April 28, 2006

Separating species with bullets

One version of the AP starling story, attributed to Seth Borenstein, ends with a quote from Jeff Elman:

What the experiment shows is that language and animal cognition is a lot more complicated than scientists once thought and that there is no "single magic bullet" that separates man from beast, said Jeffrey Elman, a professor of cognitive science at UCSD, who was not part of the Gentner research team.

If I weren't generally so skeptical of the accuracy of journalists' quotes, I'd tease Jeff for producing a self-refuting mixed metaphor. Surely a pretty reliable way to differentiate between human and beast, in cross-species encounters, is to ask who's using a weapon to kill whom? At least, this is a criterion with high positive predictive value though much lower sensitivity ...

(Mixed metaphor alert by email from Margaret Marks at Transblawg)

[Update: Ben Zimmer points out that the same AP story suggests that Seth Borenstein has a special talent for eliciting startling metaphors from cognitive scientists:

But starlings may be more apt vocalizers and have a better grasp of language than non-human primates. Monkeys may be trapped like Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, a man metamorphosized into a bug and unable to communicate with the outside world, Hauser suggested.

In the words of Heidi Harley, "What??"

Actually, I think I understand what Marc Hauser might be getting at, if he was quoted accurately. Perhaps he's staking out a position diametrically opposite to Wilhelm von Humboldt, who wrote that "The articulated sound, the foundation and essence of all speech, is extorted by man from his physical organs through an impulse of his soul; and the animal would be able to do likewise, if it were animated by the same urge."

Humboldt's idea was, I think, that the urge to communicate -- to act so as to affect others' knowledge and belief -- is the key thing, with the adaptations of the vocal organs and of the perceptual and motor-control systems being secondary consequences of the (initially inexpert and faltering) practice of communicative action. Hauser seems to be suggesting that monkeys have the urge, but evolution has somehow played them false, so that differential effectiveness of communicative action has not been able to act as a selective force.

Then again, maybe he's just licensing anthropomorphism with respect to monkeys. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 28, 2006 06:22 AM