June 27, 2007

HBES 2007

Yeah, so I know it's a little later than I expected . . . and you're sick of the excuses, haha. Oh well, I might as well report on the 2007 HBES conference now, cause if I wait any longer, it will never get done!

Well, as you probably know by now, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society held this year's conference, May 30th - June 3rd, here at the College of William and Mary, and was hosted by the awesome Lee Kirkpatrick and Brandy Burkett! It was exciting! I mean, to have such superstars as Robert Kurzban, David Buss and John Tooby (just to name a few!) under the same roof and so close to home, it was an opportunity that just could not be missed! Fortunately John, from Evolutionary Psychology, and I were able to volunteer our services in exchange for free admission, haha. It was cool though. We mostly helped man the registration desk at various times and also helped answer questions about campus and what not. We met a lot of cool people, including other graduate students interested in evolutionary psych., and we even met the editors of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, Sarah Strout and Rosemarie Sokol. That was pretty cool, because they recently finished graduate school as opposed to most of the other people that we met. It was nice to get a fresh perspective on graduate school in EP, being editors for a new journal and how to not be too intimidated by big names in the field. By the by, back in April I wrote a post about their new journal . . . if interested, you can find it here.

When not working or mingling, I was able to catch some really good talks. My favorite was that of Hod Lipson, from Cornell, who spoke about Evolutionary Robotics, a field which utilizes evolutionary theory to allow robots to reconstruct their very own body plan! Very interesting. Sadly, John has already beaten me to the punch, haha. Well, that's what I get for not giving my blog the attention that it needs! His post on Lipson's talk can be found here. And he does a good job:

"Lipson and his colleagues have found that certain fitness functions can allow robots to model and understand their own structure. Although robots do not yet have what we often refer to as consciousness, they do have the ability to recognize changes in their robotic structure through a process of continuous self-modeling. For example, a robot that has five appendages can recognize when one of its appendages is amputated and it can adapt its behavior to be congruent with its new structure."
Check out the full post!

Well, all in all, I thought the conference was a good experience for me, even though I didn't present any research of my own and I didn't even get to be there for the whole time (my wedding). I just say to myself, "There'll be next time." It was just a good environment for me to be in, intellectually . . . good just to see what is going on in the field myself. Photos from the conference can be accessed here if anyone's interested.

June 25, 2007

Daniel Everett and Recursion

Edge has an interesting video of linguist Daniel Everett discussing his ideas of recursion in human language and thought.

The current, Chomskyan view of language is that we are basically pre-wired by our genes with the ability to produce infinite grammars using finite structures. In other words, we have no limit to what we can say even though we have a limited vocabulary. This ability is triggered and shaped by our environment and is also a function of our ability to use recursion. Recursion is the ability to insert a phrase into another phrase of the same type. Here's an example that Everett gives:

"If I say 'John's brother's house', I have a noun, 'house', which occurs in a noun phrase, 'brother's house', and that noun phrase occurs in another noun phrase, 'John's brother's house'."
Essentially, one could infinitely add on additional phrases to any sentence. (John's brother's house; John's brother's sister's house; John's brother's sister's husband's house, etc.) Recursion is supposed to be the fundamental property of human language. But what happens if you find a language that doesn't use recursion? Well it would go against the ideas of Chomsky and instead put forward the proposition that humans do not need a universal grammar. And this is what Everett is, in fact, claiming.

He is claiming that a culture from the Amazon, the Piraha, of which he has worked with for 30 years, do not exhibit recursion in their language. If this is so, then that means the Piraha are limited in what they can say, though that doesn't mean their language is not a rich one. This would be considerable evidence against the Chomskyan paradigm. It would mean that recursion isn't an essential element to human language. But he doesn't go so far as saying that recursion is unimportant:
"If you go back to the Pirahã language, and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story. That's not part of the grammar per se, that's part of the way that they tell their stories. So my idea is that recursion is absolutely essential to the human brain, and it's a part of the fact that humans have larger brains than other species. In fact, one of the papers at the recursion conference was on recursion in other species, and it talked about how when deer look for food in the forest, they often use recursive strategies to map their way across the forest and back, and take little side paths that can be analyzed as recursive paths. So it's not clear, first of all that recursion is unique to humans, and it's certainly not clear that recursion is part of language as opposed to part of the brain's general processing."
His idea seems to be that recursion is a property of the human brain in general, as well language is also a property of our brains. We don't necessarily have to have a "language instinct." And instead, it's possible that language is just a product of our ability to use our greater general intelligence as compared with other species to solve our everyday problems. It's an interesting idea, though a lot of research would have to be done and scrutinized before such controversial claims could be verified. Well, anyways, check out the video. There's also a transcription of the interview here. As well, there are also some really good responses and counter-responses to Everett here, including a response from Steven Pinker, which is pretty cool. Check them out!

June 12, 2007

it's been a while . . .

Well . . . hello, hello, hello. I know it's been a little while since I have written a post. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about the blog. I have just kind of been away from technology lately. Mostly because I have . . . . gotten MARRIED! That's right! The big day was: June 2, 2007. I don't want to get too personal and all, but it definitely was one of the best days/nights of my life. We just recently got back from our honeymoon, plus I have started my new summer research job at Eastern Virginia Medical School, so I have just haven't had the time or resources for new posts.

Well, anyways, I just wanted to say that I haven't forgot about the blog. And I have a couple of really cool posts planned out and will post over the next couple of days. One will likely be about the recent HBES conference held at William and Mary, and of which I was a volunteer before I left for the wedding. It is also worth the note that my good friend John, over at Evolutionary Psychology, had presented some of his research there. His talk was awesome!

Another post will probably be about "simulation sickness," which is like motion sickness that people feel when they are on a driving simulator. This is something I'm learning about at my new job. And lastly, for awhile now I've been wanting to write a post about our ability to work with numbers. So keep a look out for these, plus any other interesting psych. news that I might post on here. I have a lot of unpacking, cleaning, working and more traveling to do, but I'll have at least two new posts up by Sunday.

Oh well, until then . . . have a good week!