Cognition and Evolution

Consciousness and how it got to be that way

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!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tramadol: Synthetic Compound is Not Synthetic

Tramadol has been isolated from an African medicinal plant, Nauclea latifolia. Interesting because tramadol was synthesized first, then found to be present in nature (and a known medicinal plant) later.

The rubeaceae family also contains coffee and Psychotria viridis (source of DMT in ayahuasca). Useful-to-humans chemistry seems to concentrate oddly in certain plant families, quite apart from any human eugenics; solaneacea is another good example. (Note that the compounds produced by these families are not chemically similar or necessarily the result of the same pathways - it seems like it's the abstract property of chemical utility to mammals that is shared within these families - which is why this is so unexpected.) Oddly, DMT was also synthesized before it was discovered in nature.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Endowment Effect as a Rational Strategy

The endowment effect is well-studied: people assign higher worths to their own possessions than to same things owned by someone else. That is to say: you wouldn't pay more than $30 for that couch on Craigslist, but when you list your own - same model, same condition - for some reason, you ask (and somehow, actually expect!) $75.

To many of us there are two central features of cognitives biases that make them so interesting. The first is that they're cognitive biases, not cognitive stupidities. We aren't just all over the map due to limited brainpower, as bounded cognition models would suggest; we consistently make mistakes in the same "direction". This consistency (even if it's consistent incorrectness) leads to the other interesting aspect of cognitive biases, which is the extent to which they might actually be instrumentally rational shortcuts in disguise, either being seen out of context or profitable only over the long run. That is, perhaps when we were hunter-gatherers, they were useful. For example, hyperactive pattern detection (type I error) is a terrible thing in the modern age when we're looking for incoming nuclear warheads, but during the Pleistocene, we were stupid and it couldn't get us into too much trouble. Sure, maybe you might end up thinking the gods struck the mountain with lightning because your children cursed a lot that morning, and a thousand other strange things, but we couldn't really do too much about our strange beliefs anyway - but if that one time you saw a shape in the grass that looked like a hyena, and it really was a hyena - well, you still came out ahead.

There's a lot in behavior and medicine like this that only makes sense in evolutionary context, for instance fever. Fever is not something that pathogens do to us, it's something that our bodies actively choose to do to them. In the modern age it's really hard for us to understand how fever can be beneficial, until we remember that merely two centuries ago when, without medicine, we could (and often did) die of fevers. But this is a kind of base-rate fallacy. Fever is a way our body shakes off pathogens, and before modern medicine, that cut in your foot might have a 70% chance of going septic and killing you. If the fever only has a 65% chance of killing you, you still come out ahead of any competitor who didn't have a fever response.

So how could a completely judgment-clouding bias like endowment effect ever be helpful? Finding a group of people who don't appear to have it might point us in the right direction. And indeed, Apicella et al found that Hadza hunter-gatherers in contact with markets show the endowment effect just like the rest of us, but Hadza way out in the bush away from markets do not.

This is pretty amazing - there's a difference in a known bias, even within the same group of people. So we've already learned one thing: the endowment effect is a learned behavior. So either we post-agricultural types are stupid, or we're getting something out of this bias. What's the benefit? And what exactly is different about the two groups of people that makes one group adopt this strategy?

A simple model of markets assumes information symmetry between participants. But in reality, specialization of labor means that the person approaching you to buy your possessions will almost always have better information than the aproachee who's selling them, because the buyer buys (cars, computers, art, etc.) all the time - and if they're initiating the transaction, they are even MORE likely to have better information. Therefore, the endowment effect may be a learned behavior whereby we value our own possessions more highly than is justified on the open market as a defense against information asymmetry.

Here's a concrete example. Imagine you're selling a car. You seek out an offer, and you find another individual buyer. Are you more comfortable that you're getting a fair deal from them than the car dealer? Of course you are. Now imagine you're approached out of the blue by someone who buys cars for a living. Sure, you'd consider it, but only at a very high price where you're sure you're not getting swindled. (This isn't to suggest that the endowment effect occurs consciously, but you can see how when we calculate consciously, we might behave in exactly the way the endowment effect would influence us.)

Consequently, you can imagine the endowment effect as the cushion you need to come out even, when someone with better information than you buys your possessions, especially one who's initiating the deal. And returning to the Hadza hunter-gatherers, we may have identified the relevant difference. Hunter-gatherers are less specialized. If you're a hunter-gatherer, you know just about everybody you could possibly buy or trade something from, and there's not much special knowledge to allow information asymmetry - i.e., everyone is equally smart about the relative value of gazelles and axe heads - so there's no cause to develop such a bias.

This theory makes several testable claims.

1) The more information asymmetry that exists between possession-owner/seller and the buyer, the more the endowment effect gap should be. You think your car is worth more when the car salesman runs up to you on the street initiating and offer to buy it, than when you're selling to someone online with apparently equal knowledge about cars.

2) The endowment effect gap should be larger in markets where there is poorer information, there is less trust, and for goods that are more difficult to value. Complex goods are more difficult to value.

Not central to the theory, but relevant to the fact that this appears to be a learned behavior: children at some arbitrarily young age should not show the endowment effect, because if this differs between humans, it's learned behavior; kids haven't been swindled out of their possessions enough times. (And what is this arbitrarily young age?) Non-hunter-gatherers who nonetheless live in small groups of people with little interchange with other populations should lack this bias. Hunter-gatherers should develop this bias after they come into contact with markets.

There is also a kind of Coasian consideration separate from the theory. Yes, you might have just gotten a good deal for your used Toyota, but now you have a Nissan and there's a utility cost to you of learning how to operate a new car. If that's ALL the endowment effect is, then each individual's ability to learn new behaviors should completely predict the entire strength of the endowment effect in each individual, at least with complex things like cars.