The Penn Humanities Forum’s first guest speaker of the year was greeted by a packed Rainey Auditorium Wednesday.
The 2011-2012 Penn Humanities Forum is centered around adaptations. Director James English kicked off the forum Sept. 21 by discussing his biography of Ernest Hemingway, Hemingway’s Boat. Wednesday’s guest speaker Terrence Deacon, professor of Biological Anthropology and Neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley, focused on his theory of the non-adaptative origins of language.
In his lecture, Deacon argued that humans have lost some genes, but without the loss of these genes, humans would never have acquired important traits such as language. He compared this situation to a bird’s ability to sing. In his studies of birds, Deacon separated wild birds and domesticated birds and observed their singing patterns. He found that though the domesticated ones did not have the innate ability to sing, they learned how to do so from other birds. He concluded that when singing is socially learned, “much more of the brain is involved in guessing, adjusting, knowing when to sing.”
For Deacon, this emphasis on social learning rather than innate knowledge parallels human language, and he told the audience that “an immense fraction of language information is inherited socially” with “vast amounts of information … passed person to person, generation to generation.”
The majority of the attendees were faculty, staff and community members. Warren Breckman, History professor and topic director for the current Penn Humanities Forum on adaptations, was pleased with the turnout. “I hope that in every lecture, we will have a good cross of students, community members and professors,” he said, adding that with regard to the Humanities Forum’s speakers such as Deacon, “our hope is that they bring an innovative and novel way of seeing the world.”
One student who appreciated Deacon’s way of seeing the world was Derick Olson, College freshman and student in the Integrated Studies Program. “The lecture exceeded my expectations,” he said. “It is helping me figure out what I want to study.” He was most interested in Deacon’s argument that “getting certain advantages allows some natural traits in us to decline but allows us to compensate through learned abilities.”
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