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My lab:

This upcoming conference will be very different from any other conference I've been to. First, there are only 20 participants, the smallest meeting I've ever been to. Second, it will be all about mammals, and mostly even chimps (see also this post by a participant). Finally, I haven't found any biologist in the attendance, so it will be interesting to see if I can get our biological concepts across.

The keynote lecture will be given by Herb Terrace who started a research project on the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky in the 1970s. Just yesterday, I watched the HBO/BBC documentary on Project Nim, which focuses on the ethical issues and the narrative story of Nim's life. Nim's name is a pun on eminent linguist Noam Chomsky, who criticized the book "Verbal Behavior" of Terrace's thesis advisor BF Skinner in a scathing review. Skinner had claimed that language was acquired through a process of operant conditioning, while Chomsky found that the parallels between operant conditioning and language acquisition were 'trivial' at best and instead claimed that humans possess inborn language acquisition devices, that only need ot be exposed to language for language to form.

I was invited because our biological evidence points towards a exaptation for language that manifests itself in the capacity to modify neural circuits that control behavior via operant conditioning, a process we have called self-learning. Thus, we have rather solid evidence that there are evolutionary precursors to language and that it is unlikely that any language acquisition devices just fell from the sky. Rather, as Chomsky realizes, there are many components to language and they all have their evolutionary ancestry. Operant conditioning is one of those ancestries.

I'm very much looking forward to this conference, albeit with a hesitant nervousness: the documentary 'Project Nim' made Terrace look like a reckless, philandering and ill-prepared case of the Dunning-Kruger effect - I sure hope this is a misrepresentation.
Posted on Saturday 28 January 2012 - 16:37:45 comment: 0

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