Tag Archives: language

Cultural Traits and Multidisciplinary Dialogue

9783319243474…We have walked on a fine line: the notion of a cultural trait is interesting because it has something to say to many sciences, but, paradoxically, also because it generates harsh conflicts on top scientific journals more and more frequently. Historical linguistics and cultural evolution are two of many fields where these clashes happen, and we want to hint to those conflicts before delving into the contribution we have to offer.

For all the represented disciplines, the book constitutes a first step towards an ever-deferred interdisciplinary dialogue, and towards the construction of common working platforms. For the reader, Cultural Traits is a way to enter a representative sample of the intellectual diversity that surrounds such an important topic as culture, and a means to stimulate innovative avenues of research. Each of the involved disciplines enters the debate with a self-presenting attitude, emphasizing its own methodological practices, and explaining whether and how cultural traits have a role in its own research programs and epistemic goals. Along these lines some chapters are more methodological, while others address case studies, and methodological aspects are inferred more indirectly. Are there differences in aspects of culture that are studied by different disciplines? What definitions of cultural traits are on the table? How do we delimit a trait? How is the problem declined at different observational scales, and which scales are most in focus? Do traits travel in geographical space, and how? Are there other relevant spaces? How are traits modified in their diffusion? Is it possible and useful to build models of this diffusion? Only a strong multidisciplinary perspective can help to clarify these problems about cultural traits, by means of which we understand our precious heritage, cultural diversity…


Panebianco F, Serrelli E (2016). Cultural traits and multidisciplinary dialogue. Introduction to Panebianco F, Serrelli E, eds., Understanding cultural traits. A multidisciplinary perspective on cultural diversity. Springer, Switzerland, Chapter 1, pp. 1-20. ISBN 978-3-319-24347-4 [DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-24349-8_1] [BOA][RG]

Boundaries, foundation, and physics of Babel: the interdisciplinary study of language

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563). Source: Wikipedia. Originally from Google Art Project. Levels adjusted and uploaded by Dcoetzee.

If, by ‘Babel’, we mean the set languages that have appeared in the world, we may want to research the ‘boundaries of Babel’ by asking whether the expansion of Babel is prevented (i.e., whether unobserved languages are impossible languages), and, if so, by which factors. The boundaries of Babel are being explored by partnerships of linguists and neuroscientists. Neo-chomskian approaches find evidence of neural networks dedicated to language processing, and study how these networks constrain the space of possible grammars, whereas lexico-grammar looks at neuroscientific evidence that syntax is not a separate function in the brain. Research questions also expand beyond a tight focus on the brain-language relationship. By ‘foundations of Babel’ we refer to broader, ancient brain functions in which articulated language is embedded. Imitation can be one of those functions. ‘Physics of Babel’ refers to many extra-brain factors that are lacking in non-human species, and that together make language possible. Research on the boundaries of Babel is a fascinating and open scenario, not only interdisciplinary, but also multi-directional, beyond the language function and beyond the exclusive role of the brain.


Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli, E (2013). I confini, le fondamenta e la fisica di Babele: lo studio interdisciplinare delle lingue e del linguaggio. Scienza & Filosofia 10, 53-67. ISSN 2036-2927 [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/49596]

http://issuu.com/scicam/docs/05__serrelli?e=1070454/6097963

Tracing traits in linguistics, economics, and evolutionary biology. An interdisciplinary workshop

CISEPS – Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Economics, Psychology and Social Sciences

Tracing traits in linguistics, economics, and evolutionary biology. An interdisciplinary workshop

  • Federica Da Milano, Linguist, University of Milano Bicocca
  • Nicoletta Puddu, Linguist, University of Cagliari
  • Fabrizio Panebianco, Economist, University of Milano Bicocca
  • Emanuele Serrelli, Philosopher of Biology, University of Milano Bicocca

Thursday, December 13, 2012, h 14:00
Room U6/367, Piazza dell’Ateneo Nuovo 1, Milano

networks-cisepsAbstract: The seminar will present and compare the methods used in linguistics, economics, and evolutionary biology to study traits in their different domains: language features, behaviors and beliefs, genes and phenotypic characteristics. Federica Da Milano and Nicoletta Puddu will present phylogenetic models of language change and illustrate them with the particular geo-linguistic case of Sardegna. Fabrizio Panebianco will outline evolutionary kinds of models in economics. Emanuele Serrelli will explain tree and network analyses used to study shared traits and contacts between organisms. The open discussion will bring some reflections on the transfer of models and ideas between different fields, bringing about productive interchange with the participants and the audience of different specializations.

The seminar is part of the CISEPS project The diffusion of cultural traits, whose goal is to trigger interdiciplinary debates, emphasizing common problems and peculiarities among economics, philosophy, anthropology, geography, history, biology and many more fields. Thinking in terms of cultural traits – i.e., characters depending in some way on social learning – doesn’t imply exhaustion of cultural processes; rather, it means thinking critically to scientific models and metaphors for studying culture.

Tree and network models in San Francisco

Emanuele Serrelli co-organizes with Nathalie Gontier the session “Tree and network models of micro- and macroevolution” at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (November 14-18, 2012). Developing from phylogenetic methodologies in evolutionary biology, the session examines how cultural trees and networks are composed differently (which data are used to compose trees and networks), what they can and cannot model, how inferences are made, and how they enable theory formation on cultural evolution.

AAA SESSION ON CULTURAL TRANSMISSION STUDIES: TREE AND NETWORK MODELS OF MICRO- AND MACROEVOLUTION, November 15, 8-9:45 AM

Organized by Nathalie Gontier and Emanuele Serrelli and Chaired by Larissa Mendoza Straffon

In biology, phylogenetic tree models (based on shared morphological traits, genes, or proteins) remain the primary methodological tool to reconstruct evolutionary ancestral-descent relationships. Phylogenetic and phylogenomic methodologies are also applied to reconstruct linguistic and cultural descent relationships. Such reconstructions have now advanced up to the point that one can estimate divergence in time, and the rate at which such linguistic or cultural divergence occurred. Both biological as well as sociocultural phylogenetics now demonstrate that besides natural selection, drift and punctuated equilibria theory can explain many of life’s and sociocultural divergences. And comparative analyses demonstrate that ancestral-descent relations of human populations significantly overlap with linguistic family trees and cultural diversification trees. Phylogenetics has also brought to light that horizontal evolution occurs abundantly in life’s evolution, and scholars active in the field have therefore challenged classic tree of life iconography. Today, scholars active in Horizontal Gene Transfer studies are therefore introducing network phylogenies (“webs of life”) that allow the depiction and modeling of reticulate evolution. In the sociocultural sciences, linguists, archeologists and anthropologists have criticized hominin and cultural bifurcating trees because they are unable to depict hominin hybridization and horizontal transmission and diffusion of sociocultural traits. And here too, network models are introduced that allow the formalization and depiction of linguistic and sociocultural interactions through time. In sum, biological and sociocultural sciences both make use of tree and network models to depict biological and sociocultural evolution. We will examine how cultural trees and networks are composed differently (which data are used to compose trees and networks), what they can and cannot model, how inferences are made, and how they enable theory formation on cultural evolution.

  1. THE ‘GLOBAL PHYLOGENY’ AND ITS HISTORY: A CRITICAL APPRAISAL OF A UNIFIEDTHEORY OF HUMAN BIOLOGICAL AND LINGUISTIC CO-EVOLUTION, Frank Kressing, Ulm University
  2. THE CHALLENGE OF TREE-THINKING AND NETWORK-THINKING: CONCEPTUAL ISSUES ACROSS BIOLOGICAL AND CULTURAL DOMAINS, Emanuele Serrelli, University of Milano Bicocca.
  3. COMPARING RATES OF CULTURAL CHANGE ACROSS TREES – DO SOME TRAITS EVOLVE FASTER THAN OTHERS?, Ruth Mace and Tom Currie, London, OXFORDSHIRE
  4. PHYLOGEOGRAPHIC APPROACHES TO TRACING HUMAN CULTURAL ANCESTRY, Quentin Douglas Atkinson, University of Auckland
  5. UNITS, LEVELS AND MECHANISMS OF CULTURAL EVOLUTION, AN APPLIED EVOLUTIONARY EPISTEMOLOGICAL ACCOUNT, Nathalie Gontier, Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab, Centre for Philosophy of Science, University of Lisbon
  6. MOSAIC EVOLUTION IN CULTURAL AND BIOLOGICAL FRAMEWORKS: DYNAMICS VARY WITH SCALE, Anna Marie Prentiss and Matthew Joseph Walsh, University of Montana
  7. USING CLADISTICS TO INTERPRET ARCHAEOLOGICAL ASSEMBLAGES: THE SLATE TOOL TRADITION AT BRIDGE RIVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA, Matthew Joseph Walsh and Anna Marie Prentiss, The University of Montana
  8. PLEISTOCENE NETWORK INTERACTIONS AND THE ORIGINS OF VISUAL ART, Larissa Mendoza Straffon, Leiden University
  9. THE ECONOMICS OF CULTURAL TRANSMISSION, Alberto Bisin, New York University

ABSTRACTS

THE ‘GLOBAL PHYLOGENY’ AND ITS HISTORY: A CRITICAL APPRAISAL OF A UNIFIEDTHEORY OF HUMAN BIOLOGICAL AND LINGUISTIC CO-EVOLUTION
Frank Kressing, Ulm University
Starting in the late 20th century, “new” approaches claiming a direct link between the evolution of linguistic and biological diversity in humans received broad attention in the sciences and the general public. Based on an extensive literature review, we claim that, contrary to its supposedly innovative character, the post 1980 ‘new synthesis’ of genetic, linguistic, and archaeological data was based on a well-established western tradition dating back at least until the 18th century. Special emphasis will be put on the importance of interdisciplinary reticulations between scholars in the sciences (such as biology and comparative anatomy) and the humanities (such as linguistics). In our overview, it shall be argued that interdisciplinary contact between these two fields resulted in the construction of links between the classification of languages and the classification of human populations. Furthermore, it shall be stressed that the theory of human biological and linguistic co-evolution was developed in the 18th and 19th century within the framework of anthropology, since this academic discipline evolved as an all-encompassing, integrative science dealing with human nature in its physical and cultural aspects. Finally, 20th-century attempts at the ‘genomization’ of human cultural, ethnic, and linguistic affiliations will be critically analysed, highlighting the fact that theroots of the so-called global phylogeny are ‘once again’ to be found in interdisciplinary scholarly networks transgressing the borders between the sciences and the humanities.

THE CHALLENGE OF TREE-THINKING AND NETWORK-THINKING: CONCEPTUAL ISSUES ACROSS BIOLOGICAL AND CULTURAL DOMAINS
Emanuele Serrelli, University of Milano Bicocca
This talk gives a reflexive outlook on the employment of tree and network thinking to conceptualize and model vertical descent and horizontal transmission of cultural traits. In biology, evolutionary trees are more than tools for researchers across disciplines: they are the main framework within which evidence for evolution is evaluated (Baum et al. 2005). However, several biologists have recognized “tree thinking” as a challenge for students (Gregory 2008, Meisel 2010), lay people (Baum, cit.), and scientists alike (O’Hara 1992), going against our spontaneous cognitive tendencies, e.g., reading along the tips, locating evolution only at nodes, projecting living species backwards to internal nodes. Moreover, common descent, represented by trees, is not the only way in which biological traits are shared: the ubiquity of phenomena like lateral gene transfer is increasing the need for network-based analyses, introducing the conceptual challenge of “network thinking” (Proulx et al. 2005), and the further complexity of conceiving trees and networks together. I focus on which strategies, used and developed in biology, can be implemented in anthropology to address cultural relatedness and common ancestry relationships. Baum DA et al. (2005). The tree-thinking challenge. Science 310(5750):979-980. Gregory TR (2008). Understanding evolutionary trees. Evolution: Education and Outreach 1(2):121-137. Meisel RP (2010). Teaching tree-thinking to undergraduate biology students. Evolution: Education and Outreach 3(4):621-628. O’Hara RJ (1992). Telling the tree: Narrative representation and the study of evolutionary history. Biology and Philosophy 7(2):p.135–160. Proulx SR et al. (2005). Network thinking in ecology and evolution. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20(6):345-53.

COMPARING RATES OF CULTURAL CHANGE ACROSS TREES – DO SOME TRAITS EVOLVE FASTER THAN OTHERS?
Ruth Mace and Tom Currie, London, OXFORDSHIRE
Ruth Mace and Tom Currie examine the rate of evolution of cultural traits across different phylogenetic trees, to see if cultural traits themselves share any particular properties regarding the rate of change on a tree, or whether traits are simply change according to local ecological conditions or some other factors that are not shared across trees. We use recent phylogenetic methods to estimate rates of change in a range of traits common to most societies.

PHYLOGEOGRAPHIC APPROACHES TO TRACING HUMAN CULTURAL ANCESTRY
Quentin Douglas Atkinson, University of Auckland
Recent work on cultural evolution has successfully applied phylogenetic methods from biology to comparative cultural and linguistic data to test hypotheses about cultural ancestry, chronology and sequences of change. However, relatively little attention has focussed on explicitly modelling large-scale spatial processes of cultural change. Here I report results from collaborative research that uses tools from population genetics and phylogeography to analyze spatial information derived from comparative cultural data. This work identifies clear spatial signal in the data that can be used to shed light on the origins of cultural groups.

UNITS, LEVELS AND MECHANISMS OF CULTURAL EVOLUTION, AN APPLIED EVOLUTIONARY EPISTEMOLOGICAL ACCOUNT
Nathalie Gontier, Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab, Centre for Philosophy of Science, University of Lisbon
Tree and network models of cultural micro- and macroevolution demonstrate the current scientific need to recognize that a multiplicity of units, levels and mechanisms underlie the evolution of culture. This demand also necessitates a scientific investigation into how these different sociocultural units, levels and mechanisms alternate and interact hierarchically, and together bring forth the phenomenon of evolution. From within an applied evolutionary epistemological approach, I will talk on how theories on the units (replicators, interactors, culturgenes, memes) and levels of evolution can be implemented into micro- and macroevolutionary sociocultural theories; and which evolutionary mechanisms are best able to explain horizontal and vertical transmission.

MOSAIC EVOLUTION IN CULTURAL AND BIOLOGICAL FRAMEWORKS: DYNAMICS VARY WITH SCALE
Anna Marie Prentiss and Matthew Joseph Walsh, University of Montana
There has been significant debate in paleoanthropology and more recently, archaeology, over the concept of mosaic evolution. Essentially, proponents of the concept argue that different aspects of organisms evolve separately while others argue that organisms evolve as integrated entities. Similarly, archaeologists debate the relevance of cultural evolution as a complex multi-scalar process. In this paper we conduct cladistic and network analyses of cultural phenomena ranging in scale from single artifact classes to more complexly integrated cultural packages to examine variability in the evolutionary process. We argue that cultural evolution is simultaneously multi-scalar and that dynamics can vary significantly with different degrees of integration.

USING CLADISTICS TO INTERPRET ARCHAEOLOGICAL ASSEMBLAGES: THE SLATE TOOL TRADITION AT BRIDGE RIVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Matthew Joseph Walsh and Anna Marie Prentiss, The University of Montana
In recent years phylogenetic studies have offered a wide range of contributions to explanation of complex evolutionary phenomena in the archaeological record. In this study we apply cladistic and network methods to assess the evolution of slate tools at the Bridge River site in British Columbia. We examine relationships between artifact assemblages from several housepits at the site in order to determine if heritable continuity can be established on an inter- and intra-household basis. This allows us to examine variability in the role of descent with modification manifested in branching versus a range of potential tokogenetic processes. We argue that while distinct household-specific traditions of tool manufacture existed, the data are made complicated by extensive borrowing of ideas and functional differentiation in tool design.

PLEISTOCENE NETWORK INTERACTIONS AND THE ORIGINS OF VISUAL ART
Larissa Mendoza Straffon, Leiden University
In recent years scholars have come to the realisation that models which account for the emergence of behavioural traits, such as visual art, simply in terms of increasing human cognition are not viable. The so-called cognitive models cannot generate falsifiable predictions about the conditions under which such traits would have developed. Equally problematic are evolutionary scenarios of art that put forward some possible adaptive function as cause of its origin (e.g. visual art evolved for mate choice, for ritual, etc.). When contrasted against current evidence from the archaeological record, these postulates generally do not hold. This paper presents an hypothesis for the origins of visual art which incorporates up-to-date archaeological data into a testable evolutionary explanation. This model is based upon specific aspects of Pleistocene human groups, such as group size and social organisation. It is suggested that visual art arose as a signal of identity and an index of reputation under selective pressures towards increasing cooperation and intensified network interactions in the Late Pleistocene. Recognition through style in visual art would have conveyed adaptive benefits by making social interactions more predictable thus reducing risks of conflict and aggression, in turn allowing large-scale reciprocity systems to flourish. In this sense, visual art may be conceived of as a communication signal manifested in stylistic variation in material culture. Finally, the paper shows that this hypothesis is consistent with the archaeological record of visual art.

THE ECONOMICS OF CULTURAL TRANSMISSION
Alberto Bisin, New York University
This paper surveys the recent theoretical and empirical studies on the economics of cultural transmission. The aim of the survey is to emphasize both similarities and differences in the economic analysis of this topic with respect to the literatures in evolutionary biology, anthropology, and sociology.

Adaptive vs exaptive in the evolution of human language

Evolutionary Biology Meeting, MarseillesThe poster was presented by Irene Berra.

Human articulate language doesn’t involve clearly distinguishable structures and substructures but shows distributed functions. Clues coming from brain comparative studies and neuroimaging point out that cortical structures and connections have been re-functionalized during the evolution of primates and hominids, due to their plasticity and learning capacity. But also the expression of FoxP2 in basal ganglia is involved in vocal and sequential learning. However, neither vocal-learning mammals (whales, dolphins and bats) nor song-learning birds share the human amino acid substitutions (Webb and Zhang, J. Hered., 96, 2005). Language evolution is likely to be a recruitment, with slight modifications, of pre-existing genetic cascades that have other regulatory functions. An exaptive hypothesis has been proposed for acoustic communication during water-to-land transition, as in the case of limbs. Comparative analyses within living species are being conducted to test this hypothesis (Polgar et al., PLoS ONE, 6, 2011) and these may be cases of convergent exaptation. The term was introduced by Gould and Vrba (Paleobiology, 8, 1982) and was blamed of non-operationalizability. Our view (Pievani & Serrelli, Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 89, 2011) is that exaptive hypotheses can be operationalized and improved, and recent research in language evolution offers a good example. We should, e.g., distinguish theories of neural reuse, recycling and re-functionalization (Anderson, Behav. Brain Sciences, 33, 2010) from exaptation when they concern developmental rather than evolutionary processes. Aside from neurobiological studies of language, the exaptationist account is still too speculative (e.g. in anthropology). Enlarging the phylogenetic context, improving technology to identify structures, and attempting the reconstruction of environmental settings to match fitness utility help the historical comprehension of the series of etho-ecological functions of language.

The Evolutionary Biology Meeting at Marseilles is an annual congress which has gathered high level experts in evolutionary biology since its creation in 1997. If the congress was initially a local meeting, it quickly gained an important weight in the scientific life. Indeed, whereas the number of participants has been increasing, the geographical origin of the researchers has been diversifying and widening year by year. Today, the Evolutionary Biology Meeting at Marseilles has reached a worldwide dimension and plays a paramount role in the international scientific life: allowing the gathering of high level specialists, it encourages the exchange of ideas and stimulates the works of the researchers all through the world.


Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Berra I, Pievani T, Serrelli E (2012). How to test adaptive vs exaptive evolutionary hypotheses: the case of human language. Poster at 16th Evolutionary Biology Meeting, Marseilles, France, September 18-21. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/39796]

Evolution Day. Nature and culture

Bambino che disegna

Is culture natural? Language and reading as an example

A public conference and a conference for high-school students on biological and cultural evolution.
In collaboration with City Museums of Como, Centro Filippo Buonarroti, and Pikaia webportal on evolution.


Look for it in the Talks page (with additional links):

2012, Feb 9 (h.10.30 and 14.30) – Liceo P. Carcano, Biblioteca Comunale, Como, IT: Evolution Day: La cultura è naturale? L’esempio del linguaggio e della lettura. With Maurizio Casiraghi. Conference.

http://museicivici.comune.como.it

http://www.centrofilippobuonarroti.com