October Update

Bought a standard poodle puppy.  Bringing him home October 5, so October will be full of housebreaking, and FUN.



Entries in language (4)


Bobby McFerrin, Music, and the Brain, Part 2

My last post showed a video of Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival.  McFerrin demonstrated how his audience intuitively understood the pentatonic scale: CDEGA, a scale that leaves out dissonances.  Carl Orff, the composer of Carmina Burana, used this scale to construct musical instruments for children so they could play music together that always sounded pleasant.  Such harmonic group music encouraged them to continue playing because the experience was so enjoyable.

         The question at the World Science Festival was this:  Is music inherent in humans, and therefore genetic?  Or is music learned?  According to Bobby McFerrin, his little experiment works everywhere in the world where he has tried it.  It seems as if humans all over have an instinctive sense of the pentatonic scale.

         On the other hand, said others on the panel with McFerrin, hearing develops by week eighteen in the human embryo.  Could it be that embryos “learn” about music while still in the womb?  Do they hear the music their mothers are listening to and become acclimated to scales in this way?

         I believe it must be a little of both.  All humans, everywhere, make music.  Humans invented music.  That makes music seem inherent.  Some linguists even believe that music came before speech, and led to it.

         But if we develop in utero with some kind of genetic predisposition toward music, that would probably make us more receptive to the music we hear before and just after we are born.  With no examples, my grandchild spontaneously began dancing to music as soon as he could walk.  He turned in circles in time to the beat, and frequently asked for music to be played.

         I think music is one of the top ten wonders of the universe.  And I also think that playing music together in duets, trios, quartets, etc., in bands and orchestras, is one of the most civilized activities humans engage in.  So if we are genetically programmed for music, we are genetically programmed for civilized behavior.  How wonderful it would be if we would lean more and more away from strife and more and more toward our musical genetic gifts.


Evolution + Mothers and Children = Language (Maybe), Part 2

Much of what I’m going to write about today and in my next post was inspired by Dean Falk’s wonderful book, Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language.

         When I left off (July 27), we were talking about human mothers having to carry their babies in their arms.  This was because in order to develop a big brain, yet still fit through the human birth canal, a human baby must be born very immature.  Too immature to hang on to its mother while she gathers food.

         However, studies of primates, including humans, show that primate infants need virtually constant body contact with their mothers in order to survive in healthy shape.  And these primate infants make sure they get the contact if at all possible by complaining and crying whenever their mothers put them down.

         So before the invention of baby slings, early human mothers has a big problem.  They needed both hands for gathering food.  To free both hands, they had to put their babies down.  But when they did so, the babies would complain and cry noisily, attracting predators. 

         In order to minimize the risk, Falk (along with a number of other researchers) surmises that mothers made noises to soothe their infants, noises similar to the ones other primate mothers make to their babies.

         Each time a human baby would cry out, its mother would respond.  This “taking turns” making noises would be a kind of conversation.  As the conversation of soft sounds became a habitual way to keep the baby safely quiet instead of dangerously noisy, mother-infant talk would include facial expressions and gestures.

         A female baby raised in this way, would learn to do the same with her younger siblings when she helped look after them.  All females would grow up to do this with their own babies.

         Of course this isn’t full blown language, but it certainly makes a good start.  And there’s much more to tell in my next post about this growing prehistoric spiritual bond between early human mothers and their babies. 


Evolution + Mothers and Babies = Language (Maybe), Part 1

If we can never know for sure how language came about, we are free to invent any hypotheses we want.  But I only get a charge out of plausible hypotheses. 

         For instance, I never went for the notion of language appearing in one fell swoop, fashionable in philosophy about twenty years ago.  It just didn’t make sense in terms of what I know about evolution.  François Jacob had it exactly right when he spoke of evolution as a tinkerer:  Evolution takes what is already present and tinkers with it, turning it into something different that might be useful. 

         This has been true about simple cellular respiration and photosynthesis that became complex, about gills that have become jaws and jaws turned into hearing apparatus, of fins becoming limbs, and on and on.  It must also be true about the development of language.

         The story of human mothers and babies and language starts with the evolution of a big brain for humans.  It’s easy to see that a big brain with greater intelligence must have been useful as soon as it evolved.  It’s hard to say what exactly were the first uses that made such a brain a plus in terms of natural selection.  Was it good for tool making which brought more food, for maintaining group efforts which brought more safety?  We can think of plenty of uses.

         But extra intelligence must have been very, very useful, because a big, intelligent brain did not come without a price.  And the price was that in order to develop a big brain, the human infant had to get born at a very immature stage.  The reason for this is that if we were born as mature as even chimpanzee babies, we humans couldn’t fit through our mothers’ birth canals. 

         In order for us to be born immature enough pass through the human birth canal, the timing of human development had to change.  We had to grow into all the rest of our developmental stages in pretty immature bodies.  So we wound up with almost no body hair even in adulthood.  And even if we had had the body hair, unlike chimp babies, our immature babies weren’t strong enough to hang onto the hair while we walked around gathering food and building shelters.

         In other words, until the invention of slings, human mothers had to carry their babies around in their arms no matter what else they were doing.  This had big implications that may have resulted in language!  Stay tuned!


Did Mothers and Babies Invent Language?

What an unexpected question!  It’s one of those questions, like how did we come to walk on two legs (See my posts for October 14 & 16, 2009.) or how did some animals come to have legs instead of fins (See my posts for October 20, 21, 23, 2009.) that we will probably never be able to answer definitely. 

         But a couple of years ago I was reading Robert Godwin’s One Cosmos Under God (a fascinating read about spirit and science), and came across the intriguing notion that the roots of language first developed between human mothers and their babies.

         In fact, Godwin emphasizes how essential babies have been and are to the development of human life as we know it today.  In particular he points out that babies seem to be hardwired for learning the basics of human life in their first few years.

         Godwin notes that human infants must bond with their parents in order to develop normally.  Part of that bonding entails eye contact and murmuring back and forth between the adult caregiver and the baby.  He cites theorists who see in this bonding the beginnings of language.

         I find this a captivating notion.  All of a sudden it makes perfect sense where no other hypotheses ever have.  I want to go into more detail about this idea in my next few posts.