EDITORS: Gontier, Nathalie; Bendegem, Jean Paul van; Aerts, Diederik TITLE: Evolutionary Epistemology, Language and Culture SUBTITLE: A non-adaptationist, systems theoretical approach SERIES: Theory and Decision Library A: , Vol. 39 YEAR: 2006 PUBLISHER: Springer
Jason Brown, Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia
This book is a collection of essays that were originally presented at a conference with the same title held in 2004 at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium. According to the publisher, the audience targeted by this book includes scholars working in fields as diverse as evolutionary epistemology, philosophy of science, evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary linguistics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science.
The book is a collection of essays on evolutionary epistemology (henceforth EE), which is a subdiscipline of epistemology that applies the principles of biological evolution to the study of human cognition and knowledge and its development. Figures such as Karl Popper are oftentimes cited as providing the groundwork for EE, though the actual term was coined by Campbell (1974). Other relevant works include Lorenz (1977), Quine (1969), Riedl (1977), and Vollmer (1975).
The first chapter consists of a preface by the editors, which provides an overview of the entire book, including discussions of each chapter. The chapters are grouped into four general sections: Evolutionary Epistemology, Evolutionary Epistemology and Language, Evolutionary Epistemology and Culture, and Evolutionary Epistemology and Modeling. Also included in the preface is a general introduction to what EE is, how it takes Darwinian thought seriously, and in what directions it is currently moving.
Introduction to evolutionary epistemology, language and culture, Nathalie Gontier
This chapter provides a detailed explanation of what exactly evolutionary epistemology is. The chapter traces the intellectual development of EE from the failure of the logical positivists, to the language games of Wittgenstein, to the movement in sociology of knowledge, up to the discussion of Quine and naturalized epistemology. There is also a focused discussion of the relevance of EE to anthropology and the notion of culture, as well as the field of linguistics. Also of relevance is the discussion of the conceptual split in EE between Evolutionary Epistemology of Theories (EET) and Evolutionary Epistemological Mechanisms (Bradie & Harms 2001).
PART 1: Evolutionary Epistemology
Evolutionary Epistemology: The nonadaptationist approach, Franz M. Wuketits
In this chapter, the author presents the argument that organisms are not merely passively shaped by their environment, as an adaptationist approach would say, but rather are actively engaged in their environment. This active and dependent co-evolution of organism and environment, which are further linked by feedback systems, has ramifications for EE, especially if considered from the strictly adaptationist approach.
Like cats and dogs: Radical constructivism and evolutionary epistemology, Alexander Riegler
The issue of whether radical constructivism and EE are compatible notions is addressed in this chapter. Under radical constructivism, the focus is on the autonomy of the cognitive system, and the idea is that an organism takes an active role and actually has an influence on its own environment. This is a ''subject-centred perspective'' (51). The chapter then retraces the history of both lines of thought back to Kant, and discusses the important similarities and differences. The author reaches the conclusion that EE constitutes a subset of radical constructivism.
The biological boundary conditions for our classical physical world view, Olaf Diettrich
The claim of this chapter is that the laws of nature are derivable from our perceptual experience, and not objective properties of the outside world. Under this view, natural laws are dependent on the evolution of cognition. The author uses various examples, including the use of 2D vs. 3D vision to illustrate these points. It is stressed that ''Theories are rather the outcome of phylogenetic decisions on our cognitive phenotype guided by rather elementary requirements such as predictability or to get a feasible management of our organic capabilities'' (80-81). In this context, the chapter then turns to knowledge of language and mathematics as further examples. The chapter concludes by stating that within organic evolution, the various hierarchical levels that are evident provide the ''boundary conditions'' for the level that is next higher up.
Is the real world something more than the world of our experience? Relation between Neodarwinian logic, transcendental philosophy and cognitive sciences, Adrianna Wozniak
The author argues that if EE adopts the synthetic theory of evolution, then constructivist speculations can be ruled out of the question. This is based on the assumptions that EE makes with regard to the synthetic theory of evolution, and the presupposition that there exists an external world, and that knowledge has been influenced by this world. The chapter concludes by pointing out that the concepts are not mutually exclusive. Also discussed are logic, mathematics, and their ontological status and how they relate to the broader notions of metaphysical realism and constructivism.
Universal Darwinism and process essentialism, Derek Turner
In this chapter, it is argued that Dennett's (1995) claim that Darwinism avoids essentialism is ultimately incorrect, since a core belief rests in what can be considered process essentialism. The author shows that universal Darwinists are committed to viewing historical and evolutionary processes in an essentialist way; thus, universal Darwinists can be considered process essentialists. The chapter goes on to show how this type of process essentialism is not mandatory, and that universal Darwinism does not necessarily imply process essentialism.
PART 2: Evolutionary Epistemology and Language
Darwinism, traditional linguistics and the new Palaeolithic Continuity Theory of language evolution , Mario Alinei
This chapter deals with the content of historical linguistics, and argues that the basic methodology of historical linguistics is flawed. The author attributes all instances of language change to corresponding moments in history of social conflict or strife. The chapter further deals with the origin and evolution of all of the world's languages, and posits a parallelism between grammatical structures and the production of lithic tools.
The extended mind model of the origin of language and culture, Robert K. Logan
This chapter claims that the evolution of language can be modeled based on notions of chaos, and that ''the origin of speech was also due to a response to chaos and information overload'' (150) of a previous state. This type of overload leads to bifurcations (cf. Prigogine 1979), which in turn drive the evolution of language. It is also pointed out how language and thought act as an autocatalytic system, forming a type of system bootstrap.
From changes in the world to changes in the words, Jean-Philippe Magué
Further exploration of Mufwene's (2001) ''language as species'' metaphor in an investigation of the evolution of the lexicon is the content of this chapter. The author uses a multi-agent model to show that multiple constraints on feature selection processes compete. It is also shown that one such constraint is the fitness to the environment, which can be characterized as the driving force behind natural selection.
Evolutionary epistemology and the origin an evolution of language: taking symbiogenesis seriously, Nathalie Gontier
In this chapter the notion of horizontal evolution is compared with vertical evolution, and it is argued that it is actually horizontal evolution that occurs more frequently. A specific form of horizontal evolution, symbiogenesis, is argued to drive language evolution. This is illustrated in the realms of language variation, language genes, and conceptual blending.
The self-organization of dynamic systems: modularity under scrutiny, Annemarie Peltzer-Karpf
This chapter argues that linguistic development is not a linear process, but rather encounters ''phases of intermittent turbulence, fluctuations and stability'' (227). By highlighting evidence from the L2 development of Turkish, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and German children, the author illustrates the point that language development is an emergent and self-organizing process, and that language is influenced by environmental conditions. This discussion is then related to more general questions of modularity.
PART 3: Evolutionary Epistemology and Culture
Against human nature, Tim Ingold
In this chapter, the author discusses the concept of a ''human nature,'' or what it is to be human. The argument is that there is no such thing as a universal human nature. The author points out that there is variation among contemporary humans, as well as differences between these humans and their predecessors. These characteristics are not due to genetics, but are rather shaped by development. The resulting differences can then be attributed to historical processes. Thus, what is presented is a view of human evolution which is continually ongoing, rather than static.
Cognition, evolution, and sociality, Eugenia Ramirez-Goicoechea The topic of this chapter is the evolution of human cognition as a process based in social relations. Working in Dynamic Systems Theory, the author emphasizes the role of the human as an organism interacting with its environment. The chapter offers a new theory for EE which focuses on the generation-to-generation transmission of knowledge as a process of embodiment and recreation.
Cultural evolution, the Baldwin effect, and social norms, Jean Lachapelle, Luc Faucher and Pierre Poirier
The Baldwin effect is explored in this chapter, which although is many times perceived as obscure and misunderstood, can be briefly described as the behavior of a species helping to shape the evolutionary development of the species. The authors argue for a reinterpretation of the Baldwin effect which also incorporates more modern notions of niche construction (Deacon 1997, 2003). Further, the chapter illustrates how this system plays a role in the development and evolution of social norms.
Cultural creativity and evolutionary flexibility, Kathleen Coessens This chapter argues that human evolution and cultural creativity are two notions that are both linked and dependent on what is termed ''evolutionary flexibility.'' ''Evolutionary flexibility implies that there are developments in evolution that defy strict adaptational laws.'' (337) The chapter discusses how cultural evolution influences natural evolution, and claims that this flexibility in both cultural creativity and biological evolution are interwoven, and essentially could lie as the basis for each other.
Some ideas to study the evolution of mathematics, Hugo Mercier It is explored in this chapter how cultural evolution contributed to the development of mathematics. This works on the assumption that natural selection gave humans certain modules (the author discusses the number sense and the logical module in this regard), and that these modules were acted upon by cultural evolution. The author discusses the situation in Ancient Greece, which can be considered a turning point in mathematical thought where mathematical and logical rigor gained new importance, and which can also be considered a product of these two evolutionary forces.
PART 4: Evolutionary Epistemology and Modelling
Computer modelling as a tool for understanding language evolution, Bart de Boer In this chapter, the author describes the uses of computer modeling in the study of language evolution. The three main techniques that are used are discussed: optimization, genetic algorithms, and agent-based models. The use of measures and statistics are also discussed. Finally, detailed examples of each of these techniques are given.
Simulating the syntax and semantics of linguistic constructions about time, Joachim De Beule
The evolution of temporal concepts and their grammatical implementation is discussed in this chapter. An experiment in computer modeling using agent-based modeling is performed in order to investigate whether temporal notions are fixed and universal or evolving. The finding is that both the syntax and semantics of a given language must be conventional.
Evolutionary game-theoretic semantics and its foundational status, Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen
Game-theoretic semantics and evolutionary modeling are described in this chapter. This chapter provides an alternative to strictly adaptationist-based approaches to EE by providing an alternative to purely structural or functional approaches to language. The alternative approach is based on game-related strategies, and the author shows that relations between assertions and the world are allowed to emerge from game-type situations.
Towards a quantum evolutionary scheme: violating Bell's inequalities in language, Diederik Aerts, Marek Czachor and Bart D'Hooghe
This chapter argues that there indeed quantum properties to language, in the sense that Bell's inequalities are violated (Bell's inequalities being a set of mathematical formulae developed to test the presence of quantum structures in data sets). The study shows the presence of what are termed ''non-Kolmogorovian probability structures'' in language, which is considered problematic for a neo-Darwinian conception of evolution based on Markovian notions. The results of these findings are that a strictly neo-Darwinian conception of evolution based on adaptation is too limited for EE.
The book presents material on a very interesting and popular topic, and the material is presented from the perspective of several different disciplines. The perspectives also range from the completely theoretical to the methodological. The end result is a truly interdisciplinary collection of papers and approaches to the topic of EE. While this is advantageous in the sense that it may bring new arguments to the table and cast theories in a different light, it is also disadvantageous in that the overall theme is sometimes stretched to its limits. For instance, some of the papers seem to have not much to do with EE per se, but more with tracing ideas to Darwinism, or dealing with the theoretical underpinnings surrounding Darwinism. Thus, it is likely that not all of the chapters will be relevant or understandable to a given audience. On the other hand, a number of chapters, typically those that belong in a particular thematic section of the book, may be found to be highly relevant by a researcher in a given subfield.
There are further problems with the interdisciplinary approach of the book. Most objectionable is the fact that while ''language'' is what the book is partly about, many of the articles don't seem informed enough about linguistics. To some extent, this holds true for most of the discussions about L1 and L2 acquisition, historical linguistics, syntax, and the evolution of language. This may be a bit of a disappointment for the linguistics-oriented audience.
There are also many problems with typos, errors, and especially English language mistakes in the book. While these can be overlooked for some of the chapters, they become overwhelming for the reader in others, sometimes to the point of impeding the content of the chapter.
Finally, a highlight of the book is the many papers dedicated to computer modeling and simulation. de Boer's chapter stands out as a very useful reference in this regard, and the chapters that follow prove to be interesting in the same way. It seems that computer modeling is the strongest approach to EE currently, and Part 4 capitalizes on that strength.
Overall, this is an interesting collection of papers that addresses an interesting topic. Researchers working around the theory of EE will find the book most beneficial.
Bradie, M. & W. Harms 2001. Evolutionary epistemology. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-evolutionary/
Campbell, D.T. 1974. Evolutionary epistemology. In Schlipp, P.A. (ed.), The philosophy of Karl Popper, Vol. I. Illinois: La Salle. pp. 413-459.
Deacon, T. 1997. The Symbolic Species. New York: W.W. Norton.
Deacon, T. 2003. Multilevel selection in a complex adaptive system: The problem of language origins. In B. Weber & D.J. Depew (eds.), Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 81-106.
Dennett, D.C. 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lorenz, K. 1977. Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge. London: Methuen.
Mufwene, S.S. 2001. The Ecology of Language Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prigogine, I. 1979. From being to becoming: Time and complexity in physical sciences. San Francisco: Freeman.
Quine, W.V.O. 1969. Naturalized epistemology. In Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. pp. 69-90. New York: Colombia University Press.
Riedl, R. 1977. A systems-analytical approach to macro-evolutionary phenomena. The Quarterly Review of Biology 52:351-370.
Vollmer, G. 1975. Evolutionäre Erkenntnistheorie. Stuttgart: Hirzel.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jason Brown is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia. His research focus is on phonological theory, with special interests in the phonetics-phonology interface, phonological representations, and feature theory. He has also published work on language evolution.