What’s true of bones is also true of human language

what-is-true-for-bones-01_2Source: Spectrum.

“The inference of a biological trait’s “purpose” or “function” from its surface form is always rife with difficulties. [Richard] Lewontin’s remarks in The Triple Helix (2001) illustrate how difficult it can be to assign a unique function to an organ or to a trait even in the case of what at first seems like a far simpler situation: bones do not have a single, unambiguous “function.” While it is true that bones support the body, allowing us to stand up and walk, they are also a storehouse for calcium and bone marrow for producing new red blood cells, so they are in a sense part of the circulatory system. What is true for bones is also true for human language.” From Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky: Why Only Us: Language and Evolution.  MIT Press, 2016. 

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Animal cognition: the cat and the octopus

This week’s issue of Nature reports that the octopus genome is almost as large as that of humans, and it contains a greater number of protein coding genes. Neurobiologist Benny Hochner from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel has studied octopus neurophysiology for 20 years: “It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved. Researchers want to understand how the cephalopods, a class of free-floating molluscs, produced a creature that is clever enough to navigate highly complex mazes and open jars filled with tasty crabs.” The video above, which comes with the Nature article, shows (among other things) an octopus opening a jar. Here is a video of our cat Willy doing the same thing: opening a jar with food for him. Willy can also open refrigerators. We had to attach a kids’ lock to our refrigerator to prevent him from robbing our dinner. 

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Going beyond Darwinian explanations

Jeremy England: “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”

Ard Louis: “If England’s approach stands up to more testing, it could further liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation and allow them to think more generally in terms of dissipation-driven organization. They might find, for example, that the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve.”

Source: Quanta Magazine, January 22, 2014.

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