt that American voters had misunderestimated him). Such a data structure might be a key to enabling humans to represent a uniquely broad range of thoughts.

But what about Pinker and Fodor’s point about ambiguity? Do we really store our thoughts as sentences? It is possible that for a subset of our thoughts, an annotated kind of language – rather than a separate mentalese – could serve as a medium form long-term storage. (If there is some kind of language-specific representational system, then it would stand to reason that children who have yet to learn a language would not have such a system and would therefore not be able to entertain the same range of thoughts as people who had acquired linguistic systems.

128: Culture: Whether language is a medium for thought or just communication, its importance in our lives cannot be understated. Chimpanzees and orangutans have the rudiments of culture, but without language, and its capacity for rapidly transmitting – and perhaps encoding – a wide range of information, they will never have culture as rich as ours. But why is that we have language and our chimpanzee cousins who share more than 98 percent of our genetic material do not?

Boe: culture - communication system - social systems (Luhmann)

When it comes to evolution, the question seems almost too easy. Dozens of eminent scientists have made proposals. Today we have the aquatic ape hypothesis, the language gesture theory, the theory that language arose from the neural machinery that evolved to control our muscles, the theory that language came about as an accidental consequence of having bigger brains, the theory that language is an extension of our capacity for representing space, the theory that language evolved for the purpose of gossip, and the theory that language evolved as a means of engaging in courtship and sexual display.

Probably more than a few of these theories have a grain of truth in them. Language does for example make gossip possible, and it couldn’t have hurt our ancestors to know a little more about their neighbors than the next guy did. But, as linguists are fond of saying, languages don’t leave fossils, and thus far, there has been very little evidence to tease apart on theory of the origin of language from the next.

We haven’t yet figured out exactly what it is about the mind and brain that allows us to learn and use language in the first place. Until recently, most textbooks ascribed the ability to use language largely to two walnut-sized regions of the left hemisphere of the brain known as “Broca’s area” and “Wernicke’s area”. Broca’s area was the grammar area of the brain, Wernicke’s the meanings area of the brain. The only problem with this lovely story, now over a hundred years old, is that it’s wrong.

Scientists using new neuro-imaging methods such as PET or functional MRI have found that Broca’s area is indeed (in many experiments) active in syntactic processing and that Wernicke’s is active in understanding and processing of words, but they’ve also found that other areas participate in both kind of processing and that neither Broca’s nor Wernicke’s areas is restricted to purely linguistic function. Broca’s area, for example, seems to be active not just in Language but also in the comprehension of music (even by nonmusicians), in imitation and perhaps in motor control.

It appears that syntactic processing engages other parts of the brain further up to the front, and perhaps “subcortical” areas that are not even in the evolutionary recent neocortex; studies of word learning have implicated not just Wernicke’s area but also visual areas and motor areas, and so forth. Rather than being confined to a single box in the head, our knowledge about words may be scattered among different regions of the brain.

129: Just as there is no simple one-to-one mapping between genes and the brain areas, there is no simple one-to-one mapping between brain areas and complex functions.

130: Brain Size; Complexity; Higher Complexity Due to Bigger Brains?
… the only immediate obvious difference between our brains and those of chimpanzees is in their size – the average chimpanzee weighs about 55 kilograms and has a brain of 330 cubic centimeters, but the average human, who weigh only 20 percent more, has a brain four times larger. Although that difference is important, it is unlikely to be enough for itself. Wales and elephants have bigger brains than ours, but they do not have language. (…) Intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) is only barely correlated with brain size. Men have bigger brains (on average) than women, but (on average) women have better language skills. Humans with unusually small brains can sometimes have language. In short, size isn’t everything. Having a normal human-sized brain may be perquisite for language, but it is clearly neither necessary nor sufficient.

Brain Structure: At a gross level, our brains and those of chimpanzee are structured in almost identical ways. We both have occipital cortices in the back of our heads wherein we analyze visual information; we both have brains split into left and right hemisphere, with interconnecting cables that run through the corpus callosum. In humans the corpus callosum is proportionally smaller in comparison to the rest of the brain than in chimpanzees. That means that humans have less communication between hemispheres, but at the same time (as measured by the amount of white matter that contains neural connections) more communication within hemispheres. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many other important differences that our present-day microscopes just can’t detect.

131:
The upshot of all this is that at present we cannot simply point to a particular spot in the brain and say this is the language area, this is the neural circuit that makes the brain uniquely human. To some scholars, these complex (and frankly unsatisfying) results challenge the innateness hypothesis because they spell the end of the “modularity hypothesis”, the idea that separate neural systems might be special for distinct neural functions.

To me, they suggest, not that we should abandon modules … but that we should rethink them – in light of evolution. Nothing about the brain was built overnight; evolution proceeds, in general, not by starting over but by tinkering with what was already in place. As Francis Jacob puts famously puts it, evolution is like a tinkerer who “often without knowing what he is going to produce, … uses what ever he finds around him.”

132
The ingredients – and genes – that make up our brains are, like the ingredients that make up the rest of our bodies, the product of evolution. New cognitive systems are patchworks and modifications of old. Specialized biological structures need not be, and perhaps never are, made up entirely, or even in large part, of wholly novel material.

A language module may depend on a few dozen or few hundred evolutionary genes, but it is also likely to depend heavily on genes – or duplicates of preexisting genes – that are involved in the construction of other cognitive systems, such as motor control system, which coordinates muscular action, or the cognitive systems that plan complex events. At the genetic level, figuring out what gives humans the unique gift of language will be a matter of not just finding out about those (perhaps relatively few) genes that are unique to people, but also a matter of finding out how those genes unique genes interact with all others that are part of our common primate heritage. .(…) Understanding language will be a matter of not just understanding unique bits of neural structure but also a matter of understanding how those unique structures interact with other structures that are shared the primate order.

132-134: What Makes Language Skills Possible; Learning of the Rules of Language; Word Learning
The Ability to learn the rules of grammar, for example, may depend on circuitry for short-term memory that spans the vertebrate world, circuitry for recognizing sequences and automatizing (speeding up) repeated actions that is common to all primates, and special circuitry for constructing “hierarchical tree structures” that is unique to humans.
Our ability to acquire words may depend on a mix of long-term memory abilities that are found in animals and some special human faculty, the details of which are not yet clearly understood.

In short, from the perspective of evolution we should expect a language system to consist not of a single, brand new chunk of brain but of a new way of putting together and modifying a broad array of previously existing subsystems. Different parts of the brain probably are specialized for different functions, but most pf these functions are likely to be shared subcomponents for computation, not complete systems for single-handedly solving complex cognitive tasks. Neural machinery for new tasks evolved as a combination of mostly preexisting components.

134 We may ultimately understand language as a powerful new combination of mainly old components.
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Keywords:
Mentalese - Language of thought:
Concepts, Conceptualisation: linguistic systems are merely the formal and expressive medium that speakers devise to describe their mental conceptual representations,“ and that “linguistic categories and structures (serve as) more-or-less straightforward mapping from preexisting conceptual space. programmed into our biological nature.
Memory, complex concepts,

Language’s greatest contribution may be in providing a data structure for storing relationships between entities and bits of information about those entities, or what linguists call subjects (say G. W. Bush) and predicates (felt that American voters had misunderestimated him). Such a data structure might be a key to enabling humans to represent a uniquely broad range of thoughts.

Communication: Culture: Whether language is a medium for thought or just communication, its importance in our lives cannot be understated.
Boe: Sinnsysteme - coevolution of mind and communication: Luhmann - Fuchs

Language Evolution:
the aquatic ape hypothesis,
the language gesture theory
(Kenneally123),
the theory that language arose from the neural machinery that evolved to control our muscles
(Calvin, Bickerton),
the theory that language came about as an accidental consequence of having bigger brains
( McCrone),
the theory that language is an extension of our capacity for representing space,
the theory that language evolved for the purpose of gossip
(Dunbar),
and the theory that language evolved as a means of engaging in courtship and sexual display.


Brain size, brain structure: “Broca’s area” and “Wernicke’s area”,
language module - at present we cannot simply point to a particular spot in the brain and say this is the language area, this is the neural circuit that makes the brain uniquely human. To some scholars, these complex (and frankly unsatisfying) results challenge the innateness hypothesis because they spell the end of the “modularity hypothesis”


Language Origins

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