Thursday, August 1, 2013

On the Biological Wild Side

Here's an interview with a leading quantum biologist. It seems that some are starting to find biological process that explicitly harness quantum effects in doing what they do (photosynthesis and navigation). I have NO idea whether this COULD be true, but here it is. And if they are finding this in birds and bacteria can humans be far behind? But this is not why I am bringing your attention to this. My link is entirely in service of the following great quote, in answer to the following question:

How does that help birds to select the correct destination?
They seem to come genetically hard-wired with the quantum mechanical ability to compute directionality, but during their first migration, they are guided to the ancestral winter home by older, experienced birds. It’s probably similar to humans learning language.
Yup, hard wired for directionality just like humans are hard wired for language. You think they think that this is "general intelligence"? You think they think there is anything odd about saying that this is special to these birds? Just like language! Love it.


  1. Truly amazing. Talking of the biological wild side: the other day it was reported that some chimps escaped their enclosure at Twycross Zoo: .

    "They had a fun time running up and down, opening and closing cupboards." In other words they behaved just like toddlers who sneaked in the kitchen while mom wasn't paying attention. So one can easily construct an argument for an innate 'cupboard-door-opening' module and enthusiastically discuss implications for human language. Or one can refrain from such silliness...

    Unfortunately, there is a more serious side to the repeated postings of pop-biology with 'how-this-could-relate-to-language" commentary by Norbert. Let me explain. The other day Norbert was fairly outraged by a misleading report on NPR about alleged evidence that no FL exists.

    Why would someone of such good humour as Norbert become so outraged? Well, because he is an expert linguist and knows first hand how hard it is to acquire expertise in this field. So he does not like that others just look at a few pictures they do not understand and draw far reaching conclusions about his field: "Yes, colored brains sell, even on radio. But isn't the aim of NPR to inform rather than simply titillate?"

    Similar concern was expressed by David P. in his 2013 LSA plenary talk: "You wouldn't recognize our field from what they say about it". They being psychologists who had published papers about linguistic matters in some top rated journals. Since I have been accused of not being sympathetic to the generative enterprise I hasten to point out that I think such concerns are entirely appropriate: people should not claim expertise in fields about which they know little or nothing. (Whether that is actually the case for the psychologists named by David P. is another issue that need not concern us here. But for some discussion see: )

    Now of course what is true for linguistics is true for any other field as well: it takes a long time and a fair amount of hard work to acquire expertise. Sadly some journalists who lack this kind of expertise publish on all kinds of "biology" issues not to inform but to titillate. Some of them are excellent rhetoricians. So, just as in linguistics, it takes an expert to tell the difference between what sounds good and what actually IS good.

    So, maybe Norbert can in future be a bit more discriminating in the selection of "biology" he sells as language relevant. Long time friends know of course that Norbert is no expert on biological issues and apply the needed quantities of salt. But I have noticed [from e-mails I received] that quite a few students frequent this blog and some of them might take everything Norbert says very seriously - so please: just think of the children! Talking of the children: I am sure they would hugely profit from a discussion of some of the exciting LINGUISTIC work David P. mentions in his talk [or other samples of recent cutting edge linguistic work] - just an idea...

  2. CB makes a very valid point here and that's what's made me renege on my general policy. The stuff I post interests ME. Some for curiosity, some for substance, some for sheer entertainment value. The biology stuff I link to comes from reputable secondary sources in general. But CB is right, I cannot begin to judge if it's worthwhile or just nutty stuff. The Simons foundation is a very reputable source ( Sean Carrol, the astrophysicist led me to it). The research covered is supposedly on the edge, and hence may not pan out. O read skeptically. Indeed, ALWAYS READ SKEPITICALLY! But my interest in this particular piece was not about whether it was true (though I'd love to know if it is) but given that people are thinking in these directions in some areas, how long it will take for similar reasoning to extend to our areas. My prediction, not long. Whether this will prove fruitful will take a long time to assess. But ideas spread and if successful for bird navigation, it's only a matter of time that it extends to other domains of animal cognition, including our own.

  3. "but given that people are thinking in these directions in some areas, how long it will take for similar reasoning to extend to our areas."


    I like to think BBS is a source of some mild repute. The article itself might be of interest both because it introduces 'quantum probability' (while remaining tentatively agnostic about implementation but not ruling out actual quantum computation in the brain!) and proposes it as a replacement for Bayesian models.

    1. Wow, I feel like Nostradamus! Clearly my hand is on the pulse of, as Clobert would say, Cognition Nation. Thx.

    2. I am very pleased to learn that BBS is once again a source of mild repute. After it had published the 2009 Evens&Levinson paper "The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science"

      I was under the impression no minimalist wanted to be caught dead near BBS. I am even more delighted that Nostradamus endorses something I commented on without extensive discussions of "'inverse' commentaries". I have not really anything to add to my commentary except that, considering that the goal of the Chomskyan enterprise is to reveal how the human mind works, the task is a bit more demanding than "not ruling out actual quantum computation in the brain"....