Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Human Brain is a Peacock's Tail

Finally finished "The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain" by Terrance W. Deacon. Kind of odd, after slogging through the soporific middle 40%, you emerge into discussions of sexual selection, kinds of minds, minds in silicon, much easier reading. So, let's net it out -- I like these, I think I did one for "Guns, Germs, and Steel".

Meat-eating => Pregnant females need men for meat & men are gone hunting => difficulties in ascertaining fatherhood of offspring => symbolic representation of social relationships (marriage) => language & big brains => "I do".

So the big brains that have helped create all of human culture evolved in a sexual selection arms race, with the men coming up with better ways to say "Baby, you so fine, you da only one for me." and women coming up with better ways to say "You so full o' shit. I bet you say that to all the girls."

Lots of really interesting stuff in the book. Three levels of mental representation:

  1. Iconic -- the mental representation is a picture of the physical object.
  2. Indexical -- the mental representation is a sign (word, name) for the physical object.
  3. Symbolic -- signs, words, names cross reference each other, recursively.
These levels are heirarchical, with humans being the only animal that has the third level, symbolic thinking. Other animals have the first two only.

Other interesting points:

  • Language needs big brains to help it think big thoughts, i.e., parse long sentences with recursive grammatical structure. Imaging and damage brain studies show simple word recognition in a small localized area around the raw sound handling area, word association in a ripple around that, complex sentence parsing in a ripple around that covering 2/3 of the left side of the brain.
  • Language and socialization go together. People with Williams syndrome (2 bad genes) have a normal prefrontal cortex but are underdeveloped in the middle cortex. They have IQs of 70 but are hyperverbal, with huge vocabularies, and hypersocial. Interesting, Williams syndrome people have broad grins and an elfish look (think Puck).
  • The left brain is the language word processor, the right brain is the language prosody (tone of voice, emotional content) processor.
  • The symbolic facilities that led to language began with an increase in meat eating around 2 million years ago and have probably evolved steadily since. No magic "language event".
  • Initial language was of course crude. Ritual was the medium by which language was practiced and disseminated.
  • Brains grow through Darwinian selection. Neurons send out far more axons than eventually survive to become nerve channels. When enough axons survive to interconnect two parts of the brain, a permanent nerve channel is left. The prefrontal cortex (forward of the ears) sends lots of neurons into the midbrain to steal the function of the larynx and tongue for speech.
  • Minds grow the same way, as in memetic selection.
  • Discussion of human larynx lowering for vowel production, and the totally different mechanism by which birds sing: no larynx, instead a syrinx in the chest cavity, part of the evolutionary changes to support breathing while flapping wings to fly.
  • There was a seal named Hoover in the New England Aquarium who could talk.
Kind of interesting, we are symbolic beings. We want to see ourselves and everything around us as symbols -- the origin of pantheism and the urge to religion? And, through manipulating symbols, we can do "what-if" thinking and projections of future events, including the event that no other animal has any knowledge of -- our death.

Music-wise, The New Pornographers "Twin Cinemas" winds up at 3 stars. Ditto for the latest Death Cab for Cutie "Plans". Both lacking any really catchy tunes. Got "Now Here is Nowhere" by The Secret Machines from a coworker, fairly listenable, 3 stars. Also Van Morrison "What is Wrong with this Picture?" -- Van the Man lives, the only thing in my iTunes classified as Blues.

Was in NYC on business last week, got in early enough Sunday to go on a techno boat cruise on the Hudson with my oldest daughter. We had a nice time. The boat cruised from 41th st to the Statue of Liberty and back. I have never been that close to Lady Liberty before, I really liked that. It is such a striking statue, and it's hard to imagine how it must have affected the 1890's immigrants (my great-great grandparents) after 2 months on a boat.

The music was really enjoyable, highly conceptual (i.e., almost music), here's the acts we saw:

  • THE DUB TRIO -- Guitar, bass, drums, no vocals, the guitar player never met an effects pedal he didn't like.
  • NISENNENMONDAI Guitar, bass, drums, Japanese chick pop ala Buffalo Daughter, guitar and bass playing very abstract repetitive stuff while the 4'8" drummer totaly wailed.
  • TYONDAI BRAXTON (of BATTLES) Guy who sat cross-legged on the floor, played a little guitar and sang weirdly, sampled it, replayed the sample and sang and played over it, recursively.
  • PREFUSE 73 -- my daughter gave me their CD for my birthday. Main instrument was a powerbook, main DJ played a rhythm box, plus a bass and 2 drummers with full kits. Very enjoyable, the 2 drummers really created a wall of sound.
I made it to the very end before one of the young guys who was kind of hitting on my daughter called me "sir" (the bastard). The crowd was mostly younger than my 26 year old daughter. I wore dark clothes, I looked like one of the security guards (my daughter demoted me from sugar daddy to bodyguard when I made a couple of business calls while we were waiting in line to board).

No biking today, radar shows Rita on its way, but it seems to be keeping to the west of us. Biked last week with my friend Patrick, he pooped out after 5 miles, we wound up doing 15. It was pleasant to have someone to talk to. Two weeks before, went through Clifton on the Ky river, 46 miles, hills nastier than I remembered, had to stand up twice.

Yesterday morning had a flicker (woodpecker, slightly larger than a bluejay, black collar under neck, speckled breast, orange-red bar on the back of the head) in the locust tree in our front yard. Saw a downy woodpecker across the street, and the hummingbird and chickadees are still in the back yard. This morning walking, saw another downy woodpecker and a red-tailed hawk swooped by just overhead and in front of me. Right after that, heard a bunch of bluejays converging nearby, probably going for the hawk. Whenever there's a hawk, the crows, bluejays or blackbirds always stake it out and keep an eye on it.