Cognition and Evolution

Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Monday, September 4, 2017

In Favor of the Broad Altaic Hypothesis: Whistling and The Comparative Cultural Method

Languages generally break down into related groups that share a common ancestor; Indo-European is the best-known and -studied example, and yes, there was probably an actual proto-Indo-European language spoken about six thousand years ago in Southern Ukraine that ultimately gave rise to Bengali and Greek and English and Italian. Classically such groups are created by using a standard word list from each language and showing phonological correspondence between words, using a rigorous set of sound transformations applied consistent across the languages. Computational methods have more recently been added to the repertoire, which includes ways of looking at the grammar and morphology of the languages. These appeal to me because these elements are more conservative, allowing better resolution over greater times. It's pretty easy for individual words in languages to get replaced. But it's harder for elements of morphosyntax to change. They all have to work together in a much more rule-bound way, so it's like changing a single spark plug or belt in a car engine.

With respect to developing hypotheses about language descent and relatedness, linguistics are typically either lumpers or splitters. An argument for the lumper approach is that there's more value and more information in proposing a genetic taxon based on certain characteristics and investigating the hypothesis, than just putting every single language in its own category. The Altaic hypothesis is that there was a single language that gave rise to Turkish, Mongolian, Tungusic (northern China/southeastern Sibera), Korean, and Japanese languages. Including those last two has always been controversial. More recently even the reality of the Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic core grouping has come under attack. For technical reasons of morphosyntax I won't go into here, I have always been quite sympathetic to the broader Altaic grouping.

Are there other media for comparative methods? Genetic studies have been an additional tool for understanding prehistory, and of course genes and language don't always covary: these studies have demonstrated that populations interbreed and learn new languages. We can also look at cultural practices, which may be more prone to drift than genes or language, but still provide intriguing signals; for instance, similarities in religion or superstition, which may also be more conservative than other elements. For instance, regarding the broad Altaic hypothesis (including Japan and Korea) you might notice that the cultural practice of steam or communal baths exists in Japan, Korea, and across the Turkic countriess from Kazakhstan to Turkey, but not in intervening countries to nearly the same degree (China, Siberia, India, Iran.)

An even more curious similarity is the superstitions that all these places have about whistling, which is also not shared by intervening cultures. In Japan, there are shinto spirits from the native pre-Buddhist Japanese religion called tengu, which are wind spirits. Also in Japan, whistling inside a house is considered to produce bad fortune, in that it will draw snakes into the house, or cause tengu to kidnap you. In Korea, whistling at night will bring spirits and snakes. (No word on whether fan death is related to this.) In Mongolia, you're not supposed to whistle inside a ger (yurt) because it will bring a windstorm. Tengri is the Mongolian sky (and wind) god. And you'll find the following in the "Respect" section of the Wikitravel entry for Kazakhstan: "Whistling inside a house is unacceptable in almost all Kazakh homes. It is a very common superstition in Kazakhstan that whistling inside will make the owner of the house poor." I wrote about this before but I keep stumbling across whistling superstitions in Altaic countries without even looking for them. While not rigorously part of the linguistic comparative method, this cultural comparison should increase our confidence in the broad Altaic hypothesis, i.e. that Turkic, Mongolian, Korean and Japanese populations are descended from a common ancestral population.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

On Forgiveness

At, Sarah attempts to explain forgiveness. Although it wasn't exactly what her post was about, it prompted me to write down in a comment something I'd been pondering for a while.

There are non-mysterious, rational, game-theoretic reasons for forgiveness, and the post I linked to is more about those. For example, if someone makes a mistake or takes an action and then changes her mind about it when she sees the consequences, their past behavior is less likely to predict their future behavior in similar situations. If she apologizes in that situation, when you "forgive" her, you're really saying "I recognize your regret, and I'm not that worried that you'll do it again, so don't worry about it" and also "I'm not angry and therefore you don't have to worry about my trying to harm you right now or in the future." Imagine if someone backs into your car in a parking lot, then stops to look at what happened, is horrified at what happened and apologizes. Forgiving this person would be of this type.
Then there's another type of forgiveness which is more mysterious. This is the type where someone did something clearly wrong with full intent, and possibly has not even asked for forgiveness. Imagine someone harming or killing a loved one, and expressing zero remorse. In fact, we do see people publicly forgiving the aggressor in exactly such situations. This is another type of forgiveness. Given the chance, the aggressor might well harm even more loved ones. What function can this serve? My comment:
There's an internally, psychologically adaptive function to forgiveness as well, and it's the dirty little secret of this otherwise proud aspect of being human. When you say "I forgive you" someone who's wronged you - perhaps in a way that harmed you irreparably - you're at least partly saying, "What you've done is insignificant enough that I can put it out of my mind." You're declaring dominance over the other person in a way, and this is why once accomplished, forgiveness makes you feel better. The strongly negative reaction I often receive when telling people this, is very similar to the reaction you get when you're pointing at other status-signalling behaviors that everyone would rather not think about as such.
Depression is related to lack of forgiveness, so this stranger kind of forgiving could be partly protective. If in fact forgiveness is just covert dominance display, then you could also explain depression related to not-forgiving partly as a result of lost social status associated with being the victim of a crime.

Interestingly, in legal proceedings, this expression of forgiveness occurs at sentencing - which is interesting for two reasons. First, it provides the maximal audience, and would therefore be the best place to announce something that is expected to change social status. Second, this is the concrete expression of the aggressor's material punishment. If the aggressor was really being forgiven, wouldn't the forgiver ask for the charges to be dismissed? (In fact I can't think of an occasion where someone has forgiven an at-large murderer of a family member; if they exist, certainly they're more rare.) Furthermore, the language accompanying such forgiveness, by the forgiver or their audience, is about "rising above" the situation or aggressor - showing superiority to them. Also supporting this idea, it's also notable that unrepentant wrongdoers who are forgiven in this manner often react poorly to the display of forgiveness.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why Silbo Is Not a Language

This originally appeared in my trip report from the Canary Islands.

Why Silbo is Not a Language

Silbo, the whistled "language" of La Gomera, is clearly a remarkable part of the Canaries' unique heritage, one that I hope continues to exist far into the future. You can listen to examples here, here and here. I emphasize this because my argument that it is not a language is not an argument to diminish its significance in this regard. But language is a strong interst of mine - I almost went back to school to study linguistics - and Silbo is not a language, and I've carefully referred to it as a "communication system" for this reason. (If you run across this blog post and you have counterarguments or evidence to the contrary, I'm not a Silbo expert, so by all means educate me!) Canarians are of course proud of their heritage and it's difficult to receive criticism of a belief about something so central to cultural identity as language, and we've encountered this problem right here in the U.S. (see #2). Here is why Silbo is not a language.

1. Silbo dates to the days of the Guanches. Guanche was a distinct language, unrelated to Spanish. As a Berber language, Guanche likely had a very restricted set of vowels, uniquely suiting it to a whistled form which by some estimates has only two vowels (as linguist Ramon Trujillo argued in his 1978 book.) Yet the modern version of Silbo is clearly whistled Spanish. The ability to translate Spanish (or any language) into a whistle, and have someone understand any of it, is remarkable. But this shows that Silbo is a manner of intonation of an already-understood language, not its own language. (If you object: can someone from Germany learn Silbo, but not learn Spanish? If two German-speakers in Switzerland start whistling German to each other across the valleys, is that Silbo, and could someone from La Gomera understand them? The answers are no and no. It's not its own language.) I would like to see sets of "blinded" participants communicating to see what the lossiness of Silbo is - I predict much more than actual language. Normal spoken language is about 50% redundant.

2. Silbo is used in very limited circumstances - to call long distances across valleys (for which it's a brilliant innovation), and to discuss very limited topics of obvious immediate import (where are my sheep, is it going to rain, etc.) No ritual oration has ever been given in Silbo, no political discussion, no business deal (unless it was a very simple one across a valley involving something immediately present like sheep. Note that in one of the links above they're talking about red wine, etc.; this is a tourist performance, and no one is actually communicating.) True languages are used constantly, in every social setting. You have to work hard not to use them, and children exposed to them start developing language at a young age, without any special effort to teach them. I would be shocked to learn that children of four are whistling without being specifically taught, and I also have not read any traveler, ancient or otherwise, reporting the ear-splitting qualities of conversation in a village of La Gomera - because people speak. An example of a language-like entity that has become culturally important here in the U.S. is what people call Chinook, but is really Chinook Jargon. It's a trade pidgin, a mish-mash of true Chinook (a real language), English, and some Russian, Spanish and French. It has little to no morphosyntactic structure, is not learned by children, and is not spoken outside of trade settings. Nobody goes home and speaks Chinook Jargon to their wives or husbands, they speak Chinook, or English, etc. and that's what the children learn. The children may grow up and learn Chinook Jargon - as adolescents or adults, by deliberate effort. So as with Silbo, Chinook Jargon is a fascinating and important part of the Pacific Northwest's history and heritage, and I wish its enthusiasts well - but it's not a language.

3. Finally, "non-standard" phonemes (like whistles) can certainly be part of languages - but they're never the whole language. In fact, possibly the strongest argument here is that there are languages with clicks, and nasal vs oral or even whispered vowels, and (probably!) even whistled vowels, but no language uses entirely one or the other. So if Silbo is a language, then two prisoners whispering in English between their cells have invented a new language called "Whisper", as long as the other prisoners catch on and use it. (Silbo was successful because it carries over long distances; it's kind of the anti-whisper.)

Saturday, May 7, 2016


These splitter linguists have had their say for long enough. The Japanese are clearly just the island branch of Altaic peoples, and the anthropological data is enough. In Mongolia, you're not supposed to whistle inside a ger because it will bring a windstorm. In Korea, whistling at night will bring spirits and snakes too. In Japan, you're not supposed to whistle indoors because either a snake will come - or Tengu will kidnap you. What are Tengu? I'm so glad you asked. Tengu are the indigenous, pre-Buddhist spirits that can create strong winds. By the way, what was the Altaic sky-god's name? Tengri. SPLITTER LINGUISTS, IT'S OVER! IT'S ALL OVER!

Alright. That may be overstating the case, but one has to admit it's otherwise an odd superstition to share.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Self-Signalling as Ego Maintenance

Here's an apparent problem with a simple theory that might resolve it.

A lot of human social interaction functions primarily as signalling, even if we're not doing it intentionally. And yet people often seem to signal to themselves frequently. This tendency seems strongest in people with Cluster B character pathology, in particular narcissists, but also to an extent borderline. Could this be best explained as the behavior of a poorly integrated ego reinforcing itself?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Want a Maritime Culture? Live on an Inland Sea - It Doesn't Matter if It's Warm

It's been asked: (roughly) the same nutrition can be extracted from the ocean in Japan or in England. Why did the British Isles not develop a maritime diet and culture to the same degree that Japan did? Two answers come immediately to mind: the cultural center of Japan (southern Honshu and Kyushu) is warmer than Britain; and there is nothing like the sheltered inland sea in the UK. Even the Irish Sea or narrowest part of the Channel are often quite a rough go.

A new paper shows that fishing disappeared quickly after the development of dairy farming in the British Isles - but contrasts this against the cultures around the Baltic, where fishing and farming coexisted quite a bit more. The Baltic is colder than Britain but the water is more sheltered. So: cultures around a sheltered sea are more likely to develop a maritime culture, even if the water is colder.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Neuropsychiatric Diseases Cause Disproportionate Suffering

I've been poring over disability adjusted life-year statistics for the U.S. One of the things that made me choose psychiatry was that there are a lot of diseases that cause horrendous suffering, and one of the horrendous things about it is that this is suffering that can last a lifetime; they're not directly fatal illnesses in the same way that cancer or heart disease are. This highlights the conflict in medicine between decreasing suffering, and decreasing death. It's underappreciated by many people (including, in my experience, physicians) that these are not the same thing; that in fact there are many times when avoiding one can lead to the other, and vice versa. (One way to think of the job of a physician is to protect and extend the possibility of positive future experience.)

Disability-adjusted life years is the sum of years lived with disability (YLWD) and years of life lost (YLL) due to the disease. Granted, living with disease A for 10 years is likely to cause different suffering than disease B over the same time, but this gives us an idea. And the statistics are given in time per person across the population. Consequently if a disease causes lots of disability but is rare, it will have a lower number than another which causes less disability but is very common.

Some points that emerge from inspecting the data:

1) If you look at the ratio of YLWD to YLL, you can see which diseases kill quickly without much suffering (i.e. lots of people die from it but not many years lived with disability). On the other hand, if you want to focus on diseases that cause disproportionate suffering, you look for diseases with a high disability years to life lost ratio. In decreasing order, the diseases out of the top 50 that have the highest disability years:life lost ratio are: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, back pain, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, alcohol use disorder, and drug abuse, COPD. One quirk is that suicide is listed separately and depression, bipolar and a few others have no stats for years lost, and suicide is how people die from depression and bipolar. So, if you make the simplifying assumption that suicide and MDD have a 1:1 correlation, i.e. everyone who dies from depression dies from suicide and everyone who commits suicide does so out of depression, the list doesn't change that much (now, bipolar disorder, back pain, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, MDD, alcohol, drugs, COPD.)

The trend here toward neuropsychiatric disorders is clear.

2) Comparing the genders, it's unsurprising to see that women fare better than men. What's more, women's outcomes have improved more over the period 1990-2010, in conditions relating to behavioral risk-taking and impulse control - e.g., road injuries and drug use.

3) Embarrassingly, years per population lived with disability for schizophrenia, dysthymia nad bipolar are all essentially flat for this 20 year period. That's bad. That is not the case for most other major diseases.

4) The rise in death and disability over this period from addiction remains staggering. For added irony, a huge proportion (possibly the majority?) of this represents prescription drug abuse. This represents a major, major policy failure on the part of drug enforcement agencies - you know, the ones that have marijuana scheduled as more dangerous than synthetic opioids. The agencys' position must be: hey, people are suffering and dying, but it's a-okay as long as it's not from street drugs!