Thursday, March 1, 2018

Hunting, Gathering and Gene-making

The Visionary Origin of Language, by Alex Grey
Jan 2018,

In Asifa Majid news:

There is only one name you hear on the subject of the language of smell while reading your weekend science news, and that's Asifa Majid.

She studies the indigenous people of the Malay Peninsula of Southeast Asia, a people who she has shown to have a remarkable smell-vocabulary. They call this skill "olfactory naming".

In this particular article, Majid speculates as to whether this special vocabulary is natural to hunter-gatherers, or just the particular people who she studies. Turns out that horticulturalist-people who live right among the hunter-gatherers, and who even speak a very similar languages, do not have the same a proficiency for labeling odors.

The hunter-gatherers out-performed their horticultural counterparts. (They are better at naming colors too by the way.) Because everything else is the same between these two groups of people, the findings suggest that culture, rather than hard neuroarchitecture, is responsible for the difference.

Following this line of reasoning, anyone can be "taught" by their culture to be good at naming odors; it's not beyond our abilities as humans; it's not something that has been evolved out of us.

Read her paper here:
Current Biology, Majid and Kruspe: "Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction Is Special"

Admittedly reaching far beyond the scope of this paper, I'll also mention that human evolution as a hard, genetic phenomenon, has been usurped by cultural evolution. A great inflection point is the adaptation of some humans to produce the enzyme lactase into adulthood. This gives them the ability to digest milk as adults, a feature present in no other mammal.

It may be possible that the genetically determined shape of our skulls and jaws, a shape that separates us from our primate ancestors, is also a result of "culture" but we can't prove that, and it's unlikely that the timelines would match up - a culture that would last long enough to change the physical structure of the body.

Milk digestion is most certainly a result of some cultures practicing dairying for centuries (maybe millennia). And so, in effect, this is the first, or most salient, example of culture changing the human genome.

Digesting milk and naming odors are not the same thing, because one is a hardwiring issue, and one is softwiring. This was in part the point of Majid's paper to ascertain.

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