PBS evolution series

From: Ray Recchia (rrecchia@mail.clarityconnect.com)
Date: Sun 01 Jun 2003 - 04:16:20 GMT

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    They had a series on evolution on American Public Broadcasting TV recently and I rented a DVD of an episode entitled '''The Mind's Big Bang" the other night. For more on the series you can go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/ Dawkins and Blackmore were interviewed but didn't say anything we haven't heard here before. There were some interesting things on language and human development though.

    Judy Kegl of the University of South Maine does work with deaf people in Nicaragua. People who are born deaf and are raised in isolation lose the capacity for language. Apparently if you aren't exposed to language in some form by the time you are 7 or 8 you become incapable of acquiring it in any form. She also studied deaf people who were raised around other deaf people but had no exposure to language. It appears that in even the absence of exposure to language of any sort, these folks developed their own proto-sign language to communicate with one another suggesting that our capacity for language is so innate that even in the absence of pre-existing language groups of people will spontaneously develop it. At some I'm going to take a close look at Kegl's research to see if it it supports the theories about symbolic thinking proposed by Terrance Deacon in 'The Symbolic Species' (1998).

    Another interesting point brought out by someone named Robin Dunbar was that 2/3 of all linguistic communication involves social gossip. This suggests that the role of language as a social tool was as important if not more important than its role in transmitting new behaviors.

    In discussing the concept of 'mind' I've mentioned the human ability for empathy: the capacity to recognize emotions and thinking processes that occur in others. Andrew Whitten of the University of St. Andrews has shown that children acquire the ability to recognize the difference between what they know and what others know somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5. Dr. Whitten demonstrates this using a simple experiment. A child observes a person (or actually a doll) place a marble under a blanket and then leave. Then a second person takes the marble out from under the blanket and places it in a box. Then the child is asked to show where the first person will look for the marble when they come back. Children three and under consistently say that the first person will look in the box, while children five and older consistently understand that even though they know that the marble is now in the box, the other person will not. No other animal has shown the capacity to recognize the difference between what they know and what others should know.

    Anyway, it was an entertaining piece. It was the first time I'd heard Dawkins speak. Always figured he'd be a baritone.

    Ray Recchia

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