What good is half an underlying language structure?

| 42 Comments

Zimmer has another two-part series up, this time on the evolution of language.

Building Gab: Part One.

Building Gab: Part Two.

It concerns a long-running debate between linguists about how language was acquired by our species. Go read it right now.

42 Comments

I hope to do my postdoc on the evolution of langauge. I actually have some theoretical models which I want to explore, but have saved them until after I graduate. I attended the Fourth International Conference on the Evolution of Language in 2002 at Harvard. Really interesting work.

Reed, have you read ‘Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language’ by Robin Dunbar? Well worth it if not. Then there is Steve Mithen and ‘Prehistory of the Mind.’ Oh and the most highly recommended (by me anyway) is ‘The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe’ by Clive Gamble. Not exactly on the evolution of language, but great for social archaeology.

I know of Dunbar’s hypothesis; although I haven’t read his book. (I might have read a paper by him, but I can’t remember.)

Didn’t language evolve by accident somehow? I’m sure if you work at it hard enough you can come up with an explanation where intelligence plays no part in the evolution of language. Complexity, such as we see in the writings here at Panda’s Thumb, can arise from purely natural processes. Dictionaries, grammar, words like “Darwinian” and “evolution” are just random vocal cord vibrations acted upon by natural selection.

Yeah, that’s the ticket!

I can see now what a target rich environment for grants this will be.

What is Dunbar’s hypothesis?

Its called the Social Brain hypothesis. Basically runs along the lines (from what I can remember) that various primates groom each other physically as a way of communicating. With humans, group size got so large that physical grooming became inefficient, there just wasn’t the time in the day. We evolved language to communicate in response to increased group size and social complexity. Something like that anyway.

Our good friend Dave Scott wrote:

“Didn’t language evolve by accident somehow? I’m sure if you work at it hard enough you can come up with an explanation where intelligence plays no part in the evolution of language.”

Well Dave, who designed French?

Stuart,

Probably not the same designer who designed Urdu, or the African one with the clicks.

One more bit of evidence for Multiple Designers?

I hope all those who followed your command to read it now also read the comments that followed. If not, I hope that everyone will go back and do so.

Haven’t you read your bible? God designed French, and all the other languages, after the tower of babel incident. the point is so that people won’t be able to communicate broadly. You atheists who spite god by learning multiple languages are going to suffer, suffer, suffer.

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Hmmmm… the French language isn’t used by any intelligent being.

Ya got me there!

But just because you proved one language evolved without any intelligence doesn’t mean they all did.

Let’s consider the scientific names for different species which are a part of language.

Did they come about by:

1) random vocal cord vibrations acted upon by natural selection

or

2) a presumably intelligent discover choosing the name

This is an open book quiz. Take your time.

DaveScot Wrote:

But just because you proved one language evolved without any intelligence doesn’t mean they all did.

Are you asking us to do a test that would falsify? I thought verifiability (according to you) was the best test of a hypothesis. It seems to me like there has been a verification here that language evolved without any intelligence, according to your rules of science. That means, again according to your rules of science, that we should take it as fact that all languages evolved without any intelligence and that it is now up to you to prove us wrong.

Umm, Dave, you’re trolling a straw man. The post was about the evolution of language (ability), not language change.

Please don’t feed the troll.

It would be nice to have at least one thread that stays on topic.

Fundamental language change takes place unconsciously. Even linguists are surprized when they listen to old recordings of themselves and realize that their pronounciation has changed in tune with general trends even over the space of a couple of decades. Anyhow, it would be hard to make the case that languages are designed by their speakers since new versions of natural languages (think French) really aren’t better than the old ones from which they derived (think Latin). Languages change, but they don’t get better or even more complicated so it’s pretty hard to detect any teleology in their evolution.

Reed Cartwright Wrote:

Umm, Dave, you’re trolling a straw man.  The post was about the evolution of language (ability), not language change.

Indeed. Dave, let me make a polite request. From now on, please try reading the actual link or post under consideration, and then try to make informed comments concerning that post. I know that’s a lot to ask, but it would really cut down on the wasted bandwidth.

Steve Reuland Wrote:

but it would really cut down on the wasted bandwidth.

And that’s the reason why he is going to do the exact opposite, I suppose…

I’m amazed that some twins develop a language between them that even their parents can’t understand. B F Skinner would cringe.

Bob wrote: “Stuart,

Probably not the same designer who designed Urdu, or the African one with the clicks.

One more bit of evidence for Multiple Designers?

Either that or one designer with multiple dyslexic personalities.

I apologize in advance for dropping off topic news inside a thread having nothing to do with subject matter, but as I’ve noticed that many threads here devolve into what seems like a fairly similar off-topic argument, perhaps my transgression here will go unnoticed or at least forgiven.

In any event, there was a debate between the Thomas More Center and the ACLU yesterday at Elizbethtown College. The whole article is pretty good, but this paragraph just kicks ass:

Thompson (on behalf of Thomas More) also said legal efforts to keep God out of classrooms, and other government funded forums, were part of a greater effort to “de-Christianize America.” Later though, he said intelligent design has nothing to do with Christianity or religion, saying it offered a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution.

The article doesn’t mention whether Vic Walczak (on behalf of the ACLU) pounced on this inconsistency, but it appears that Walczak did just fine anyway. Again, entire article here.

LOL, Stuart.

Geez, we’d better watch out. You’ve just given the ID folks another potential designer to toss out there when the going gets tough.

The other day I dug half a hole to bury my half piece of ice. It quickly became half of a water drop. I shed half a tear and moved on.

If you even halfway understood my story, I’m trying to say that while most things can be halved, it doesn’t mean that you can always have “half things”.

re Scott Pilutik’s comment, I would love to see the More guy’s response to the question, “Well, is opposition to ID just another form of opposition to christianity?”

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So what you’re saying Dave is that ID is science fiction. Good to know your position.

Dune is science fiction. But it’s about religion. Therefore ID is religion. That’s about as logical as your argument is, DaveScot.

DaveScot Wrote:

There’s a vast leftwing conspiracy to de-Christianize the U.S.

Why am I always the last one to hear about these things? I’m going to have to have a frank discussion with my local Leftist Conspiracy coordinator. I’m not getting the memos!

I’m also curious to discover how keeping ID, which is not religious, out of schools is part of a vast leftwing conspiracy to de-Christianize the US.

To everyone who questions the all-knowing DaveScot:

You see it works like this: There were little green men, (who are not gods or god – thus not subject to religion) who seeded the earth with “super bacteria” that possessed all the genetic material to produce all the known and extinct species of the earth. However, these little green men, being nothing more than purely biological, and natural beings, were the products of evolution and evolved from simplistic protobacteria, who were in turn the products of self-replicating molecules which chemically surrounded theirselves with proteins. The self-replicating molecules themselves were merely the products of abiogenesis. Dave, himself, cannot dispute this, since he himself claims to know nothing about these so-called “intelligent designers” and since he refuses to claim religiosity, his guess is every bit as good as my explanation.

So Dave cannot claim that evolution and abiogenesis are false, since he cannot dispute that his “little green men” did not originate in that way.

Sorry Dave, but you’re full of it, and your claim to “little green men” holds no water, thus leaving you with religion as your only recourse (i.e. a supernatural path).…

Better luck next time with your attempt at rationality.

Little green men, holding water - reminds me of an old Golden Age science fiction story called “Surface Tension.” Can’t remember offhand who wrote it - Blish maybe?

Steve,

I suggest YOU read the link. The evolution of language itself, as well as the ability to use it, is discussed. Here’s some quotes from the article:

The subject is language, and how it evolved.

Despite the superficial diversity of languages, they all share a basic underlying structure, which had first been identified by Noam Chomsky of MIT in the 1960s.

Hauser et al make a bold suggestion: perhaps only one thing makes human language unique. They call this special ingredient recursion. Roughly speaking, it’s a process by which small units–such as words–can be combined into larger units–such as clauses–which can be combined into larger units still–sentences. Because units can be arranged in an infinite number of ways, they can form an infinite number of larger units. But because this construction follows certain rules, the larger units can be easily understood. With recursion, it’s possible to organize simple concepts in to much more complex ones, which can then be expressed with the speech-producing machinery of the mouth and throat.

As my initial post touched on the evolution of language structure - words, defintions of words, and grammar - it was quite on topic.

Thanks for playing but try to do a little better next time, Steve.

Paredo

Which part of “I don’t know the nature of the intelligent agent(s)” don’t you understand? I can describe possibilities but have no data by which to reach a firm conclusion. Conclusions based on faith I leave to the bible thumpers and atheists. Which one are you?

DaveScot Wrote:

As my initial post touched on the evolution of language structure - words, defintions of words, and grammar - it was quite on topic.

It was not on topic at all. The fact that you can take a quote which argues that the evolution of the ability to recurse is the key step for the evolution of language, and turn it into support for your off-topic posts about language change demonstrates that you didn’t get the point of the earlier posts.

Bob, yeah, it was James Blish. “Surface Tension” was fixed-up into “The Seedling Stars” together with some other stories on the same theme of engineering humans to live on other planets.

(Gah. I started writing a bunch of stuff about small brain size in engineered humans, and then about Blish’s later books on religious themes, but then realised they had nothing to do with this thread. Some other thread, perhaps.…)

NelC,

Thanks for the corroboration. I enjoyed that story. I think it was in a collection of shorts that I’ve still got somwhere.

when I read today about the DoE’s review of the last 15 years of cold fusion claims, which resulted in a ‘still no conclusive evidence’ conclusion, I had to giggle. Even the cold fusioners meet the minimum requirements for being ‘scientific’, and the IDers don’t. The cold fusioners at least have (wrong) theories, (worthless) experiments, and (unreproduceable) published results. The IDiots have no theories and no experiments and no published results.

Hmm. I don’t know why Timmy posted my comment for me. Must’ve been some kind of technical error ;-)

NelC

(Gah. I started writing a bunch of stuff about small brain size in engineered humans, and then about Blish’s later books on religious themes, but then realised they had nothing to do with this thread. Some other thread, perhaps . …)

I look forward to reading your thoughts on Blish’s books whenever you find the right time and place to post them – good stuff.

Te history of science is crawling with examples in which opposite positions proved both to be dead wrong. Shortly after the invention of the microscope we had the Ovists slugging it out with the Spermists. Both claimed they could see the little man (homunculus) hunkered down inside the sperm or the egg depending on which side you were on.

Then we had the Neptunists versus the Vulcanists claimimg that they were the ones that understood the origin of life. Modern day examples still persist. George Wald of Nobel Prize and Harvard fame came up with the “Organic Soup” hypothesis, thereby labeling himself as a Neptunist. Then we have Sidney Fox from Florida State University identifying himself as a Vulcanist by “vulcanizing” amino acids into proteinoids by a dehydration synthesis driven by heat. I was down the hall at FSU when Sidney had us visit his lab and see in his microscope the little proteinoid spheres some of which were in dumbell forms suggesting they might be dividing. There was a short period of incredible elation which I will never forget. Furthermore they even had urease activity. It seems it is hard to make a protein that doesn’t have some sort of enzyme activity.

Of course we now know that there is absolutely no geological record of an organic soup of any sort and no one in his right mind is going to support the production of life through the application of heat.

Things haven’t changed much. Today we have the worshippers of blind chance in armed conflict with those that believe that evolution never occurred at all. The Darwimps versus the Fundies.

Once again both camps are dead wrong. Of course evolution (past tense) occurred and we can be equally certain that chance never had anything to do with it. Organic evolution, a thing of the past, was driven by internal forces the nature of which remain unknown. Ontogeny is a model for phylogeny and both are part of the same organic continuum. They are different faces of the same underlying phenomenon. Both resulted from the expression of information which has unfolded with no respect to the environment beyond the possible role as a trigger for a preformed and predestined response. In the case of ontogeny the environment plays no role whatsoever which is why I suspect the same for evolution.

For the reasons I have reached these conclusions I refer you to my paper “A Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis” and the earlier literature on which it is based.

John A. Davison

Te history of science is crawling with examples in which opposite positions proved both to be dead wrong.

I don’t think science theories are generally opposed; they merely explain things differently. E.g., “the Earth is flat” vs. “the Earth is round” are not opposites. The opposite of “the Earth is flat” would be, I’d think, “the Earth is not flat.” (though that’s admittedly a poor example of a theory.)

Things haven’t changed much. Today we have the worshippers of blind chance in armed conflict with those that believe that evolution never occurred at all. The Darwimps versus the Fundies.

I know of no one who believes that evolution requires only blind chance.

Once again both camps are dead wrong.

That’s an awfully confident assertion. And you are…?

Of course evolution (past tense) occurred

Evolution is easily demonstrable in a lab or your kitchen counter top.

and we can be equally certain that chance never had anything to do with it.

Depends how you define “chance”.

Organic evolution, a thing of the past

Yeah, you said that already. Unfortunately, it is demonstrably false.

was driven by internal forces the nature of which remain unknown.

Internal to what? Actually, I think at least some of the forces are well-known. Especially since they are repeatable. Today. Anywhere.

Both resulted from the expression of information which has unfolded with no respect to the environment beyond the possible role as a trigger for a preformed and predestined response.

Amazing. You reckon all the mainstream biologists missed this obvious theory?

For the reasons I have reached these conclusions I refer you to my paper “A Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis” and the earlier literature on which it is based.

Frankly, after claiming that evolution doesn’t happen today, I’m inclined to think your paper would be a gargantuan waste of time, as you already demonstrated that you are willing to ignore demonstrable facts in favor of your own pet notions.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Reuland published on March 1, 2005 3:22 PM.

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