Saturday 27 July 2013

Mired In Psycho Linguistics Land. Dediu and Levinson on Language and Culture

I apologize, in advance, for the esoterica about which I am blurting today. Or, is it abstruse? Obtuse? Confused? Oh, hell. Just read.

 The Daily Mail headline reads
Neanderthals talked like us half a million years ago and could even have shaped the language we speak today
This refers to a recently published paper in the psychology journal, Frontiers in Psychology. [Now in its fourth year of publication—no mean feat given that there are about 90 competitors in that one field!]. I'm ashamed to admit that I missed this bit of yarn-spinning when it first came out. [I must have been getting drunk, too drunk, or recovering from being drunk at that time. Otherwise I'd have been right on it!] Had it not been for the Daily Mail and the Subversive Archaeologist's news ticker I would [prolly] never have seen it! Lucky moi!

Dediu, Dan, and Stephen C Levinson
2013 "On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences." Frontiers in Psychology 4:1-17. DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00397      

The article is the perfect paradigm of the disaster that can occur when well-meaning social scientists go looking for evidence in another social science the literature of which they glean from papers that were trumpeted in the credulous media, rather like what has happened with theirs. And, if they weren't pointed to their sources by the media, they may well have canvassed their institution's anthropology department or a recent undergraduate textbook. Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh. After all, these authors are doing nothing that avant-garde palaeoanthropologists wouldn't do when they attempt to paint a state-of-the-art synthesis of that eminently cross-disciplinary field.    

And, let's face it, if you have any familiarity with my theoretical leanings you probably could have guessed how I might treat the product of research that provoked the headline above. Moreover, I'm somewhat familiar with the psychology of language and culture, and I've managed to imbibe bits and pieces of the major players in the very important question of when language came about. And, knowing the shape of the field in the present, I might just as well have tried to repress the memory of the headline and left these two frontier-busting psychologists' work to moulder on the dust heap of the psychological literature. However, it's because of my proximity to such debates, and those occurring in archaeology and human palaeontology that I have chosen to push my nose into this paper.

First of all, I went to the list of references, knowing full well what I WASN'T going to see—any citations of the voluminous work of Iain Davidson (archaeologist) and William Noble (psychologist) on the matter of language evolution. Their book, Human Evolution, Language, and Mind, seems to have escaped the notice of every interested party save one—me. In it, you and the authors of today's commentary would be clearly trained up on the many cogent counter-arguments—both archaeological and psychological—to the work of people like Steve Mithen. So, having reassured myself that today's authors were missing the yin of their yang [or vice versa], I went straight to their treatment of the Neanderthal archaeological record to see how one-sided it might be. I wasn't disappointed. Using the standard story of that archaeological record as a springboard, in the section titled "Culture and Language" they pull off a triple rotating, double twisting, jack-knife vault and totally stick the landing. Their feat should not go unheralded. Prepare to be heralded upon ...
Since I knew I'd get bogged down if I tried to paraphrase, or worse, in order to make critical comments, I decided that I'd simply mark up the text to illustrate two interdigitating characteristics of the piece. Generally I have used the strike-through to indicate what I consider to be problematic evidence, and red underline for those places where the authors literally spin said evidence into a barely-in-touch-with-reality narrative/scenario/just-so-story/metapicture. Those portions that I left unmarked are either not worth the effort criticizing or [believe it or don't] stuff that I consider unproblematic. I'll catch up with you down below. [Not a reference to Hell. Although I may well one day end up in Archaeological Hell for my heresies. For the time being, at least, I'm only in Archaeological Purgatory! Or maybe it's Archaeological limbo.]

Off we go!
Re: the preceding. The rumours of the death of the notion of a human revolution at the time of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition have been exaggerated.

Re: the following. Symbolism has little to do with language. These guys should have stayed in bed the day they decided to write that. Worse, still: linguistic symbols work through abstract convention; a painting of a horse works through iconic similarity. At a minimum these guys have shot one another in the foot in the complete self-contradiction of the two phrases, "symbolism has little to do with language" and "...linguistic symbols..."!
Re: the preceding. "Failed to invent" is wrong on so many levels. And "were present but dormant" sounds like they're analogizing language ability to a virus, like herpes, that is never really cured, but rather lies dormant in the nerve cells of the host. Language as virus. Slick!
Re: the following. Neandertals had large group sizes! Shit. No one's ever demonstrated to my satisfaction that they weren't solitary like orangutans!
Re: the preceding. I can't be certain what the authors intended by the phrase "cultural advance." However, I'm gonna guess that it's a euphemism for "progress." As such, this article reveals itself as having no place in polite anthropological circles.
Re: the following. "Cultural elaboration is the result of population pressure?" Gee, Mr. Wizard, what 1950s textbook did they get that out of? 
 Re: the preceding. I'm speechless.
Hmmm. Their conclusion really says it all. Don't it? Perhaps Neanderthals disappeared because of everything that ever happened to them. Gawd. I wish I'd thought of that!

Notice how they reference the hell out of the archaeological stuff, but they're quiet on the source for their psycholinguistic bafflegab? Either this subject is novel in psycholinguistic circles [which I very much doubt], it's so clear and well understood in psycholinguistic circles that all of their statements are akin to saying "the sun will rise today," or they're full of shit. I refuse to get drawn into name-calling. So... I'm outa here! Almost. Dare I say that this paper could be filed under the heading: "Psycho linguistics?"


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1 comment:

  1. A classic Neandertal-bashing rant boiling down to what all Neandertal-bashing rants boil down to: there is no steel evidence that the Neandertals spoke languages like ours, or that they spoke a language at all. Painting Neandertals as dumb king size apes today is ridiculous by all conceivable standards and closely related to the badly unwarranted hilarious creationist (and vaguely racist) style belief in Chomsky's "Prometheus": one morning a Homo Sapiens Sapiens wakes up and sits up from his straw mattress and lo and behold, he can speak! And God in Heaven saw it was a good thing, amen. Perhaps a gradual incremental development of speaking abilities over time is a tad more scientific a notion, no? There's no certainty Neandertals spoke languages like ours. Oh really? No certainty. No kidding. Ian Tattersall, another "dimwitted Neandertals" virtuoso, happened to write that the absence of evidence doesn't entail the evidence of an absence. How about applying the same - correct - wisdom also to theories Neandertal bashers have a distaste for?


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