World Science Festival Focuses on Language

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Last week’s World Science Festival event, “Planet of the Humans: the Leap to the Top,” opened with a contemporary dancer and a small, three-foot robot sharing the stage in a dance duet. The robot, which stood on its own two feet, “learned” as it went, with the dancer lifting its arms and giving it direction, support, and “love,” in the form of reassuring head nods and slight touches to keep it steady. Its progression was impressively quick, and soon enough it was mimicking the human dancer’s every move, from splits to rolls and beyond. The dance was an excerpt from choreographer Blanca Li’s “ROBOT,” an avant-garde performance currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

After the entertaining duet, four panelists were welcomed to the stage at NYU’s Skirball Center: American evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk; psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker; molecular and evolutionary biologist Paul Bingham; and paleoanthropologist and archeologist Lee Berger. The discussion part of the event sought to unravel the evolutionary process of human beings and the nuances that set us apart from other species.

The opening dance—designed to explore the coexistence of humans and machines – set the stage for the discussion. Falk and Pinker shared their views on how humans made the leap from being primates to developing the language and cooperation skills necessary to create dancing robots, while Bingham concentrated on the use of violence and coercion to encourage cooperation. Berger agreed on the idea that traits portray our uniqueness as humans, but he was skeptical about whether or not we can claim an actual “biological definition” of what sets human beings apart.

Falk also spoke about the evolution of infancy and language, and explained her theory of “baby the trendsetter” as an addition to the well-known evolutionary roles of “man the hunter” and “woman the gatherer.” She explained that our human distinctiveness is a result of infants having to make use of language as a reaction to evolutionary forces, such as bipedalism (or movement by means of walking on two legs). Once our ancestors started walking upright, Falk noted, babies lost the ability to hang on to their mothers backs, but still craved physical contact (or “contact comfort”) with their mothers. Instead of physically clinging, they became emotionally clingy, using language (crying) to communicate their needs. Babies, Falk asserted, created a vocal channel between themselves and their parents and gave way to “baby talk” and other forms of more sophisticated communication than our primate ancestors.

Pinker applauded our use of language as a tool to implement cooperation. He looked to how humans are able to fill a “cognitive niche” within the ecosystem, using cooperation with each other to create reactions to other organism’s defenses in order to gain an advantage, such as cooking down plants to make them edible or making tools to hunt animals. (See more about the theory of cognitive niche here.) He said that language plays a part in this by giving humans the ability to exchange the information in real time rather than through many generation of evolution.

The development of communication has left other species far behind humans and while that doesn’t completely answer the question of how we evolved so quickly, it does give us some insight into what makes us unique. Like the robot, our “programming” is extensive, but once learned, we continue to impart our knowledge in the form of language and cooperation.

For more information on this event, or other World Science Fair programs, visit

– Celina Sooksatan

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