Is linguistics a science?

Arika Okrent writes: Science is a messy business, but just like everything with loose ends and ragged edges, we tend to understand it by resorting to ideal types. On the one hand, there’s the archetype of the scientific method: a means of accounting for observations, generating precise, testable predictions, and yielding new discoveries about the natural consequences of natural laws. On the other, there’s our ever-replenishing font of story archetypes: the accidental event that results in a sudden clarifying insight; the hero who pursues the truth in the face of resistance or even danger; the surprising fact that challenges the dominant theory and brings it toppling to the ground.

The interplay of these archetypes has produced a spirited, long-running controversy about the nature and origins of language. Recently, it’s been flung back into public awareness following the publication of Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech (2016).

In Wolfe’s breathless re-telling, the dominant scientific theory is Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’ – the idea that all languages share a deep underlying structure that’s almost certainly baked into our biology by evolution. The crucial hypothesis is that its core, essential feature is recursion, the capacity to embed phrases within phrases ad infinitum, and so express complex relations between ideas (such as ‘Tom says that Dan claims that Noam believes that…’). And the challenging fact is the discovery of an Amazonian language, Pirahã, that does not have recursion. The scientific debate plays out as a classic David-and-Goliath story, with Chomsky as a famous, ivory-tower intellectual whose grand armchair proclamations are challenged by a rugged, lowly field linguist and former Christian missionary named Daniel Everett.

Stories this ripe for dramatisation come along rarely in any branch of science, much less the relatively obscure field of theoretical linguistics. But the truth will always be more complicated than the idealisations we use to understand it. In this case, the details lend themselves so well to juicy, edifice-crumbling story arcs that a deeper, more consequential point tends to be overlooked. It concerns not Everett’s challenge to Chomsky’s theory, but Chomsky’s challenge to the scientific method itself.

This counter-attack takes the form of the Chomskyans’ response to Everett. They say that even if Pirahã has no recursion, it matters not one bit for the theory of universal grammar. The capacity is intrinsic, even if it’s not always exploited. As Chomsky and his colleagues put it in a co-authored paper, ‘our language faculty provides us with a toolkit for building languages, but not all languages use all the tools’. This looks suspiciously like defiance of a central feature of the scientific archetype, one first put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper: theories are not scientific unless they have the potential to be falsified. If you claim that recursion is the essential feature of language, and if the existence of a recursionless language does not debunk your claim, then what could possibly invalidate it?

In an interview with in 2007, Everett said he emailed Chomsky: ‘What is a single prediction that universal grammar makes that I could falsify? How could I test it?’ According to Everett, Chomsky replied to say that universal grammar doesn’t make any predictions; it’s a field of study, like biology.

The nub of the disagreement here boils down to what exactly linguistics says about the world, and the appropriate archetypes we should apply to make it effective. So just what kinds of questions does linguistics want to answer? What counts as evidence? Is universal grammar in particular – and theoretical linguistics in general – a science at all? [Continue reading…]


Lawbreaking particles may point to a previously unknown force in the universe

Scientific American reports: For decades physicists have sought signs of misbehaving particles—evidence of subtle cracks in the “Standard Model” of particle physics, the dominant theory describing the most fundamental building blocks of our universe. Although the Standard Model has proved strikingly accurate, scientists have long known some adjustments will be needed. Now, as a recent review paper in Nature documents, experimenters have started seeing suggestions of particles flouting the theory—but they’re not quite the violations theorists were looking for.

The evidence comes from electrons and their more massive cousins, muons and tau leptons. According to the Standard Model, these three particles should behave like differently sized but otherwise identical triplets. But three experiments have produced growing evidence—including results announced in just the last few months—that the particles react differently to some as-yet mysterious influence. The findings are not yet conclusive, but if they hold up, “it would be a complete revolution,” says California Institute of Technology theorist Mark Wise.

A shake-up in the Standard Model would be huge. This theory has formed the bedrock of particle physics research since it was fleshed out in the late 20th century. It carves the universe into twelve elementary particles that make up all matter, plus ‘force-carrier’ particles that transmit the fundamental forces of nature. (For instance, particles exert electrical or magnetic forces by exchanging transient photons.) Despite its successes, however, the Standard Model predicts nothing that would explain gravity or the dark matter thought to invisibly inhabit space. To marry particle physics with these larger-scale observations, theorists have proposed all manner of “new physics”—matter or forces beyond the Standard Model’s menagerie. But most experiments have stubbornly upheld the theory with impressive fidelity, finding no evidence of the hypothesized particles or forces. [Continue reading…]


We live in a galaxy in the middle of nowhere

Evan Gough writes: Ever since Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and saw moons in orbit around that planet, we began to realize we don’t occupy a central, important place in the Universe. In 2013, a study showed that we may be further out in the boondocks than we imagined. Now, a new study confirms it: we live in a void in the filamental structure of the Universe, a void that is bigger than we thought.

In 2013, a study by University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Amy Barger and her student Ryan Keenan showed that our Milky Way galaxy is situated in a large void in the cosmic structure. The void contains far fewer galaxies, stars, and planets than we thought. Now, a new study from University of Wisconsin student Ben Hoscheit confirms it, and at the same time eases some of the tension between different measurements of the Hubble Constant.

The void has a name; it’s called the KBC void for Keenan, Barger and the University of Hawaii’s Lennox Cowie. With a radius of about 1 billion light years, the KBC void is seven times larger than the average void, and it is the largest void we know of. [Continue reading…]


The chimpanzees’ materia medica

Linda Nordling writes: Fancy eating a kroma fruit? How about a prickly badi? Or zoobo leaves?

If you are feeling unwell, perhaps you should. These West African plants are part of a ‘jungle pharmacy’ sought out by wild chimpanzees to treat ailments ranging from worm infestations to bacterial infections. And because humans share 98% of their DNA with chimps, and are susceptible to some of the same diseases, they might work on people too.

At least that is the theory behind a research project in Côte d’Ivoire that is screening such plants for possible human treatments. So far it has identified compounds that able to kill bacterial and yeast infections in a petri dish, and even some that seem to inhibit cancer development. Eventually, such discoveries could lead to new antibiotics, antifungals or cancer treatments.

But drug discovery is a long road, and these compounds have only passed the first hurdle says Constant Ahoua, the Ivorian botanist in charge of the project. Ahoua, a postdoctoral researcher at the Afrique One-ASPIRE programme based in Abidjan, has been studying chimp diets for a decade. For his PhD he screened 27 plant species eaten by wild chimps, specifically targeting those not already known to be used in traditional human medicine. Of the extracts he made from the plants, 18% were active against bacteria and 5% against yeasts.

Next up, Ahoua will publish a paper on the anti-cancer compounds he discovered in his research. “We found seven compounds that inhibit cancer-triggering enzymes, and two of them are completely new,” he says. [Continue reading…]


Can microbes encourage altruism?

Elizabeth Svoboda writes: Parasites are among nature’s most skillful manipulators — and one of their specialties is making hosts perform reckless acts of irrational self-harm. There’s Toxoplasma gondii, which drives mice to seek out cats eager to eat them, and the liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum, which motivates ants to climb blades of grass, exposing them to cows and sheep hungry for a snack. There’s Spinochordodes tellinii, the hairworm that compels crickets to drown themselves so the worm can access the water it needs to breed. The hosts’ self-sacrifice gains them nothing but serves the parasites’ hidden agenda, enabling them to complete their own life cycle.

Now researchers are beginning to explore whether parasitic manipulations may spur host behaviors that are selfless rather than suicidal. They are wondering whether microbes might be fundamentally responsible for many of the altruistic behaviors that animals show toward their own kind. Altruism may seem easy to justify ethically or strategically, but explaining how it could have persisted in a survival-of-the-fittest world is surprisingly difficult and has puzzled evolutionary theorists going all the way back to Darwin. If microbes in the gut or other tissues can nudge their hosts toward generosity for selfish reasons of their own, altruism may become less enigmatic.

A recently developed mathematical model and related computer simulations by a trio of researchers at Tel Aviv University appear to validate this theory. The researchers showed that transmissible microbes that promoted altruism in their hosts won the survival battle over microbes that did not — and when this happened, altruism became a stable trait in the host population. The research was published in Nature Communications earlier this year.

“The story is fascinating, because we don’t think of altruism in terms of the host-microbiome relationship,” said John Bienenstock, a biologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and director of the Brain-Body Institute at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, who was not involved with the simulation work. “You can’t ignore the possible effect of what your bug population is doing.” [Continue reading…]


Sending information without transmitting a signal

Joshua Roebke writes: We connect to each other through particles. Calls and texts ride flecks of light, Web sites and photographs load on electrons. All communication is, essentially, physical. Information is recorded and broadcast on actual objects, even those we cannot see.

Physicists also connect to the world when they communicate with it. They dispatch glints of light toward particles or atoms, and wait for this light to report back. The light interacts with the bits of matter, and how this interaction changes the light reveals a property or two of the bits—although this interaction often changes the bits, too. The term of art for such a candid affair is a measurement.

Particles even connect to each other using other particles. The force of electromagnetism between two electrons is conveyed by particles of light, and quarks huddle inside a proton because they exchange gluons. Physics is, essentially, the study of interactions.

Information is always conveyed through interactions, whether between particles or ourselves. We are compositions of particles who communicate with each other, and we learn about our surroundings by interacting with them. The better we understand such interactions, the better we understand the world and ourselves.

Physicists already know that interactions are local. As with city politics, the influence of particles is confined to their immediate precincts. Yet interactions remain difficult to describe. Physicists have to treat particles as individuals and add complex terms to their solitary existence to model their intimacies with other particles. The resulting equations are usually impossible to solve. So physicists have to approximate even for single particles, which can interact with themselves as a boat rolls in its own wake. Although physicists are meticulous, it is a wonder they ever succeed. Still, their contentions are the most accurate theories we have.

Quantum mechanics is the consummate theory of particles, so it naturally describes measurements and interactions. During the past few decades, as computers have nudged the quantum, the theory has been reframed to encompass information, too. What quantum mechanics implies for measurements and interactions is notoriously bizarre. Its implications for information are stranger still.

One of the strangest of these implications refutes the material basis of communication as well as common sense. Some physicists believe that we may be able to communicate without transmitting particles. In 2013 an amateur physicist named Hatim Salih even devised a protocol, alongside professionals, in which information is obtained from a place where particles never travel. Information can be disembodied. Communication may not be so physical after all.[Continue reading…]


Being bilingual makes you experience time differently

Quartz reports: A new study shows that the words we use to talk about time also shape our view of its passage. This, say researchers, indicates that abstract concepts like duration are relative rather than universal, and that they are also influenced rather than solely innate.

The work, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General on April 27, examined how Spanish- and Swedish-speaking bilinguals conceived of time. The researchers—from University of Stockholm in Sweden and the University of Lancaster in the UK—found that their subjects, 40 of whom were native Swedish speakers and 40 of whom were native Spanish speakers—tended to think about time in terms that correspond to each language’s descriptors when linguistically prompted in that particular language but moved fluidly from one concept of time to another generally. This was true regardless of their native language.

Different languages describe time differently. For example, Swedish and English generally refer to time according to physical distance (“a long time,” “a short break”). Meanwhile, languages like Spanish or Greek, say, refer to time in volume generally (“a big chunk of time,” “a small moment”). [Continue reading…]


Why your brain hates other people — and how to make it think differently

Robert Sapolsky writes: As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups.

It’s been said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.” In reality, there’s lots more of the former. And it can be vastly consequential when people are divided into Us and Them, ingroup and outgroup, “the people” (i.e., our kind) and the Others.

Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture. We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality. Pretty depressing.

But crucially, there is room for optimism. Much of that is grounded in something definedly human, which is that we all carry multiple Us/Them divisions in our heads. A Them in one case can be an Us in another, and it can only take an instant for that identity to flip. Thus, there is hope that, with science’s help, clannishness and xenophobia can lessen, perhaps even so much so that Hollywood-extra chimps and gorillas can break bread together. [Continue reading…]


Power causes brain damage

Jerry Useem writes: If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?

When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.

What was going through Stumpf’s head? New research suggests that the better question may be: What wasn’t going through it?

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place. [Continue reading…]


Daniel Everett: Becoming human without words for colors, numbers, or time



Without cultural appropriation, there would be no culture

Kenan Malik writes: What is cultural appropriation, and why is it so controversial? Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defines it as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

Critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement, but to racism. They want to protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups.

Certainly, cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field. Racism and inequality shape the ways in which people imagine others. Yet it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice. [Continue reading…]

Cultures, unlike nations, have no borders. For that reason, cultures have historically been no more vibrant than in the places where they meet and interact.

The notion that cultural interaction requires permission, seems to me like a notion that would only make sense to someone who feels culturally deprived.

That a leading proponent of this concept is a lawyer, not an artist, seems no coincidence, since law so often attaches greater value to claims of ownership than anything else — and this brings to my mind Proudhon’s famous and relevant dictum: property is theft.

Consider jazz, a genuinely American cultural creation. This has inspired musicians around the world who have appropriated it and sustained its organic growth in such a way that its American roots can be traced without any limitation on the reach of its expansion. Jazz was made in America and now belongs to the world and in that transaction, no permission was sought or required.


Life-giving chemical compound found orbiting infant stars in space

AFP reports: Two teams of astronomers said Thursday that they have for the first time detected a key chemical building block of life swirling around infant stars that resemble our sun before its planets formed.

The molecule, methyl isocyanate, “plays an essential role in the formation of proteins, which are basic ingredients for life,” said Victor Rivilla, a scientist at the Astrophysics Observatory in Florence, Italy, and co-author of a study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The findings could offer clues on how chemicals sparked into living matter on Earth several billion years ago.

At the very least, they show that elements crucial for the emergence of life “were very likely already available at the earliest stage of solar system formation,” said Niels Ligterink, a researcher at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and lead author of a second study in the same journal. [Continue reading…]


Oldest Homo sapiens bones ever found shake foundations of the human story

The Guardian reports: Fossils recovered from an old mine on a desolate mountain in Morocco have rocked one of the most enduring foundations of the human story: that Homo sapiens arose in a cradle of humankind in East Africa 200,000 years ago.

Archaeologists unearthed the bones of at least five people at Jebel Irhoud, a former barite mine 100km west of Marrakesh, in excavations that lasted years. They knew the remains were old, but were stunned when dating tests revealed that a tooth and stone tools found with the bones were about 300,000 years old.

“My reaction was a big ‘wow’,” said Jean-Jacques Hublin, a senior scientist on the team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “I was expecting them to be old, but not that old.”

Hublin said the extreme age of the bones makes them the oldest known specimens of modern humans and poses a major challenge to the idea that the earliest members of our species evolved in a “Garden of Eden” in East Africa one hundred thousand years later.

“This gives us a completely different picture of the evolution of our species. It goes much further back in time, but also the very process of evolution is different to what we thought,” Hublin told the Guardian. “It looks like our species was already present probably all over Africa by 300,000 years ago. If there was a Garden of Eden, it might have been the size of the continent.” [Continue reading…]


America is awash in the wrong kinds of stories

Virginia Postrel writes: One of the rare feel-good stories of our current political moment is also terribly sad. On a train in Portland, Oregon, three very different men tried to protect two young women, one wearing a hijab, from a ranting white supremacist who turned out to be carrying a knife. The action cost two their lives, while the third is still in the hospital.

“America is about a Republican, a Democrat, and an autistic poet putting their lives on the line to protect young women from a different faith and culture simply because it is the right thing to do. You want diversity and tolerance? We just saw it,” writes Michael Cannon in an especially good appreciation, concluding “America is already great — and so long as we continue to produce men such as Rick Best, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, and Micah Fletcher, it always will be.”

Cultures are held together by stories. We define who we are — as individuals, families, organizations, and nations — by the stories we tell about ourselves. These stories express hopes, fears, and values. They create coherence out of complexity by emphasizing some things and ignoring others. Their moral worth lies not in their absolute truth or falsehood — all narratives simplify reality — but in the aspirations they express and the cultural character they shape. [Continue reading…]


The inflated debate over cosmic inflation

Amanda Gefter writes: On the morning of Dec. 7, 1979, a 32-year-old Alan Guth woke up with an idea. It had come into his head the previous night, but now, in the light of a California day, he could see the shape of the thing, and was itching to work through the math. He hopped on his bike and rode to his office at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. His excitement got him there in record time: 9 minutes, 32 seconds. At his desk, Guth neatly carried out the calculations in his notebook, forming the numbers and symbols in tight, careful lines. Then, at the top of a fresh page, he wrote in all caps: SPECTACULAR REALIZATION.

A year later and some 6,000 miles away, in Moscow, in the middle of the night, Andrei Linde, having read Guth’s paper, had his own spectacular realization. He had been working on his own idea and now he saw how to bring it to life by fixing the difficulties that plagued Guth’s theory. He woke his sleeping wife. “I think I know how the universe was created.”

Guth and Linde had worked out the beginnings of the theory of cosmic inflation. The theory would go through several incarnations over the next few decades, as kinks were worked out and details honed. But the core idea was spectacularly simple: In the earliest fraction of a second of time, a small patch of universe expanded faster than the speed of light, doubling its size again and again, growing a million trillion trillion times bigger in the blink of an eye. A little patch of world, about the size of a dime, grew into our entire observable universe.

What began as a radical notion has now become standard wisdom among physicists—except, notably, Paul Steinhardt, Anna Ijjas, and Avi Loeb. The three physicists recently wrote a scathing article in Scientific American arguing that it’s time to abandon inflation and look for a competing idea. (What idea, you ask? Steinhardt, conveniently, has one that he’s been pushing for decades.) Inflation is too unlikely to occur, too flexible to be confirmed or rejected experimentally, and too messy in its implications, the threesome argued. It “cannot be evaluated using the scientific method.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Guth and Linde—along with physicists David Kaiser and Yasunori Nomura—published a terse response in Scientific American earlier this month defending their theory. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that 29 more of the world’s leading physicists signed it—including four Nobel laureates and a Field’s medalist.

In the media flurry that followed, the disagreement between these groups of physicists was presented as a straight debate, of the kind that often occurs in science when there are multiple interpretations of data. But describing an equivalence between the opinions of Steinhardt, Ijjas, and Loeb on the one hand, and nearly the entirely cosmology community on the other, is a mistake.

The long list of signatories to the recent rebuttal letter in Scientific American puts the lie to the claim that the community is divided. When Ed Witten, Steven Weinberg, Leonard Susskind, Frank Wilczek, Juan Maldacena, Eva Silverstein, Sir Martin Rees, and Stephen Hawking (to name a few) write a letter saying you’ve gotten something wrong … well it’s probably worth considering.

The rebuttal letter also challenges us to understand more clearly why so many scientists are passionate about inflation. What is it about this theory that has the greatest minds in the known universe leaping to its defense? [Continue reading…]


What hyenas can tell us about the origins of intelligence

David Z. Hambrick writes: Physical similarities aside, we share a lot in common with our primate relatives. For example, as Jane Goodall famously documented, chimpanzees form lifelong bonds and show affection in much the same way as humans. Chimps can also solve novel problems, use objects as tools, and may possess “theory of mind”—an understanding that others may have different perspectives than oneself. They can even outperform humans in certain types of cognitive tasks.

These commonalities may not seem all that surprising given what we now know from the field of comparative genomics: We share nearly all of our DNA with chimpanzees and other primates. However, social and cognitive complexity is not unique to our closest evolutionary cousins. In fact, it is abundant in species with which we would seem to have very little in common—like the spotted hyena.

For more than three decades, the Michigan State University zoologist Kay Holekamp has studied the habits of the spotted hyena in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, once spending five years straight living in a tent among her oft-maligned subjects. One of the world’s longest-running studies of a wild mammal, this landmark project has revealed that spotted hyenas not only have social groups as complex as those of many primates, but are also capable of some of the same types of problem solving.

This research sheds light on one of science’s greatest mysteries—how intelligence has evolved across the animal kingdom. [Continue reading…]


The thoughts of a spiderweb

Joshua Sokol writes: Millions of years ago, a few spiders abandoned the kind of round webs that the word “spiderweb” calls to mind and started to focus on a new strategy. Before, they would wait for prey to become ensnared in their webs and then walk out to retrieve it. Then they began building horizontal nets to use as a fishing platform. Now their modern descendants, the cobweb spiders, dangle sticky threads below, wait until insects walk by and get snagged, and reel their unlucky victims in.

In 2008, the researcher Hilton Japyassú prompted 12 species of orb spiders collected from all over Brazil to go through this transition again. He waited until the spiders wove an ordinary web. Then he snipped its threads so that the silk drooped to where crickets wandered below. When a cricket got hooked, not all the orb spiders could fully pull it up, as a cobweb spider does. But some could, and all at least began to reel it in with their two front legs.

Their ability to recapitulate the ancient spiders’ innovation got Japyassú, a biologist at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, thinking. When the spider was confronted with a problem to solve that it might not have seen before, how did it figure out what to do? “Where is this information?” he said. “Where is it? Is it in her head, or does this information emerge during the interaction with the altered web?”

In February, Japyassú and Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Saint Andrews, proposed a bold answer to the question. They argued in a review paper, published in the journal Animal Cognition, that a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.

This would make the web a model example of extended cognition, an idea first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998 to apply to human thought. In accounts of extended cognition, processes like checking a grocery list or rearranging Scrabble tiles in a tray are close enough to memory-retrieval or problem-solving tasks that happen entirely inside the brain that proponents argue they are actually part of a single, larger, “extended” mind.

Among philosophers of mind, that idea has racked up citations, including supporters and critics. And by its very design, Japyassú’s paper, which aims to export extended cognition as a testable idea to the field of animal behavior, is already stirring up antibodies among scientists. “I got the impression that it was being very careful to check all the boxes for hot topics and controversial topics in animal cognition,” said Alex Jordan, a collective behaviorial scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Konstanz, Germany (who nonetheless supports the idea).

While many disagree with the paper’s interpretations, the study shouldn’t be confused for a piece of philosophy. Japyassú and Laland propose ways to test their ideas in concrete experiments that involve manipulating the spider’s web — tests that other researchers are excited about. “We can break that machine; we can snap strands; we can reduce the way that animal is able to perceive the system around it,” Jordan said. “And that generates some very direct and testable hypotheses.” [Continue reading…]