LINGUIST List 13.2645

Wed Oct 16 2002

Disc: Darwinism & Evolution of Language

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <karenlinguistlist.org>


Directory

  1. Brian Drayton, Re: 13.2628, Disc: New: Darwinism & Evolution of Language
  2. Remy Viredaz, 13.2628 Darwinism & Evolution of Language
  3. Jose-Luis Mendivil Giro, Re: 13.2628, Disc: New: Darwinism & Evolution of Language

Message 1: Re: 13.2628, Disc: New: Darwinism & Evolution of Language

Date: Tue, 15 Oct 2002 10:21:59 -0400
From: Brian Drayton <brian_draytonterc.edu>
Subject: Re: 13.2628, Disc: New: Darwinism & Evolution of Language

I have not seen a convincing model yet of how language evolved.
Having training in both linguistics and evolutionary biology, however,
it does not seem at all impossible; Chomsky's objections do not seem
to me to be convincing, except as a species of healthy skepticism.

In the discussions of this issue, though, I think it is important to
be precise about certain terms. First of all, "random": There is
nothing random about Darwinian evolution. The randomness occurs in
the generation of variation, but not in the persistence of variants.

Second, what we can talk about in Darwinian terms is the evolution of
the language faculty, not the evolution of cultures or particular
languages etc, which are incredibly complex and in aspects" Lamarkian"
in general style.

(ONe of the reasons I tend to prefer Chomsky's speculations on the
structure of language is that his minimalist approach seems more
likely to "fit" an evolutionary explanation than other theories do--
the language faculty may well have arisen as a by product of other
selectional events, and there is likely to have been very little
selectional pressure on fine details of language function and
structure. Thus,I would expect that language would arise as a
relatively simple set of cognitive/physical capabilities, upon the
expression of which culture could then play a pwerful shaping role.)
"Linguistic evolution" in the sense of diachronic change is very
likely NOT in the domain of Darwinian models.























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Message 2: 13.2628 Darwinism & Evolution of Language

Date: Wed, 16 Oct 2002 08:13:26 +0200
From: Remy Viredaz <remy.viredazbluewin.ch>
Subject: 13.2628 Darwinism & Evolution of Language

Dear John,

Part of your argument is invalid; evolution as seen by Darwinism or
Evolution Theory is not simply "random genetic evolution", but
mutation AND selection. The former is random, the latter obviously
not.

However, it is no less obvious that biological evolution theory is of
little use to explain linguistic phenomena. Such principles as maximum
differentiation of phonemes, or phonetic reduction of grammatical
words, which are at work in linguistic evolution, are not (or only
very indirectly) derived (let alone predictable) from the criterium of
better survival and more numerous offspring that directs biological
evolution.

Regards,

Remy Viredaz
1, rue Chandieu
CH - 1202 Geneve
Suisse
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Message 3: Re: 13.2628, Disc: New: Darwinism & Evolution of Language

Date: Tue, 15 Oct 2002 21:23:51 +0200
From: Jose-Luis Mendivil Giro <jlmendiposta.unizar.es>
Subject: Re: 13.2628, Disc: New: Darwinism & Evolution of Language

At 15:48 +0200 15/10/02, John Landon wrote:

>Reading the reviews of the new The Blank Slate by S. Pinker, the
>author of The Language Instinct, I was struck by the sheer momentum of
>this presumption that the evolution of language has been explained by
>the theory of random mutation and natural selection. The material on
>Chomsky, after all these years, omits the fact that Chomsky is/was a
>critic of Darwinism.

Chomsky (as Gould, Eldredge or Kauffman) is a critic of 'Neodarwinism'
or 'adaptionism', not of Darwinism itself (He does not think that
species were created as they are now). For example, quoting Darwin, he
says:

"Physical laws provides narrow channels within complex organisms may
vary, and natural selection is doubtless a factor in determining the
distribution of traits and properties within these constraints. A
factor, not the factor, at least if we follow Darwin's sensible
strictures. Much concerned by the misinterpretation of his ideas,
Darwin firmly denied that he attributed 'the modification of species
exclusively to natural selection', emphasizing in the last edition of
Origin of Species that 'in the first edition of this work, and
subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position -namely, at the
close of the Introduction- the following words: -I am convinced that
natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of
modification-. This has been of no avail. Great is the power of steady
misrepresentation'" (N. Chomsky, 2000: New Horizons in the Study of
Language and Mind, Cambridge University Press, p. 163)

>(...) The question is, then, if evolutionary transformations can seed
>in tempo and place, according to a complex frequency system, the
>highest manifestations of culture, what is our confidence that random
>genetic evolution accounts for the rapid linguistic-cultural
>transformations in the descent of man? Does Pinker on language hold
>up? Can we feel confidence there?

Chomsky is considering the (biological) evolution of the faculty of
language as a part of the evolution of human mind, but if we consider
the (historical) evolution of languages, the model of 'random
historical evolution' can be applied as well, as has been shown
clearly by Roger Lass in the last chapter (7) of his great book:
(1997) Historical Linguistics and Language Change, Cambridge
University Press, where I think you would find some answers to your
questions.

Best regards,

Jose-Luis Mendivil
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