Neanderthals and their big, language-filled brains

One of the problems I have with modern news reporting (in addition to poor grammar and inconsistent or immature style) is the lack of concrete data presented. While quotes are used to increase validity, most ‘facts’ can be simply stated without providing the references that would be required for an academic journal, report, or paper. While for print sources such as newspapers, this kind of brevity was probably necessary to reduce costs, in the world of modern internet journalism, it’s hardly necessary. Why not give links to all your fact sources? Could it be that online publications are jealous of their readership, or that in the speed of current reporting, there is not the time or inclination to link to sources? How drole.

Take this recent article from CNN. While it clearly indicates the source for its quotes and references New Science as a location for further information, there are not direct links or complete bibliographic information for any reference. In addition, the findings of one scientist are presented as fact, rather than indicating the variety of opinion on whether or not Neanderthals even had complex language.  Why couldn’t a more diverse representation, as seen in this article, be presented here as well, especially as the claims of Mr. McCarthy seem a little far-fetched?

Let me paint you a picture of my annoyance with the audacity of ‘creating a Neanderthal sentence’, beyond the debate on whether or not they actually spoke.  First off, language is, to a certain extent, arbitrary.  With the notable exception of onomatopoeia, words do not sound like their meanings.  My intended meaning when I speak the word ‘dog’ could just as easily be represented by the sounds ‘oo’, ‘chien’, ‘pajama’, ‘calb’ or ‘gau’.  In addition, various modern languages are made up of sounds that don’t exist in all other languages.   An example many people are familiar with is the Spanish rolled ‘r’ sound, or the click sounds of the African language, Xhosa.  The idea that someone could recreate or interpret meaning from the range of sounds a species could produce is therefore based on at least two fallacies – first, that the sounds made would somehow be translatable into meaning, and second, that the range of sounds producible by an individual of a species would all be used by that individual.

Finally, while the re-creation of the sounds a Neanderthal could make may get us a little closer to understanding them, the idea of recreating what they actually said, how they may have combined sounds and stresses together, seems a bit too extreme for modern linguistics at the moment.  Linguistic studies of a range of languages on Earth through the course of history have been able to draw some conclusions on natural speech patterns in humans.  We know that one type of sound shift is more likely to occur than another (for example, it’s more easy for a ‘t’ sound to change to a voiced ‘th’ sound than the other way around, as in the German vaTer to the English faTHer).  However, there is no certainty that any shift will occur, or how frequently shifts may occur.  It is unclear to me how a Neanderthal range of sounds could then be created by working backward from modern languages, even when taking anthropological discoveries in to account, with any degree of veracity.  In addition, there is no real certainty that the speech patterns we have observed over time in modern man would be equally applicable to Neanderthals.

I am certain I do not understand much of the research involving fossilized larynx and brain and bone studies that Mr. McCarthy is drawing on to make his suppositions.  however, the lack of direct information given by the press and my own limited understanding leads me to interpret the paucity of information as indication of little prof to back up a hypothesis.

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Avoiding macular degeneration.

I am a big fan of science.  Not only has it spawned such wonders of fiction as Frankenstein and The Absent-Minded Professor, but it’s also actually made our life better.  Sometimes.

Take the growing body of research on antioxidants, for example.  Not only are they classifying new types of these chemicals every day, the discoveries regarding how antioxidants work are redefining how we understand our own health.  Still, much of this research is not really accessible to the common man.  In the article linked to above, the section titled ‘antioxidants 101’ closes with a reference to macular degeneration, which pretty much stopped me cold.  It’s when part of yoru retina breaks down and you lose most of your vision, in case you were wondering.  So, as educated readers, we don’t understand what ‘oxidation’ means, but we’re all familiar with macular degeneration?  Just what body of semi-scientists or health professionals is this article written for?

At the end at least there are some helpful hints about which foods carry which antioxidants.  I’ll just have to keep my mouth ready for lycopene in red-fleshed fruits like…watermelon or for Isoflavones/Phytoestrogens in those frequently-used cooking substances like flax seed.

A flight in the right direction.

The Department of Transportation announced yesterday that reimbursements to ‘bumped’ passengers will increase to $400-800 on all planes with 30 seats or more.  The new rule will go into effect in May, and is one of many attempts (also including an ‘escape route‘ over Canada from NY airspace) by the department to reduce consumer frustration with the airline industry.  According to Bloomberg, this is the first increase in such payments since ’78.

This undoubtedly raise questions regarding who will qualify as being ‘bumped’ and how often individuals
actually get paid.  Does the flight I purchased three months in advance and then discontinued due to lack of passengers along that route two months in advance constitute a ‘bump’?  Are those who voluntarily give up seats on overbooked flights entitled to the $400 as well as other incentives?  Will this new bumping rule actually decrease flight delays, which are more typically caused by mechanical problems or weather than overbooking?

Still, I think the new rule is a step in the right direction, and one of the reasons I’m not a libertarian.  If air travel is getting more and more hectic and stressful, and airlines are still going bankrupt, someone has to step in to cover the discrepancy between consumer desire and corporate structure.  Maybe a part of that covering will involve new rules instituting fewer flights per day or more efficient planes, but it’s not something that the masses can demand from airlines easily or directly.  If we lived without government, or with minimal government, it might eventually happen through a group of concerned citizens coming together to advocate for the change, but personally I’m glad to see the government already in place starting to do the work it’s supposed to.