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Author Topic:   Comparing the Evolution of Language and Biological Evolution
Tusko
Member
Posts: 605
From: London, UK
Joined: 10-01-2004


Message 16 of 34 (251715)
10-14-2005 10:39 AM
Reply to: Message 14 by Parasomnium
10-14-2005 10:31 AM


Re: Memes?
I agree that languages are meme-complexes (or whatever).

Hapoloidy/Diploidy stuff was just a moment of craziness on my part. I'm not concerned with mapping every little thing into language. I just want to see if the places where it appears NOT to fit can be beaten into shape.

Why do I want to do that? Just for laugh really.

What I'm finding exciting at the moment is that there seem to be interdependent but totally seperate realms where evolution is taking place. There's organisms, there's languages, and there's stories as well. I'm wondering if there are any more. Actually this is OT.


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Chiroptera
Member (Idle past 10 days)
Posts: 6531
From: Oklahoma
Joined: 09-28-2003


Message 17 of 34 (251723)
10-14-2005 10:55 AM
Reply to: Message 11 by Tusko
10-14-2005 10:06 AM


quote:
I was just thinking how it could be that (as I think you may be suggesting) the change in the language of different speaking communities is due entirely to random shift with no selection to speak of.

Actually, I wasn't saying anything about selection, just that if it exists it is nothing like what occurs in biology.

But you have brought up an interesting point. Is there selection that guides the selection of languages? I know that there are certain rules that govern some language changes, like the attempts of speakers to eliminate irregularities (the past tense of help used to be [/i]holp[/i] long ago, but was eventually "regularized" to helped) and the attempts of speakers to create irregularities to make the sounds easier to say (which created mice as the plural or mouse). But these would seem to be more analagous (to stretch the analogy) to the rules of chemistry determining which mutations are more likely to occur in genetics.

Interesting question. So, are there selection forces as work in the evolution of language? Or is language evolution governed mostly by neutral drift?


"Intellectually, scientifically, even artistically, fundamentalism -- biblical literalism -- is a road to nowhere, because it insists on fidelity to revealed truths that are not true." -- Katha Pollitt
This message is a reply to:
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Tusko
Member
Posts: 605
From: London, UK
Joined: 10-01-2004


Message 18 of 34 (251734)
10-14-2005 11:16 AM
Reply to: Message 17 by Chiroptera
10-14-2005 10:55 AM


That's great!

So you are suggesting specific kinds of environmental selection: - the human desire (neurological imperative?) to regularise constructions, or the practical necessity to irregularise them when they become too difficult to say regularly.

Cultural factors also have a strong selective influence. A word like Supercallifragilisticexplialidocious hasn't got much of a chance if its just let loose in the wild, so to speak, but if it has a tasty sugar-coating (Mary Poppins) then it can become quite popular. It won't stand the test of time for many centuries - but in very specific cultural circumstances it can flourish.

I'm guessing that it is to a large degree neutral drift. But I don't think these selective pressures can be entirely discounted.

I'm a bit unsure about your point about pushing the analogy too far. Sure the selection method is radically different - but that isn't a problem as long as its analogious, is it?

This message has been edited by Tusko, 10-14-2005 11:18 AM


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RAZD
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Posts: 19754
From: the other end of the sidewalk
Joined: 03-14-2004
Member Rating: 5.9


Message 19 of 34 (251738)
10-14-2005 11:29 AM
Reply to: Message 15 by Tusko
10-14-2005 10:35 AM


in biology you cannot have a feature from one species be transfered to another by evolution - the eye of the octopus transfered to a human for instance.

in language you can have a word transfered from one language to another, adopted whole and with the same definition (albeit with a likely different pronounciation)

this is a link between different branches, a splice.

this does not mean that the analogy is totally worthless, just that it does have some limits that also need to be recognized.

I've discussed this elsewhere, most recently at
http://www.evcforum.net/cgi-bin/dm.cgi?action=msg&f=5&t=617&m=76#74

{abe}
I would also say that natural selection would chose the {words\phrases} that best describe the idea with clarity and minimal confusion

This message has been edited by RAZD, 10*14*2005 11:32 AM


we are limited in our ability to understand
by our ability to understand

RebelAAmerican.Zen[Deist
... to learn ... to think ... to live ... to laugh ...
to share.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 15 by Tusko, posted 10-14-2005 10:35 AM Tusko has responded

Replies to this message:
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Tusko
Member
Posts: 605
From: London, UK
Joined: 10-01-2004


Message 20 of 34 (251743)
10-14-2005 11:45 AM
Reply to: Message 19 by RAZD
10-14-2005 11:29 AM


Oh - I thought you specifically pointed out an example of horizontal transfer in organisms WAS possible.

I'm just pulling this out of the air here, but perhaps because an individual's idiolect is so much simpler than the DNA of an octopus, language can only ever function in evolutionary terms like the very simplest of genetic organisms. Perhaps horizontal transfer results from having a comparitavely simple code.

I totally agree that the limits of the analogy have to be recognised. I'm just wanting to keep running and running until I've totally run out of road!


This message is a reply to:
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 Message 21 by RAZD, posted 10-14-2005 2:36 PM Tusko has responded

  
RAZD
Member
Posts: 19754
From: the other end of the sidewalk
Joined: 03-14-2004
Member Rating: 5.9


Message 21 of 34 (251788)
10-14-2005 2:36 PM
Reply to: Message 20 by Tusko
10-14-2005 11:45 AM


I'm just wanting to keep running and running until I've totally run out of road!

no probs.

besides, I though elephants made their own roads ... :D


we are limited in our ability to understand
by our ability to understand

RebelAAmerican.Zen[Deist
... to learn ... to think ... to live ... to laugh ...
to share.


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Tusko
Member
Posts: 605
From: London, UK
Joined: 10-01-2004


Message 22 of 34 (251923)
10-15-2005 5:40 AM
Reply to: Message 21 by RAZD
10-14-2005 2:36 PM


We do - unforunately cute little elephants are only capable of making cute little roads. :)
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Tusko
Member
Posts: 605
From: London, UK
Joined: 10-01-2004


Message 23 of 34 (251925)
10-15-2005 6:16 AM


Recap:
(Just in case you have the wrong end of the stick, I'm not talking about language conferring a selective advangtage on human beings, or any group of human beings. I am talking about the seperate but parallel evolution of language.)

There are many ways in which biological and linguistic evolution are different. DNA seems considerably less prone to mutation than lanaguage, so the rate of change in language is much greater than the rate of change in life.

If we adopt Crash's useful idea of the idiolect (that is, the unique rules, idiosyncracies and vocabulary that an individual uses to make themself understood), then we can see that this mutation takes place constantly through a lifetime. The equivalent in the natural world would probably be a critter that hangs out in a nuclear waste dump, constantly picking up little mutations!

Related to this, new words can spring up (no-one quite knows where from) and suddenly they spread into many people's idiolects. Or an old word suddenly takes on a new or contradictory meaning. RAZD described this as the equivalent of horizontal transfer of genetic material in very simple organisms. If such a novel word fulfills a cultural need, it will stick - at least while the cultural conditions are condusive.

I suspect that an individual's idiolect is much more simple than the simplest of viruses, but that it might be sufficiently similar biological evolution to make the comparison worthwhile. There is even the vaguest of possibilities, if language is like a very primitive form of life, that it might give some insight into the very early stages of the evolution of life. However, that's probably codswallop.

I suspect that as a result of the much higher rate of mutation in language than in life, quite a lot of the difference between, say, Spanish and Hindi can be put down to random "genetic" drift. However, for the sake of this thread, I am contending that any language is subject to a certain degree of selective pressure also. What's my evidence? Well, I don't really have a hell of a lot.

The selective pressures on language might face is clearly very different from those that any life-form face. Whereas creatures inhabit the world, languages "inhabit" humans and human society. I believe however that in facing a selective pressure, then the evolution of language can be seen as a parallel kind of evolution, and not as one that is fundamentally different.

It is perhaps reasonable to expect that utterances that are physically difficult to voice, concepts that become archaic culturally, and complex irregular grammatic rules will often be selected against. (Thanks to Chiroptera for this.)

Clearly, creatures with different vocal tracts or different brains would comprise an alien environment and consequently the languages they spoke would be subject to different selective pressures.

And that's all I've reallly got so far.


Replies to this message:
 Message 24 by ohnhai, posted 10-15-2005 7:36 AM Tusko has responded
 Message 25 by RAZD, posted 10-15-2005 9:32 AM Tusko has responded
 Message 28 by Chiroptera, posted 10-15-2005 3:15 PM Tusko has responded

  
ohnhai
Member (Idle past 3236 days)
Posts: 649
From: Melbourne, Australia
Joined: 11-17-2004


Message 24 of 34 (251926)
10-15-2005 7:36 AM
Reply to: Message 23 by Tusko
10-15-2005 6:16 AM


Re: Recap:
Whatever model of evolution you end up pinning on language, my guess is it will be decidedly Lamarckian in nature as un-like organisms beyond bacteria and their like, languages DO transfer acquired traits on to the next generation.

memes would be like viruses that have the ability to become endogenous and become a part of the host languages core information structure.

and if you need to see speciation of languages in action then you need to look at smaller enclaves of humans that are separated from the whole by work, interest or other social stress (ethnic, financial, or ideological).

These factors put pressure on the individuals and new terminology is created or adapted to fit their situation. In a short period of time this can lead to a linguistic version of speciation.

To see this clearly you only need to look at the online gaming community that has it’s own distinctly unique language. 1 t3h 1337 H4x0r Pnwd your n00b 455 ( or something like that)

The separation of languages by geographical separation is (today) far slower or non-existent mainly due to the global media. After all most changes that happened between English, American English and Australian English happened before the emergence of modern communications tech. And now all the variants of English are merging back into one as the different arms are being saturated with experience of each other. It is the niche communities where the true evolution of language is taking place.


This message is a reply to:
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Replies to this message:
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RAZD
Member
Posts: 19754
From: the other end of the sidewalk
Joined: 03-14-2004
Member Rating: 5.9


Message 25 of 34 (251940)
10-15-2005 9:32 AM
Reply to: Message 23 by Tusko
10-15-2005 6:16 AM


Re: Recap:
another thing you might consider would be the time-scale of language evolution.

for instance you could consider each idiolect to be regenerated each morning incorporating mutations from the previous day plus subconcious {copy errors?\changes?} during the night - an asexual reproduction

those idiolects 'living' in high input areas {international radio\tv toxic lands} would be more susceptable to mutation expression (LOL) than others.


we are limited in our ability to understand
by our ability to understand

RebelAAmerican.Zen[Deist
... to learn ... to think ... to live ... to laugh ...
to share.


This message is a reply to:
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Replies to this message:
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Tusko
Member
Posts: 605
From: London, UK
Joined: 10-01-2004


Message 26 of 34 (251955)
10-15-2005 11:26 AM
Reply to: Message 24 by ohnhai
10-15-2005 7:36 AM


Re: Recap:
You seem to have highlighted the same problem as RAZD, but coming at it from a different angle. He compared this property of language to horizonal genetic transfer in very simple organisms. I hadn't thought of it being a possible example of Lamarkian evolution in action; that's really cool.

My question is - are these two interpretations two sides of the same coin?

I'm not terribly hot on biological evolution, so I was wondering if you could clarify something for me. I was just thinking about Lamarkian evolution, and it occured to me that actually seems seems to work - but only when it is the DNA itself that is being modified, if you see what I mean. Let me explain: if I work out a lot and get big muscles, then I'm not going to pass those on to my kids. But if my DNA was to be changed by something that happened during my life, then this would be hereditable. Except in the case of multicellular life, this isn't going to work, because I have my DNA stored in loads of different places, and its not ALL going to get the same mutation all at the same time. However, with single-celled life if something changes it, it stays changed. The same thing would happen with languages too, I venture. Does that make sense?


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Tusko
Member
Posts: 605
From: London, UK
Joined: 10-01-2004


Message 27 of 34 (251957)
10-15-2005 11:27 AM
Reply to: Message 25 by RAZD
10-15-2005 9:32 AM


Re: Recap:
Wow! This is great stuff - unfortunately its making my brain ache. Perhaps if I come back at it fresh tomorrow, I'll be able to understand it properly. I hope so!
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Chiroptera
Member (Idle past 10 days)
Posts: 6531
From: Oklahoma
Joined: 09-28-2003


Message 28 of 34 (252001)
10-15-2005 3:15 PM
Reply to: Message 23 by Tusko
10-15-2005 6:16 AM


Re: Recap:
One other very significant difference between biological evolution and the evolution of language is the nature of the evolution.

In biological evolution, the species evolves because individuals with "better" characteristics survive and pass these characteristics to their offspring, while individuals with poorer characteristics die sooner without leaving behind surviving offspring or fewer offspring.

But in language evolution, we do not see that individuals with a "superior" way of speaking leave behind children that speak the same way, evetually replacing individuals with "inferior" ways of speaking. Instead, innovations spread among many different individuals who live concurrently, perhaps to the entire population. The evolution of language is much closer to Lamark's ideas of evolution, where the entire population of individuals undergoes evolution simultaneous, in response to present needs in the environment.

Almost the only thing about language evolution that is Darwinian as opposed to Lamarkian is that we do see separate populations of a given language evolving their own separate dialects, resulting in common descent. (Added by edit: Also, Lamark's philosophy of an innate drive toward "progress" may be no more relevant to linguistics than to biology.)

Perhaps if we were to really develop an analogy between language and biology, Lamarkian evolution would offer some insight.

This message has been edited by Chiroptera, 15-Oct-2005 07:17 PM


"Intellectually, scientifically, even artistically, fundamentalism -- biblical literalism -- is a road to nowhere, because it insists on fidelity to revealed truths that are not true." -- Katha Pollitt
This message is a reply to:
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Replies to this message:
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ohnhai
Member (Idle past 3236 days)
Posts: 649
From: Melbourne, Australia
Joined: 11-17-2004


Message 29 of 34 (252061)
10-15-2005 10:09 PM
Reply to: Message 26 by Tusko
10-15-2005 11:26 AM


Re: Recap:
You can understand where Lamarck went wrong, but at the same time was closer than he thought. After all the son of a Smithy would indeed be likely to exhibit the same musculature as his dad. Not through large muscles being inherited after the Smith had developed them but through the inheritance of the genetic structure that allowed large muscles to be developed. If anything like inheritance is responsible for the son developing the same muscle mass as his dad then it will be that the son inherited the same job, that made the same demands of a similar body, with similar results.

As to Lamarckian evolution and DNA then I’m sure parallels could be drawn if the DNA of an individual’s reproductive cells were altered during their life. For example Radiation can and does damage DNA and more often than not damages these cells enough to render them infertile (invalid). So yes we can conceive and observe individual cases where a form of Lamarckian transfer happens but beyond single celled organisms and regular plasmid transfers Lamarckian transfer is not a valid model for biological evolution.

For language on the other hand cross-pollination is always happening. After all language does have a je ne sais quoi when it comes to borrowing bits of other languages.

It’s obvious that virtually all language can mix and merge with other languages. In this light, if there is no true barrier for bits of one to become a part of another then if we are talking in biological terms, then there is no true speciation of language, because they on the whole can breed with each other.


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RAZD
Member
Posts: 19754
From: the other end of the sidewalk
Joined: 03-14-2004
Member Rating: 5.9


Message 30 of 34 (252075)
10-15-2005 11:05 PM
Reply to: Message 29 by ohnhai
10-15-2005 10:09 PM


Re: Recap:
After all language does have a je ne sais quoi when it comes to borrowing bits of other languages.

Did you de facto gestalt that or is this just chutzpa? :D

This message has been edited by RAZD, 10*15*2005 11:14 PM


we are limited in our ability to understand
by our ability to understand

RebelAAmerican.Zen[Deist
... to learn ... to think ... to live ... to laugh ...
to share.


This message is a reply to:
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