Symbolic Species

The Symbolic Species, by Terence Deacon, argues that language and the human brain co-evolved; and that the understanding of symbols is the primary differentiator of human language and human intelligence. The book doesn’t prove either major thesis. But it includes fascinating research and compelling sub-arguments about the nature and evolution of human language along the way.

My favorite section of the book is Deacon’s argument against the Chomskian thesis that the brain is hard-wired for language processing. The book surveys decades of research on language deficiencies caused by brain damage; and recent imaging studies on language processing in healthy brains.

If language was hard-wired, than one would expect that universal features of languages would be implemented in similar regions of the brain. The noun-verb pattern is universal. However, the noun-verb distinction is implemented differently in different languages (some languages use word order; other languages modify the words themselves).

It turns out that the different implementations of grammar utilize different sections of the brain to process nouns and verbs. Therefore, says Deacon, grammar-processing isn’t universally coded in hardware. The brain is designed for language at a different level of abstraction than firmware modules.

Another fascinating section of the book argues that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to understand symbols. Deacon reports a fascinating series of experiments with chimpanzees, showing how chimps have a devilish time doing things we find very easy. Chimpanzees find it nearly impossible to set aside immediate evidence and apply a more abstract understanding.

If you put two piles of candy in front of a child, he will choose the larger pile. But if the larger pile is then given to another child, the first child quickly learns to choose the smaller pile. Chimps never figure this out (although they can learn to choose the number 3 over the number 2). With the pile of candy in front of them, they are overwhelmed by impulse to choose the larger pile.

Deacon tells an interesting “just so story” of the origin of the symbol in human evolution. Humans tend to live in groups, and most often have a pattern of pair-bonding. This is a most unusual combination in the animal world.

In animal species where males contribute to providing for the offspring, there are two basic social patterns. Either the animals pair-bond — in which case the pair lives in isolation — or the animals live in groups, in which case polygyny is the norm. Unless a pair is isolated from the group, or the male has exclusive access to a harem, there is no way for the male to be sure that the young he is providing for carry his genes.

Deacon’s thesis, essentially, is that the wedding ring and the wedding ceremony are the original symbols. Humans invented an abstract symbol and group ritual to mark the fact that a woman is the exclusive sexual property of a man. This allows humans to live co-operatively in groups (which enables more efficient hunting and gathering).

But, to get here, Deacon skips over alternative explanations of the same evidence. The ability to see beyond immediate evidence to consequences remote in time and space can be explained as easily as the foundation of storytelling. Stories have plots — chains of causal relationships that are not visible to the eye. “The saber-toothed tiger over the second hill killed Oog and injured Gah.” And stories turn on character motive — predictions of behavior based on traits and interests. “Chah stayed at the fire and made excellent grain porridge because she does not like to pick eek-berries.” Stories are key to success in hunting, gathering, and transmitting knowledge of tools.

An alternative theory is posed by Robin Dunbar, who argues that gossip was a driving force in the evolution of language. Gossip is language that is used socially, to assess the reliability of social and sexual behavior, and to transmit social norms.

In arguing for the primacy of the symbol, Deacon skips right past other facts he cites. The nerves that go to the frontal cortex travel through limbic areas. This physical fact is a fascinating explanation of art, which combines intellectual stimulation — formal patterns and esthetic properties — with emotional stimulation. Similarly, human decision-making combines reason, pattern-recognition, and gut feeling.

Dunbar is better at marshalling evidence about the unique properties of human language than explaining their cause and origin. Deacon himself argues that language is overdetermined; there are so many advantages that it’s hard to tell what came first. But we’re humans, so we search for causes and tell origin myths, even when we’re using the tools of science.

Also, the bias toward the abstract may influence Deacon’s writing style. Deacon is charmed by the human ability to decode abstractions and process complex sentences; the book could be made easier to read without loss of information, complexity, or meaning, if Deacon weren’t quite so fond of abstraction.

One difficulty for a layperson reading the book is that the book assumes a medical student’s knowledge of brain anatomy. The book uses many terms for brain components, and employs illustrations pointing at brain regions. It would be helpful for the book to include a mapset of the brain and its components, the same way history books often provide a set of reference maps and timelines.

If you’re interested in the topic, read the book. It’s fascinating, though it has flaws and it’s not light reading.

Government of, by, and for Halliburton

via Peter Kaminski, from the Washington Post
Halliburton, the company formerly headed by Vice President Cheney, has won contracts worth more than $1.7 billion under Operation Iraqi Freedom and stands to make hundreds of millions more dollars under a no-bid contract awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to newly available documents.
The size and scope of the government contracts awarded to Halliburton in connection with the war in Iraq are significantly greater than was previously disclosed and demonstrate the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on for-profit corporations to run its logistical operations.

Wikis and process

Clay Shirky contends that wikis are effective because they dispense with process.

A wiki in the hands of a healthy community works. A wiki in the hands of an indifferent community fails. The software makes no attempt to add ‘process’ in order to keep people from doing stupid things. Instead, it provides more flexibility, a crazy amount of flexibility, and intoxicating amount of flexibility, allowing massive amounts of stupidity and intentional damage to be done, at will, by roving and anonymous posters. And it provides rollback.

Process, contents Clay, is a destructive immune response that tries to protect a group from damage before it occurs. Wikis replace this with the healthy immune response that quickly fixes damage when it happens. “It takes longer to set fire to the building than put it out, it takes longer to grafitti the wall than clean it, it takes longer to damage the page than restore it.”
Ben Hyde, responding to Clay, sees wikis as the embodiment of a set of process assumptions that are different from the typical bureaucratic model.

Wikis are another example of a process framework for solving a class of organizational problems where you have a huge pool of hands and eyes and you want to leverage that resource to make something good…

  • Create a large binding surface, i.e. lots of options, call it modularity, pages, plug-in whatever; but ship options preference to product.
  • Let the many hands self select what options to exercise; this lower’s coordination costs, and moves you closer to the customer/audience.
  • Undo is good, it let’s people experiment at much lower risk.
    Stream changes past many eyes to capture free QA

  • Very very lightly sort your community and give more power to people closer to the core
  • Strive to lower barriers to entry on all community boundries
  • Strive for open: a little ownership of turf is good, a little more isn’t, a lot is toxic.
  • Bias for action where ever possible
  • Ship early – real users trump designers almost everytime.
  • Labor to reduce the distinction between audience and creators
  • Look for the network effects, nurture them.
  • Tone is important – it will drive what you define as “good”
  • Know that working with infinite tiny options and infinite tiny resources is very different than working on systems with scarce expensive resources.

Good insights all around. Whether you see the form as resistance to process or alternative process, the conclusion remains: there are effective alternatives to systems that depend on fixed hierarchy and inflexible rules.

Process and Culture

I’ll comment on the subtle and insightful aspects of Clay Shirky’s blogconversation on wikis and process in a subsequent post. But first, a rant.
Clay alleges that “Process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity.” Nah. Process is an embedded reaction to doing the same thing twice.
Process was invented when a primeval hunter gave his fellows some hints on how to hold the stone-tipped spear, and a primeval gatherer told her clanmates heuristics about to find the bushes with sweet-tasting berries and not the toxic ones that poisoned dear old Oog.
Of course too much process is bad but some process is core to what makes us human.

Microsoft scientist finds life on Usenet

Sociologist Mark Smith has developed a tool that analyzes the social dynamics of Usenet, helping users find congenial groups whether they’re looking for conversation or quick answers.

By charting different types of behavior in Usenet groups, he’s able to steer users to the kind of group they want — not just a group that discusses the right topic but a group with the right goals and pace…
In real life, indicators such as the number of people eating in a restaurant, the decor and the smells tip off the consumer, he said. In an effort to create such atmospheric cues online, Smith and his group have created charts that represent with big colorful bubbles how chatty, argumentative or helpful a given group is.
They do this without reading any of the words in the messages. It’s all based on the pattern of activity. People who post multiple replies on every discussion thread tend to be the arguers, the nitpickers. Those who post just one reply — especially if that reply ends the thread — tend to be the expert problem solvers.
The software Smith’s team created, known as Netscan, is available online at, and about 1,000 people a day use it to help them choose discussion groups that fit their needs.
Someone who wants to know how to configure a printer would probably choose a group with a track record of quick answers, while someone looking for entertainment might choose a group whose history is riddled with flame wars, or online arguments.

From the San Francisco Chronicle, via EEK.

Flash Mobs and Dance Halls

Paul Resnick writes enthousiastically about Flash Mobs as a new form of social organization that may displace longer-term associations and friendships. Instant communication makes things faster, but the gathering of strangers has been part of urban civilizations since the days of dance halls and public hangings.
Flash mobbing makes it easier for people to flock. Those groups will complement longer-term associations, rather than displacing them. Here in Austin, webloggers and online journalers have become friends in physical space. The Texas Dean Meetups are being used as a base for strengthening the Democratic party precinct system.
This cartoon is pretty funny, but my guess is that new ways to meet people are competing with time spent home in front of the television, rather than with “real friends.”
In short, I think augmenting flocking is cool, but it’s not so new, and it adds rather than takes away from the repertoire of human social behavior.

US Patent Office Opposes Open Source

Prof. Lessig reports the breathtakingly clue-deprived opinions of the USPTO on open source software.
The patent office was trying to pull the plug on a WIPO meeting that had open source on the agenda. Lois Boland, director of international relations for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is quoted as saying saying: