To communicate with apes, we must do it on their terms

Rachel Nuwer writes:

On August 24, 1661, Samuel Pepys, an administrator in England’s navy and famous diarist, took a break from work to go see a “strange creature” that had just arrived on a ship from West Africa. Most likely, it was a chimpanzee—the first Pepys had ever seen. As he wrote in his diary, the “great baboon” was so human-like that he wondered if it were not the offspring of a man and a “she-baboon.”

“I do believe that it already understands much English,” he continued, “and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.”

Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA, but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species. Is that by necessity of nature, though, or simply a question of nurture?

“It could be that there’s something biologically different in our genome, something that’s changed since we split from apes, and that’s language,” says Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But another possibility is that they might have the cognitive capacity for language, but they’re not able to physically express it like we do.” [Continue reading…]

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The way humans point isn’t as universal as you might think

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The universal sign for ‘Look over there!’ isn’t so common in some cultures.
Helena Ohman/

By Kensy Cooperrider, University of Chicago

Octopuses have long arms and plenty of smarts, but they don’t point. Nor do chimps, gorillas or other apes, at least not in the wild.

Humans, on the other hand, are prodigious pointers. Infants use the gesture before they can talk, often around 1 year of age. By 2, they’ll waddle around, their forefingers sweeping over the world like searchlights.

Pointing seems to be in our nature: When people want to draw attention to something, we instinctively extend an index finger. This gesture has been observed across the globe, suggesting that it’s a universal human impulse, perhaps like yawning or laughing.

But research my collaborators and I recently published shows that pointing is not simply a matter of human nature. How we point is also a matter of culture. These findings suggest that cognitive scientists still have a lot to learn from other cultures about why humans behave in the ways that they do.

[Read more…]

Pistachio trees ‘talk’ to their neighbours, reveals statistical physics

Philip Ball writes:

The number of nuts on pistachio trees in any given year could be explained with a model from statistical physics that is normally used to study magnetic materials. That is according to researchers led by Alan Hastings, a mathematical ecologist from the University of California, Davis, who have used the “Ising model” to analyse the yields of pistachio trees in one particular orchard in California. Their work explains why the orchard does not always have a uniformly good crop one year followed by a uniformly bad crop the next, arguing that the patchiness in nut production in certain years is due to interactions between neighbouring trees.

It might seem odd there should be a link between pistachio trees and magnetic materials. But the statistical physics developed to understand systems like magnets or liquid–vapour transitions has been found to apply to a wide range of biological systems, from the flocking of birds to patterns of neural activity in the brain. In particular, various biological systems seem to operate close to a critical phase transition like that in iron when the spin magnetic moments switch from a disordered to an ordered orientation as it is cooled below the Curie temperature.

Close to the magnetic critical phase transition, each spin in the material becomes acutely sensitive to the orientation of the others, with their alignment exhibiting long-range correlations. Patches of aligned spins can therefore develop on all length scales from just a few neighbours to the entire system, making the patches “scale-invariant”.

Critical behaviour might be useful in biological systems because it leads to extreme sensitivity to external influences, with the long-range correlations meaning that a small disturbance can spread rapidly through a system. The system therefore has access to many different configurations and will not get trapped in a particular arrangement. Indeed, biological systems might deliberately sit close to critical points to benefit from this responsiveness – a flock of animals, for example, could then quickly adapt to the presence of a predator. [Continue reading…]