Thursday, September 08, 2011

Language and LEGO? Where's the connection?

I have to admit that it’s a bit nerdy of me to return from holiday – not really! I was doing an intensive course in Spanish – and direct readers to Diacritics, a blog I discovered through Mr Verb.
The latest posting by John Stokes asks the question: ‘Why are humans smart? Language and LEGOs’. The piece is based on work by Elizabeth Spelke, who argues, not unreasonably, that what distinguishes humans from animals is language.
What is particularly fascinating about the line of argument, which, I add, is as yet unproven, is the link between our ability to connect different aspects of core knowledge and the development of language in humans in endlessly interesting ways.
LEGO comes into it by way of analogy. Try to combine bumpless LEGO blocks into more and more complex structures and they soon collapse. Add the bumps and corresponding dips and almost infinite complexity becomes possible. So, Spelke argues, it is with language: ‘language capacity… allows the most basic building blocks of cognitive ability to communicate and interact’.
When did all of this happen? Apparently, in evolutionary terms, relatively recently – a mere thirty thousand years ago! But, it happened very fast and here the analogy turns towards computer technology. Drawing on the work of Chomsky et al, John suggests that all it might have taken for humans to make that great evolutionary leap was the critical ‘upgrade’ of a ‘cognitive connector’ that enabled the core knowledge systems to combine – one small step… one giant leap … and all that.
All rather speculative but no less interesting for that - much like the kind of short article one might find in the New Scientist! The posting and the website are well worth a visit.

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