Is there an alphabet gene?

I’ve been ruminating for the past couple of weeks about a little speculative article by Peter Frost, a Canadian evolutionary anthropologist whose primary work is on human sexual dimorphism.  In ‘The spread of alphabetical writing may have favored the latest variant of the ASPM gene’ (Frost 2008), Frost makes the remarkable assertion that there is a gene variant whose distribution is best explained by its use for cognitive tasks relating to alphabetic literacy (and specifically not non-alphabetic literacy).

This is a non-peer-reviewed paper in the journal Medical Hypotheses, which publishes papers that its editors (all medical scientists) decide are worthy of note, even when (or especially when) they challenge conventional wisdom.  I really like the publish-then-review model, but I do wonder whether in this case what is really needed is a journal (let’s call it, hypothetically, Social Hypotheses) to allow social scientists have a role in determining what is likely to be important or interesting.  Because, while the genetic evidence is fairly straightforward, the cognitive and more importantly the historical evidence are the truly controversial elements of Frost’s paper.  It rests initially on the following facts, which, not being an expert on human genetics, I’m just going to grant for the sake of argument:

– There is a gene, ASPM, that regulates brain growth, and that has evolved many variants, the latest of which emerged around 6000 years ago in the Middle East.

– It is much more common today in populations in Europe and the Middle East than in East Asia.

– While it relates to brain growth, it does not correlate with increased IQ, suggesting that its cognitive function is subtle.

Frost argues from this, quite plausibly, that this latest variant assists performance on some task relating to cognition and that expanded from a Middle Eastern origin starting around 6000 years ago.   He then moves on to the evidence I am more familiar with, to argue that that task was alphabetic writing.

– Writing developed in the Middle East around 3000 BCE, and phonetic alphabets around 2000-1000 BCE. This is sort of true; there is increased phoneticity in Near Eastern scripts over time, and purely phonetic scripts (like Ugaritic and Proto-Sinaitic) emerged as early as the 18th-15th centuries BCE (Lemaire 2008).    However, this is in the range of 3500-4000 years ago, not 6000, which makes the emergence of the ASPM variant at 6000 years ago rather early for his timeframe.

– Literacy levels in the ancient world range from 10% – 33% of adult males. False: this may have been true of Roman citizens (which is where Frost’s data come from), but was decidedly not true in the ancient Near East including both Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant.  Literacy rates certainly varied, but were probably in the 5-7% range at most in the period under consideration (van der Toom 2007: 10).

– East Asian writing is pictorial or ‘ideographic’. False; although there are logographic (word-writing) and ideographic (idea-writing) elements to the Shang Dynasty script (the earliest East Asian writing), just as with modern Chinese writing, there are phonetic complements, rebuses, and other linguistic aspects to the script from an early date.  John DeFrancis has essentially demolished the myth of Chinese picture-writing, showing it to be factually inaccurate and often marshalled for derogatory purposes (Defrancis 1989). It is true, however, that there was no ancient alphabetic writing in East Asia.  However, Japanese syllabic writing (kana) has been around since the 6th-7th centuries AD.

– Alphabetic writing has different cognitive advantages and demands than non-alphabetic writing. Yes, true, but not in simple or easily understandable ways (Olson 1995).  Frost is asserting on the basis of some experimental evidence that information is processed differently by Chinese literates reading in Chinese.  But Chinese is only one non-alphabetic script, and it has only been compared cognitively to the Latin alphabet we have no systematic comparative idea of how differently structured scripts affect cognition.  Frost’s reasoning certainly implies that Japanese writing should have similar effects to alphabetic writing, despite the near-absence of the ASPM variant there.

– Scribes were prestigious individuals who were highly valued, and those who excelled at scribal tasks would have been better-nourished and wealthier, thus more equipped to have greater reproductive success. Possibly true.  However, we have no evidence that they actually did have such success to a greater degree than non-literate elites, or indeed that they enjoyed such success at all.  Frost reasons from their social value to their reproductive success, which is plausible but unverified.

– Thus, if the ASPM variant did aid in the processing of alphabetic information, then it would be selected for among scribes and indeed among their offspring, some of whom would be literate but others of whom would not.

It will be clear, I should hope, that my difficulties with the points of evidence above render me highly skeptical of Frost’s conclusion.

As Frost notes, we would expect to find higher rates of the ASPM variant among societies that have long histories of alphabetic writing, if his theory is correct, and lower rates among societies that lack such histories. Good evidence for his position would be, as he notes, if African groups like Hausa and Fulani (long-term alphabetic scribal traditions) had high levels of the variant but other groups didn’t (similarly, if there were contrasts between Chinese and Japanese, or between Georgian and Chechen, this would tend to be confirmatory).

But he does not mention another important prediction that I think has been tested and refuted:  If the new ASPM variant plays the role he says it does, then East Asians should have difficulty learning alphabetic writing, even if raised using only alphabetic scripts.   There simply is no evidence that this is the case, and if it were true, would have incredible implications for public policy.  Moreover, the widespread use of purely phonetic scripts like the Japanese syllabaries, which really ought to have the same cognitive consequences as alphabets, should be problematic for East Asians.  It isn’t, and this is serious disconfirmatory evidence against the hypothesis.

Frost is right, though, that whatever factor selected for this ASPM variant must have been present / emerged around 6000 years in the Near East but should not have emerged or been significant in East Asia, and factors such as ‘food domestication’ and ‘urbanization’, which emerged in both regions, won’t suffice.

But what about the possibility that the ASPM variant helps promote encephalization with respect to particular plant  domesticates – e.g., wheat / barley, the classic Near Eastern domesticates, as opposed to rice and millet (the ancient East Asian domesticates)?  Here, the explanation is that individuals with the ASPM variant in the Near East had greater reproductive success because they were better able to use local domesticates to promote encephalization.  Individuals who lacked the variant still derived nutrition from these foods, but not in a way that contributed to brain growth. Obviously, I’m not a nutritional anthropologist or a dietician or even an expert on human evolution.  I’m not proposing this simply as a plausible alternative, given the complete insufficiency of the alphabetic hypothesis.  It is also testable – one would expect that grain-eating societies would have higher levels of the variant than non-grain-eaters in the same general geographic areas, all other things being equal.  But now we are back in the realm of Medical Hypotheses and outside anything to which I could claim to be anything more than an interested nonspecialist.

Works cited

DeFrancis, John. 1984. The Chinese language: fact and fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Frost, Peter. 2008. The spread of alphabetical writing may have favored the latest variant of the ASPM gene.  Medical Hypotheses 70(1): 17-20.

Lemaire, Andre. 2008. The spread of alphabetic scripts (c. 1700 – 500 BCE). Diogenes 55(2): 45-58.

Olson, David R. 1995. Towards a psychology of literacy: on the relations between speech and writing. Cognition 60(1): 83-104.

van der Toom, Karel. 2007. Scribal culture and the making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

News: The supernatural and natural selection

A recent book by anthropologists Craig Palmer and Lyle Steadman, The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success (Steadman and Palmer 2008) attempts to account for the evolution of religion in a novel way, linking sociality, communicative practice, and reproductive fitness.   I will be very interested to see the book (whose publication date is this week) and may give it a more thorough review then; for now, I am relying on a recent report in ScienceDaily.

The claim that interests me most is the assertion that religion does not primarily serve an individual, cognitive function – that its evolutionary basis is not that it explains the unexplainable or gives comfort in times of need.  Rather, they argue, religious belief serves to increase social cohesion and cooperative behavior among non-kin because of the kin-like model of society it creates.  This, so far, is not a novel claim, and can be found in anthropologists as far back as Edward Tylor (1920 [1871]).

Palmer and Steadman go further, however, using observable instances of communication of the acceptance of supernatural claims as analogues to the way that children accept their parents’ influence.  Rather than focusing about what people say about what they believe as evidence for what they believe, they treat what people say as communicative acts and observe what consequences these acts have on other human beings. In other words, they assert, religion creates kin-like social ties through the mutual acceptance of otherwise unobservable social realities.  Further evidence for this position, they assert, is found in the widespread use of basic kin terms (especially for parents, siblings, and children) in religions throughout the world.  This is an interesting combination of linguistic, anthropological, and evolutionary-psychological insights that deserves

Now, this theory is bound to cause controversy.  I don’t even want to address whether I think it is correct until I have a look at the book.  I’ve been interested in the rather different theory espoused by Pascal Boyer in his The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Boyer 1994), which focuses on the evidence from child development and is essentially a cognitive account rather than a social one.   I’ll be particularly interested to see how Palmer and Steadman have handled the cross-cultural evidence, and the extent to which they are able to deal with differences as well as similarities among the world’s religious systems.

Works cited

Boyer, Pascal. 1994. The naturalness of religious ideas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steadman, Lyle B. and Craig T. Palmer. 2008. The supernatural and natural selection: religion and evolutionary success. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Tylor, Edward B. 1920 [1871]. Primitive culture. New York: Putnam.

Teaching linguistic anthropology as integrative science

Linguistic anthropology is often treated as a ‘kid brother’ subfield of cultural anthropology.  The working assumption is that if you are working on anthropological issues relating to language, you must be an ethnographer first and foremost.   Part of the reason why I have started this blog is that I just don’t buy into this view.  Anthropology in North America has been conceptualized as a four-field subject – biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology – and I’m a four-field guy through and through, so I don’t see linguistic anthropology as naturally or inherently linked to any of the other three fields.  If it were, we wouldn’t have four fields, and linguistic anthropology would be just another cultural subject, like economic anthropology or the anthropology of religion, tied to linguistics as the others are to economics or religious studies, but ethnographic nonetheless.  I call shenanigans on that, and am more than happy to use my archaeological and evolutionary training to set out a better path for linguistic anthropology (or ‘anthropological linguistics’, but that’s a post for another day).

This year I’m teaching a course entitled ‘Language and Culture’, which I conceptualize as a cross-cultural investigation of the cognitive and social aspects of language within an unapologetically four-field anthropology.   (It helps that, as a required course for all majors, the class has plenty of archaeologists and biological anthropologists.)  To make my point, I’ve started out with a set of aggressively evolutionary readings on language origins, challenging the students to deal with the paucity of archaeological and fossil evidence without dismissing it entirely, and to acknowledge the utility of comparative primatology and child development studies to fill in some of the gaps.  I adopt an unapologetically evolutionary approach to most of my teaching, which I no doubt picked up from my mentor, the late Bruce Trigger (himself an archaeologist and ethnohistorian), and my aim is to really get the class to think about what exactly language does for us (selectively speaking) that other forms of communication do not.

I begin with a high-theory article (D’Andrade 2002), an imperfect and speculative article that nonetheless forces the reader to acknowledge the interlinked nature of language and culture while addressing the very big question, “If language is so great, why don’t all sorts of species talk?”  But D’Andrade is a cognitive anthropologist, and we really need some data to address the where, when, and how questions.   Buckley and Steele’s (2002) evolutionary-ecological (yet fundamentally social) argument connects the dots using anatomical and archaeological data, but lack the direct behavioural foundation needed to test their hypotheses.   So I turn to our evolutionary cousins, the nonhuman primates, and the old master Robbins Burling presents a complex if ultimately unconvincing argument (Burling 1993) that human language is radically distinct from primate gestures and calls, and in fact originated as a non-communicative cognitive system for thought before any ape ever spoke a word.  We wrap up with perhaps the tightest and most curious account, Greg Urban’s (2002) account that links ape calls to human language through the intermediary of ‘metasignals’, signs that make reference to other signs.

There is a lot of other material I could have presented, and perhaps in future years if I am feeling like giving the students a greater mental workout, I may do so.  Certainly there is absolutely no agreement even among anthropologists as to the likely origins of language, and I’ve hardly addressed the massive literature in linguistics and evolutionary psychology.  But for now I am quite happy with the tone and scientific emphasis I have set for the course, and although I certainly won’t ignore the more humanistic side of the subfield in the weeks to come, I’m aiming for something really innovative here and won’t blindly follow anyone’s party line.

Works cited

Buckley, Carina and James Steele. 2002. Evolutionary ecology of spoken language: co-evolutionary hypotheses are testable. World Archaeology 34: 26-46.

Burling, Robbins. 1993. Primate calls, human language, and nonverbal communication. Current Anthropology 34(1): 25-53.

D’Andrade, Roy. 2002. Cultural Darwinism and language. American Anthropologist 104(1): 223-232.

Urban, Greg. 2002. Metasignalling and language origins. American Anthropologist 104(1): 233-246.

Review: A Very Remote Period Indeed

[Since one of the things that makes academic blogging so fascinating to me is the opportunity to be part of a network of interesting people working on interrelated subjects, from time to time I will post little reviews of blogs that I think might be of interest to my readership — SC]

A Very Remote Period Indeed is the brainchild of my friend Julien Riel-Salvatore, a Paleolithic archaeologist who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at our mutual alma mater, McGill University.   Julien is one of those sorts of people whose career path should make one envious or infuriated, by all rights.  I first met him in 1996 when he was a wide-eyed freshman in the undergraduate Prehistoric Archaeology course I was TAing, and by 2001, two years before I had published anything, he had a major article in Current Anthropology (Riel-Salvatore and Clark 2001).   Nothing like being lapped to instil a little humility in you.

But anyway, the fact is that Julien is one of the humblest, nicest, and funniest future academic superstars you will ever meet, and his blog reflects that fact.  His academic posts largely focus on Middle and Upper Paleolithic Europe, his area of specialty, on topics such as the relationship (or lack thereof) between Neandertals and anatomically modern humans, the nuances of Paleolithic lithic technology in Italy, or the recent controversies over the Liang Bua ‘hobbit’ hominin.  He’s quite hooked into the rather specialized network of paleoanthropologists and has an uncanny ability to extract useful information from media reports and preprints, and to present it in a fascinating way to an educated but nonspecialist audience.

But like all us McGillians, Julien has the soul of a theorist, and you will find some pretty significant insights at AVRPI about why Paleolithic archaeology is important, and how it relates to our knowledge of human behavior, and more generally the advantages and disadvantages of working in an area whose database is both vital for our understanding of human biology and culture and also depressingly sparse.   From my own perspective, his work leads me to think about the evidence for the evolution of mathematical capacities in relation to the early (and contradictory) evidence for Paleolithic symbolic behavior (d’Errico et al. 2003), a subject I and my students investigated last term in our bibliographic research project on Paleolithic notations.  Archaeological research is at times maddeningly detail-oriented, but it is only through those details, rather than the idle speculations of armchair philosophers (not to mention evolutionary psychologists) that big questions about the evolution of human language and cognition can be addressed.

Recent posts of interest:

Surveying Surveys

The unbearable lightness of the Paleolithic record

Mad Neanderthal disease

Archaeology and the public: a complicated relationship?

Neanderthals, now in color!

Works Cited

d’Errico, F., C. Henshilwood, G. Lawson, M. Vanhaeren, A.-M. Tillier, M. Soressi, F . Bresson, B. Maureille, A. Nowell, J. Lakarra, L. Backwell, and M. Julien. 2003. Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music: an alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 17:1–70.

Riel-Salvatore, Julien and Geoffrey A. Clark. 2001. Grave markers: Middle and early Upper Paleolithic burials and the use of chronotypology in contemporary Paleolithic research. Current Anthropology 42(4): 449-479.

Is your pet smarter than a first-grader?

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/05/23)

Geoff Pullum over at Language Log has been raising issues with purported ‘animal language’ news stories for several years now, with very good reason.   In this case Pullum’s post is on target, taking on a BBC report on an African grey parrot in Japan that was reunited with its owner after it said its owner’s name and address, is a classic example of science journalism sensationalized.  The notion that biologists, linguists, or random ‘experts’ agree that grey parrots have the cognitive capacity of a six-year-old human child is laughable at best.   They (the experts) don’t, and they (the parrots) don’t.

I don’t always agree with Pullum’s reasoning or the extent of his arguments, however; I am cognizant that our species is an evolutionary cousin to apes that do possess considerable communicative capacities, and I try to remain equally cognizant of the fact that the definition of ‘language’ can be shifted to reaffirm one’s prejudices about humanity’s special place in the cosmos.  An evolutionary perspective always takes account of the fact that our capacities came from somewhere and that the antecedents of language must also have been adaptive for some purpose.   Unfortunately, several of the comments on the LL post seem to take the narrow perspective that animal communication can tell us very little about ‘language’, defined as ‘human language’ involving recursion, arbitrariness, ‘discrete infinity’, or whatever other feature is seen as necessary and sufficient to distinguish language from non-language.   There is an ongoing turf war, unstated for the most part, between evolutionary and non-evolutionary perspectives on language, and one of the key battlegrounds is this debate (now decades old) about whether the comparative evidence tells us much.   Don’t get me wrong: I do think there is a substantial difference between human language and whatever it is that other animals do; I don’t think that it is useful at all to borrow terms like ‘grammar’ and ‘syntax’ willy-nilly into nonhuman studies.  Nevertheless, unless you want to be a linguistic creationist, the evolutionary evidence (and the comparison with nonhuman animals) must be part of theory-building and the redefinition of language.

For my part, and here I don my anthropologist hat, my concern is that so much attention seems to be paid to cetacean and bird communication, when in fact, if we are looking for comparative material, we ought to rely heavily on material from African apes and only lightly from our more distant evolutionary cousins.    It seems to me almost as if, over the past five years or so, the apes have occupied a secondary role in animal communication debates in the popular press, which is a shame since I don’t think it accurately reflects the state of the field.