LINGUIST List 6.250

Sat 18 Feb 1995

Disc: Language & Species, DNA and Natural Language

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  1. Rachel Lagunoff, Re: 6.189 Innateness/ Language & Species
  2. Condon Sherri L, Re: 6.189 Innateness/ Language & Species
  3. Bill Turkel, DNA and natural language

Message 1: Re: 6.189 Innateness/ Language & Species

Date: Sun, 12 Feb 95 16:07 PST
From: Rachel Lagunoff <IHW1009MVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.189 Innateness/ Language & Species

For those interested in the language and species discussion, I should mention
that I am teaching an undergraduate seminar this quarter on the very topic
(called Apes and Language -- covering "What is (human) language?" "What is
American Sign Language?" and "What is it that the trained apes can do?" but
not the evolutionary aspects.) If anyone would like to see a copy of the
syllabus and readings, I would be glad to send one to you.

Rachel Lagunoff
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Message 2: Re: 6.189 Innateness/ Language & Species

Date: Mon, 13 Feb 1995 11:38:17 Re: 6.189 Innateness/ Language & Species
From: Condon Sherri L <>
Subject: Re: 6.189 Innateness/ Language & Species

For readers interested in questions about the cognitive capabilities of
primates, I would like to recommend taking a look at the work of a
colleague in our cognitive science program, Daniel Povinelli. While he
has nothing to say about language, he has been involved in the work on
self-recognition in primates and human children, pointing out some
striking developmental parallels. At the same time, his work stands as
an important caution against anthropomorphizing even the simplest primate
behavior. For example, chimps track an experimenter's gaze (looking in
the direction that the experimenter is viewing), which for humans can
involve reasoning about the mental states of the gazer (e.g. that the
gazer's attention is focused on something in the direction of the gaze,
that the gazer does not see other things not in his or her line of
vision, etc.). Yet, faced with two experimenters, one gazing in
a direction away from the chimp and the other looking toward the chimp,
chimps frequently track the gaze but are equally likely to gesture at either
for a food reward. Therefore, while chimps seem to have evolved a behavior
of tracking gazes (human infants do, too), they do not seem to have
developed an appreciation of seeing as an attentional/intention mental
event that subjectively connects organisms to the external world. (This,
of course was only one of a series of studies in which chimps failed to
select an experimenter who could see them as opposed to one who could not.)

I think we have much to learn about cognition and communication in all
species, and we are fortunate that careful researchers are on the job!

The results I mentioned above are reported in a monograph that presents
results from both chimps and human children (though sometimes I feel
that my twin boys, who participated in some of the studies, should have
been grouped with the chimps). I'm not sure it is out yet, but look
for _What Young Chimpanzees Know about Seeing_ by Daniel J. Povinelli
and Timothy J. Eddy. They can be contacted at

Laboratory of Comparative Behavioral Biology
University of Southwestern Louisiana
New Iberial Research Center
100 Avenue D.
New Iberia, LA 70560
(318) 365-2411
(I'm still trying to talk him into getting an e-mail address.)

Some other sources:

Povinelli, D.J. (1993) Reconstructing the evolution of mind. American
 Psychologist, 48, 493-509.
Povinelli, D.J., Nelson, K.E. & Boysen, S.T. (1990) Inferences about
 guessing and knowing by chimpanzees. Journal of Comparative Psychology,
 104, 203-210.
Povinelli, D.J., Landau, A.R., & Bierschwale, D.T. (1993) Self-recognition
 in chimpanzees: Distribution, ontogeny, and patterns of emergence.
 Journal of Comprative Psychology, 107, 347-372.


Sherri Condon
Universite' des Acadiens
(University of Southwestern Louisiana)
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Message 3: DNA and natural language

Date: Tue, 14 Feb 1995 10:04:37 DNA and natural language
From: Bill Turkel <>
Subject: DNA and natural language

For those interested in DNA and natural language, see

 'Hints of a Language in Junk DNA'
 _Science_ 266:1320 25 Nov 1994


 'Linguistic Features of Noncoding DNA Sequences'
 _Physical Review Letters_ 73(23):3169 5 Dec 1994

The latter describes the discovery that noncoding regions of yeast
DNA obey Zipf's law and show a high degree of redundancy. Coding
regions fail both tests.

Bill Turkel (UBC)
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