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More About Worthless Diamonds

A friend of mine shared this post via the Facebook: LINK. I found it very interesting, but It lacked something.

In brief summary, Robyn explains that the engagement diamond and the size of today’s diamond market were “artificially” manufactured in the depression era by the nation’s first successful advertizing agency and the Debeers Diamond company of Blood Diamond lore.  Here is my addition.

Gifts, especially of the nuptial kind are not anything new or special in human history or even natural history as a whole. There are good reasons to give nuptial gifts and they are rooted in the most profound workings of sexual reproduction.

A seminal gift Source:
A seminal gift

There are a series of questions that arise when considering the issue of human mating and the engagement ring. These are questions related to selection of males by females, male-male competition for females, and female-female competition for males.  But, from a more socio-political perspective, the very fact that a man gives a diamond to a woman is detrimental to our (presumed) societal goal to make the sexes as equal as possible.

Gift-giving is symbolic communication like is all the rest of our observable behavior. It something which I study. Gift-giving is quite common in the natural world. You see, creating an egg, and for the species that do, raising young is extremely costly.  This means it takes much food to make an egg, and it is life-threatening to raise young. Depending on the reproductive strategy, the female of the species has to contribute –at least– an energetically-costly egg to the paring of the two, while the male only gives a fraction of the cost in sperm.

Many insects are gift-givers. For example, Gryllodes sigillatus, a cricket-like insect, secretes extra seminal fluid as a food gift to his intended sexual partner. Another genus of cricket-like insects displays a different kind of gift: Cyphoderris females eat part of the male’s secondary wings and drink their internal fluids that come as a result of the wound. Of course, there is the infamous example of praying mantises eating their male partner in copulation, and this does occur in many species some percent of the time. –It should be mentioned that this is not clearly to the male’s gene’s advantage since it prevents any future spreading of those genes. (Source of “grasshopper” picture:

There a number of theories that explain the occurrence of insects’ nuptial gifting –as it is called – and what follows is a shortened explanation.

  1. Feeding increases the offspring’s chances of survival by the addition of nutrition.
  2. The food-gift is a distraction, keeping the female’s attention allowing the male to copulate with the female.
  3. It keeps the female from eating the male.

All of these seem like excellent reasons to give female insects a gift, but we are mammals, and generally are not afraid of being eaten by our mates (this is not entirely true, but is best saved for a different time).

Gift-giving in other animals can be in part explained by appealing to two related ideas of evolutionary theory: indirect selection and handicap. Briefly, some observable features of a potential partner (say a male) are direct indicators of his survival ability and thus the quality of his genes. A physically powerful male, who runs fast, is likelier to produce young who have the same characteristics than an individual who is lacking in these areas. If these characteristics are desirable (i.e. in a species that makes its living by running), then the female will choose him.

Continue reading “More About Worthless Diamonds”

Despotrico about la Langue

My formal knowledge of the principles, observations and discoveries of evolution is weak, to say the least. However I hold onto some ideas that I am certain are true, not just because I remember learning these from romps through the Wikipedia or from the odd biology classes I took in university or from my myriad conversations with biologists I respect very much, but because they are logical. The last sentence was long. The last sentence was shorter. This one’s short.

Text humor aside, it is absurd to think that some trait should arise from nothing, nowhere. It wasn’t that one day there were cells in the ocean, and the next morning there were worms. There were steps in between, that may have been spaced closely together in time, or far apart, but they were there. Whatever it is that we call “language” is, it is no different and no more special than the sum of our cognitive abilities. Just like our limbs are adapted fins, Just like our eyes are adapted nerve cells, language is not a thing all its own.

This is especially true because language does not exist in the absence of multiple animals using it, and it does not appear in those unfortunate few who are never exposed to it. Just as thoughts, spacial mapping, and decision trees are a product of the neural networks that developed in higher-order animals, language is a product of the neural nets that the many brains/animals form when they engage each other. The connection between neurons is electro-chemical, the one among humans today is photo-mechanical, because in the simplest forms, we use photons and moving air to convey brain-states.

The famous pathological cases of language-less-ness Broca’s and Wernike’s are examples of problems in the sound signaling system, not in any human’s ability to understand the world. Those who suffer from aphasia still manage to think, yet they cannot communicate with language. So language involves creating sound signals (unless you speak sign language(s)) and perceiving them. There cannot be some part of the brain which we could easily call “language” because there is no part of the brain which we call “walk” nor “happy” nor “go to the store and buy cheese and flirt with the sexy brunette at the register.”

Let me quickly mention that words are likely not the stuff of thought because A). many things humans do are language-less, B.) often, it is hard if not impossible to express how we feel until someone says the words for us (matching words with non-word neural states) and  C.) of course great things have been figured out sans mots. For example, Otto Loewi solved some issue involving nerve signaling in a dream (Valenstein, 2005). It can be a long and painful procedure to communicate some set of belief with language. Sometimes this is impossible. Often the process involves a lot of “you know”,  sabes?

What is more is that even without future experiments that will change our view of language, there is clear evidence that what I say (and presumably any other half-informed schmuck) is true. For example, many parts of human communication have little to do with words. A few of these seem universal, such as our reaction to sound and music, (for example: Krumhansl et al., 2000). Sauter, Eisner, Ekman and Scott (2010) convincingly show that what I believe must be a large percentage of in-person or audio/visually communicated information has nothing to do with Chomsky’s “language.” The authors state things better than I could, when they sort out what sounds are clearly universal, which are strongly filtered by culture and how certain signals/sounds can be ambiguous or unintelligible to other cultures. “Negative” signals such as fear and disgust are interpreted almost universally, while “positive” emotions less so.

Al mismo tiempo quiero que usted lea mis palabras que aquí escribo y que me diga que es lo que estoy diciendo. Not bloody likely. So, clearly some part of our communicative system is learned from experience because most people cannot understand it.  You know this is true when you consider the slangs, inside jokes, friend codes and other devices that arise naturally among people with a lot of contact with each other. Hell, think about how un-understandable people who speak another dialect are when they do not attempt to accommodate your linguistic needs.

A study like that of Gooskens (2000) provides evidence for this fact. It is generally known among linguists and language enthusiasts that Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are closely related and “mutually-intelligible.” I put this term in quotation marks because we have not carefully defined what actually means, but instead, I rely on some “common understanding.” Gooskens determines that phonetic differences are the greatest impediment to mutual understanding for speakers across these language barriers. This gives credence to several arguments, not least of which is “that a language is a dialect with an army.”

Noam Chomsky, Linguist -image courtesey of

Chomsky, I suspect would argue that this is evidence that he is correct with his universal grammar idea and the Minimalist Program of Generative Syntax. Something like: “See, it is just pronunciation that is getting in the way.” But the fact is that speakers of these three languages have grown up with the same grammar, more or less, and so the only thing keeping them from understanding one another is experience with one another. This can be understood as evidence that a language is a tacit agreement for how we will communicate thoughts that, ironically, are a product of the mutual communication. The phonetic system is one aspect: the one that deals with how to transmit the ideas which themselves may have anything to do with language.  The Germans must therefore excel in schadenfreude since they have a whole sound pattern dedicated to that thought.

Notice that while Spanish and Japanese have similar phonetic systems, I haven’t a clue of what they are saying, even when the grammar is clarified for me.  I also have no clue what people mean when they speak to me in Norwegian, not because Norwegians belong to another species –a possible hypothesis, but because my brain cells do not match theirs, except where laughter and grimaces are concerned.

To speak a language is to have been trained by ceaseless bombardment with those neural patterns, which we test ourselves, with greater accuracy and improving results. Young children speak like morons and sound like stupid foreigners. They suck at learning languages. It takes them fucking years to master the sounds, and some people never gain much control over the ideas that language can convey, nor can they understand much of what is called “their language” due to a serious lack of education, i.e. exposure to the ideas. In fact, even after an adult language learner has mastered his/her new language’s “grammar” and has acquired great flexibility with the phonetics, they still have a lot of trouble communicating their emotions, negotiating, and dealing with everyday life –because there are narrow codes for how to say things, mmkay? With enough exposure they learn, that is,  if they care…

How you show deference in one African language is different for how you do so in an East Asian language. This is learned. Being happy or sad is not.

At this point in my ramblings I hope to have argued, at least in an introductory way, that language is the sum of our cognitive abilities, why it has to do with learned behaviors (social programming of neural networks) and sound patterns (encoding forms) and innate aspects that have to do with emotions and our ability to carry out basic functions which all animals address in one way or another: avoiding crap, getting food, etc. Some things will naturally be similar across languages because brains use approximately the same genetic code to generate the brains  whose neural activity can be transmitted in human communication, a small part of which is accused of being language and studied as such. Other aspects are learned and are unique to the people who share the code and the thoughts they construct together, and so when Chomsky and his cronies decipher Linear A, I will admit to being wrong.

Some citations:

  • Krumhansl, C. L., Toivanen, P., Eerola, T., Toiviainen, P., Järvinen, T., & Louhivuori, J. (2000). Cross-cultural music cognition: Cognitive methodology applied to North Sami yoiks. Cognition76(1), 13-58.
  • Sauter, D. A., Eisner, F., Ekman, P., & Scott, S. K. (2010). Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences107(6), 2408-2412.
  • Valenstein, E. S. (2005). The war of the soups and the sparks: the discovery of neurotransmitters and the dispute over how nerves communicate. Columbia University Press.


There is this common assertion among Americans that human communication is 90% body language (or whatever the number commonly but erroneously quoted is). I don’t know where this number came from, but I guess it must have been some news report of some study. It certainly makes sense to me that, in principle,  very much meaning in communication is derived from what lies outside of what is called “formal linguistics.” I also suspect that this saying or assertion enjoys such wide use because it people must have some intuition that it is true.

But there should also exist the assertion that 90% of human communication ain’t language at all –if we take the Chomskian definition of language.  How much of adult talk uses hard-to-transcribe: uhum, yuh, um, uh, mmhm, er, ay, oh, shh <silence>, ey, unhun, oops, ah, etc.? The answer according to discourse studies is a whole fucking lot.

A lot of information about conversations is conveyed with sounds that are not even considered words. We should conduct a scientific study that simply counts how much of any given conversation is non-words and pauses. Another linguistic study would involve recording a conversation with video and audio, then playing it for an audience, while systematically removing certain units, such as these “non-words.”

And yet there is another class of sounds that are even simpler, or more primal cf. Hockett (1968). Screams, laughs, grunts, whistles, howls, puffs are names for a very large assortment of sounds that are used to convey information for which we humans have deep understanding. People use a lot of words trying to communicate the quality of particular productions of these, often resorting to analogy rather than explanation. People also tend not to use these out of context, or even be able to use them when they are actually trying to convey these thoughts and feelings. These are the sorts of sounds that we say humans and animals make, but these are not called language.

An interesting study would be to see if humans can discern the meanings between the variations between productions of these. Yet another worthwhile study would be to see if humans can discern between human production and ones belonging to other animals. This could be at first carried out with other mammals, particularly simians.

One more idea I’d like to mention is the following. Some scientists maintain that animals lack language because their responses to sounds emitted by con-specifics are innate, and not learned.  Take for example insect communication. Well, how trained is our response to laughter, silence, screams of various sorts, grunts, coughs, sighs, etc.?

  • Hockett, C. F., & Ascher, R. (1992). The human revolution. Current Anthropology33(1), 7-45.

There ain’t no such thing as language.

The following should be comprehensible to the non-linguist and possible incomprehensible to the linguist, hopefully rational to the cognitive scientist. 

In teasing out the mechanisms of sound based communication systems, it seems evident that among many other things the two following bear careful consideration. Following the ideas established in Charles Hockett’s 1968 paper The human revolution, as well as other notions for which I have yet to find evidence beyond common sense, it seems that in signalling an organism “wants” to influence another organism in some way, which, simplistically speaking, is good for the signaler. However, we have to understand the particulars of the method of encoding the brain-state which is being transmitted. So humans encode part of our signals with movements of the mouth, tongue and vocal codes which produce a wave pattern which is decoded by the listener.  It is probably true that the code for transmission has relatively little to do with the actual neural-state being communicated, as it seems commonly held that humans think outside of language, yet many of our ideas are communicated with language. [think of aphasics, art as a non-linguistic medium and that fact that people who know each other and the task at hand really well can dispense with a lot of grammar, words, sounds etc. in communicating.]

Let us consider that researchers like: J.L. Austin, H.P Grice, D. Sperber their students and  many others have argued that in speaking humans hope to “do something.” The goal of speaking for them is less often to talk about states of the world and Plato’s the cave and more often is to get people to do things. So the phrase “I am cold” in many contexts is a request for doing something, or in my view, at least a topic starter to get someone to change something so’s to get warmer.  Other researchers, coming from a background in anthropology have established methods for analyzing the structure of human speech beyond a stripped down (cf. semantics, syntax and phonetics) perspective that attempt to take into account the behavioral context of utterances, their outcomes and some hierarchy of linguistics -in the traditional sense- variables.  When taken together,  these researchers seem to have, knowingly or not, help to discredit the notion that humans somehow behave linguistically different from other animals. For example, research in Conversation Analysis have shown that much of talk is repetitive, turn and boundary marking sounds (words, phrases, semi-words and phrases)  as well as tonal and gestural information marking affect, epistemological concerns, etc.  Goodwin, Charles and Heritage (1990) for a little introduction to Conversation Analysis.

Well, for starters, Chomsky asserts a lot of things, among them that somehow humans have the capacity for infinite recursion and creativity. This first statement must be false. People seem to accept a lot of Chomskian ideas axiomatically.  Firstly, not only do we have memory limitations in both the short-term and long-term domains, but it we are necessarily un-creative in our speech. How would it work if we were always creating new sentences and words and sounds that meant nothing to our listeners? The idea is that the signal sent can be parsed by the receiver. This requires that, even in sophisticated systems, the receiver have a fairly similar copy of the signal already in storage ready for decomposition and analysis.  Speak with a semi-deaf person and see how this works. You will say something, they will work to understand it but be slightly off and repeat the understood signal with what you perceive to be some absurd weirdness which stems from their rational attempt to fill the gaps.  You say: “Do you want to go to the movies” ->  Dad says: “Do I want to go to the foodies?”

A few interesting studies would look at the creativeness in everyday speech. In one, you would get a small group of participants to speak in a nice, comfy sound booth every week for a few months. You’d record their conversation, in idea conditions. The long duration is to get comfortable, everyday speech. You would then analyze the data, admittedly very large for the chunks it contains. This is regularly done with text, but could be done via FFT and some admittedly complex statistical methods in order to see what pieces repeated. One analysis of this data would have you identify longer strings that repeated frequently except for the change of some variable word or string. Again, language cannot be creative because otherwise it would just be noise.

But relevant to my first paragraph,  there are studies of animal behavior that look identical to the sort of pragmatics studies conducted by, for example: Schegloff, Jefferson and Sacks, (1978).  The late Bruce Richman describes different calls of Gelada Baboons, some of which seem to be context dependent, others which are not. The paper is worth reading a few thousand times in disbelief. These simians are described as using tonal variance, syncope, phrase unites, gaze, hand gestures, posture in their so called chattering. My cynical response is: “yeah, you know, like Indonesians or people who speak Dravidian languages.” The idea is that i have no clue was to what their sound signals mean, I can only guess as to the content of their conversations by having internal knowledge of social-animal-general and human-specific communication and habits. What would Richman’s study look like if he had use Schgloff et al.’s mark-up system for turn structure?

But let us take this idea a bit further. What exactly do dogs, for example, wish to do with their doggy-sounds, gestures, wags, points and hard-to-describe behaviors? Is it to talk about the Aenied? Of course not! They have little command of human languages and perhaps no inclination for epic poetry, like most of us seem have little interest in assholes, shit and other delicate odors and whiffs. But dogs sure work hard to communicate their intentions and wants. Hell, they can hunt can’t they? So following Hockett 1968 again, if humans developed language at least in part as a product of their travelling and hunting behaviors, why wouldn’t every other hunter-traveler species have similar communicative powers? In essence the magic of hunting is sharing my brain-state with my fellow hunters and vice-versa.

If we further analyze the claims that have been made in a very religion-like and rather desperate attempt to distinguish human communication from the rest of the systems on earth, we find that they too are flawed. For example it is clear that many other animals have words in as much as a word is some sound or set of sounds associated with some state or thing, which in the case of non-human animals, must obvious and external to the animal under observation for a human researcher to recognize it. The well know case, of course, is that of prairie dogs. One paper worth skimming is that of  Slobodchikoff, Paseka, Verdolin (2009).  Among the many different things prairie dogs seem to communicate about the dangers in the world around them is color of attacker. You’ll see that the goal of Prairie Dog vocalizations is to “do something”: warn the others (well that much is obvious, other things may be more opaque to human culture).

However, our friend Chomsky and his cronies claim that humans have syntax while other animals do not. This is easily refuted by mentioning that if you cannot parse a communicative signal for its constituent parts, how can you tell if it has a given structure and if altering that structure somehow changes the message? Playback studies are one tool used by those scientists who are interested in animal communication. Linguists forget that we have inside information on our own system, which permits signal decoding but impair our ability to generalize the aspects of all communication.

Before I share with you any of the results from studies about animal syntax, let us think about the following. Imagine that someone had recorded at random some dude talking in a cafe. Say, 30 seconds of chatter. And then, played it to you over  megaphone mounted in a tree while you are say, walking to class. How would you react to the sound of some douche talking about his sister’s boyfriend and their trip to Aruba? If it were loud enough and there were no other humans to ascribe the noise to, you might stop in your tracks and peer queerly at the megaphone. At any rate,  consider the study conducted by Dahlin and Wright (2012). Apparently, if you vary the sequence of Yellow-naped Parrot calls (these uttered in what we think are a mating context, i.e. sex) the parrots respond slowly and peer queerly.  A quick reading which will acquaint you with what is known about simian communication and the staggering success of call-back experiments is Townsend and Manser (2012).

To recap, animals and humans use sounds to establish the structure of turns of speech, get others to do things, find that reordering sounds does not always make sense given certain contexts, peer queerly at science-fucks who sneak about playing strange recordings of us, and communicate with all of our bodies.

But wait, there is more!

We assume that if an animal has fins, it swims or can swim or swam recently in its evolutionary history. We assume that if an animal has wings it flies, can fly or once flew in its evolutionary history. This sort of true-ism can be applied infinitely to every functional part of earth-life anatomy. We should also assume that all beings communicate, some just chemically, but all in one form or another. Furthermore, we should assume that all social animals communicate and that one with more complex brains communicate more complex states (ideas). So if a social species has all the tools to communicate in more-or-less the same way humans do, is it rational to assume that they do not? If we had looked at homo sapiens 100,000 years ago, would it have been obvious that they had language and were not just chattering?

Consider the fact that all cetaceans and most songbirds (as well as some non-songbirds like woodpeckers) have vocal apparata that are more complex than our own, and have all the concomitant mechanisms and morphology to drive these in a manner not alien to ours.  The following readings communicate these facts in gory detail: Warner (1972) The anatomy of teh syrinx in passerine birds. Gabán-Lima & Höfling (2006) Comparative anatomy of the The syrinx in the tribe Arini (Aves: psittacidae).

In sum, it is clear to me that we as humans and linguists have misrepresented what human communication is, to the detriment of its study, and the human kind. These ideas, may not be laid out as carefully as they might, and I plan on editing this little piece in the future. However, later diatribes will treat many of the individual issues presented here as well as related ones. For example: What is “context” with respect to language and conversation and how the fuck are we supposed to make sense of it in other species when we have no clue what it means for our own?


  1. Charles F. Hockett and Robert Ascher Current Anthropology , Vol. 33, No. 1, Supplement: Inquiry and Debate in the Human Sciences: Contributions from Current Anthropology, 1960-1990 (Feb., 1992), pp. 7-45
  2. Dahlin, Christine R., and Timothy F. Wright. “Does syntax contribute to the function of duets in a parrot, Amazona auropalliata?.” Animal cognition (2012): 1-10.
  3. Gaban-Lima, Renato, and Elizabeth Höfling. “Comparative anatomy of the syrinx in the tribe Arini (Aves: Psittacidae).” Brazilian Journal of Morphological Sciences (2006): 23(3-4), pp. 501-512.
  4. Goodwin, Charles, and John Heritage. “Conversation analysis.” Annual review of anthropology 19 (1990): 283-307.
  5. Richman, B., 1987. Rhythm and melody in Gelada vocal exchanges. Primates 28, 199/223.
  6. Slobodchikoff, C. N., Andrea Paseka, and Jennifer L. Verdolin. “Prairie dog alarm calls encode labels about predator colors.” Animal cognition 12.3 (2009): 435-439.
  7. Warner, Robert W. “The anatomy of the syrinx in passerine birds.” Journal of Zoology 168.3 (2009): 381-393.

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