LINGUIST List 7.565

Tue Apr 16 1996

Disc: Evolution & Linguistics (was formalism)

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Stirling Newberry, Re: 7.551, Disc: Dawkins
  2. Bob Hamilton, Re: 7.551, Disc: Outline of evolution/emmergence (Was re:Formalism)

Message 1: Re: 7.551, Disc: Dawkins

Date: Fri, 12 Apr 1996 21:15:56 CDT
From: Stirling Newberry <>
Subject: Re: 7.551, Disc: Dawkins
>One conceptual breakthrough we have seen in the last couple of decades
>is "selfish gene" theory, which explains "altruistic" behaviour in
>genetic terms by sharpening the identification of the "individuals" to
>which evolution applies to genetic structures rather than their
>macroscopic manifestations per se.

This is a factually incorrect statement: all forms of evolution described
evolution in genetic terms since before the discovery of DNA, the question
is whether the unit of selection is the whol creature or the protien unit,
or some other thing. Please get your facts correct and don't just quote the
strawmen set up by adherents of a particular school. You are committing the
same error that the person that you are arguing against did.

>This is important because it allows
>us to see how things that are not encoded purely genetically
>(including linguistic or cultural structures) can also get in on the
>act, once genetics has "licensed" them by providing suitable hardware
>(that is, there is automatically a meme -> gene transfer once the gene
>-> meme system is established).

This is an assumption of the theory, not a conclusion, you cannot see how
something "allows" you to see something which is tautalogically the result
of the initial assumption.

- -
This whole post is based on an error in logic: the selfish gene theory is
one kind of Darwinian theory, not even the predominant one. You cannot use
a theory which assumes Darwinian selection is true as proof that it is.

Stirling Newberry

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Message 2: Re: 7.551, Disc: Outline of evolution/emmergence (Was re:Formalism)

Date: Mon, 15 Apr 1996 09:12:51 EDT
Subject: Re: 7.551, Disc: Outline of evolution/emmergence (Was re:Formalism)
In Linguist 7.551 there were several insightful summaries (in
particular those of Stephen Spackman and Stirling Newberry) as
to why refutations of gradualism do not necessarily count as
refutations of the Darwinian enterprise. While the points made
there are well taken, I question to what extent the viability of
a genetically-based evolutionary theory of the rapid-deployment/
punctuated-equilibrium type means that any linguistic (or biological)
theory of origins and development must [even at the present time]
adopt a Darwinian model as its starting point. Thus, Stephen
Spackman states that "in the absence of any mechanically
satisfactory competing proposal that I know of, Occam's razor
suggests that we maintain it [the Darwin-based model] as our
working hypothesis..."

I'm not sure that Occam's razor decides the matter quite so
straightforwardly in this case, however. I assume that part of what
Spackman has in mind by "mechanically satisfactory" is that the
proposal invokes processes that are amenable to (at least indirect)
empirical validation in the repeatable, observable sense of
classic scientific method. Thus, a rapid-deployment evolutionary
proposal is mechanically satisfactory because, even though we rarely if
ever today observe the evolution of new species or novel structures
(part of Eulenberg's point in Linguist 7.533), we can theoretically
state how such evolution might have occurred, inferring from current
theories of genetic change. A proposal which relied on (purely)
spontaneous generation or on the bogeyman, in contrast, would not
be mechanically satisfactory because it would not be independently
motivated or based on observable processes.

The danger here is that some might take the conclusion above as a
basis on which to marginalize those linguists (or biologists, etc.)
who hold to a nonmechanistic (e.g., theistic/teleological) view of
human and language origins (PLEASE NOTE: I am *not* suggesting that
Spackman or any of the other respondents in Linguist post 7.551
intended any such marginalization). It can be argued, however, that
there is considerable independent philosophical, psychological, and
perhaps even biological and physics-based motivation for the theistic
perspective, in which case Occam's razor might not be applicable.
Though this is not the proper forum for discussion of the evidence
for theism, my point is that the availability of such systematic
arguments puts the theistic perspective in a different class from
the bogeyman, and makes a theistic perspective less prone to
excision by Occam's blade.

It is important in this regard to recognize the role that
presuppositions/suppositions play in theory development and
acceptance. As philosophers of science have long pointed out,
science is not the purely objective process that we often like to
assume it is. We each bring different fundamental assumptions to
the process that may bias our understanding of the data and our
understanding of what counts as evidence. Thus, creation scientists
have long bemoaned the fact that many evolutionary scientists
approach the data with an "antisupernatural bias." The merits of
creation science aside, they do have a point here. If one
presupposes that the "correct" theory of linguistic development must
begin with a purely mechanistic starting point and make no appeal,
either directly or indirectly, to factors that cannot be empirically
verified, then the theistic perspective is disqualified a priori.
But note that this is based on a presupposition that itself
cannot be empirically verified (roughly, the presupposition that
nonmechanistic theories don't count). Moreover, this position might
make it necessary for us to dismiss most philosophical debate as
mere rubbish as well (since it is typically based on dialectic--
in the broad sense of the word--rather than empirical validation
in the sense outlined above), leading to a strict dichotomization of
science ("the valid stuff") and philosophy ("the rubbish").
I don't think that we want to do that--consider the insights that
have come out of the philosophy of science alone (e.g., Kuhn's

The important point in all of this is that we remain aware of
the presuppositions (and their limitations) that we bring to the
table (obviously, I'm not saying that presuppositions are bad--
they're inevitable). It would be unfortunate if the marginalization
and bad blood exhibited in the evolution vs. creation-science debate
within biology were to bubble up within linguistics as well.

Bob Hamilton
University of South Carolina
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