Evolutionary linguistics

What Motivated the First Speakers?

Babel's Dawn - Sun, 11/25/2018 - 00:25

An early (Oldowan) chopping tool.

I have received a letter from a reader who goes by the handle jgkess. Under the title the origin of communicative intent in the use of hominem proto-language he (or maybe she) writes: “The idea was to get another to Do something, (or not do something) either proximally or distally (in a temporal sense), by way of getting him to think or feel in an intended way. There was no "generic" intent just to "inform" another---that would be insufficiently motivating, and communicative behaviour is, after all, motivated behaviour. In the pragmatics of hominem proto-linguistic communication, I think, lie the seeds of the evolution of our kind of general intelligence---this is a kind of take on Dan Sperber's work.”

Seventy years ago, Norbert Wiener published a book entitled Cybernetics or Control and Communication in  the Animal and the Machine. It publicized secret wartime achievements in getting machines to control one-another by communicating (i.e., by exchanging information). Back in the early 1970s I finally read the book, which describes communication entirely in terms of making something separate from the communicator act in certain way. Cells within an organism control one another, ants control one another, computers in a network control one another, Employees in a military organization control one another. So there seems to be much in favor of this idea of control, but while the book was eye-opening and powerful it did not persuade me that control is the main function of language.

As an English major, I immediately protested that humans also can recite Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, or talk about what they did the previous weekend, or argue over politics, report a piece of news, or teach a course in advanced calculus. None of these tasks have a cybernetic function. The difference becomes obvious when you compare a high-level computer language like C++ with any natural language. C++ tells a machine what to do. It cannot be used for any of the purposes I listed at the top of this paragraph. Meanwhile, telling people what to do (writing procedures) is a special skill  that earns technical writers a livelihood. One of the guiding principles of this blog is that natural languages and computer languages are different things and it is a category error to refer to one and draw conclusions about the other (e.g., it is a mistake to argue that computer languages are not ambiguous, therefore natural languages should not have to be ambiguous either).

A natural question for this blog is why don’t apes talk? They seem smart enough and probably have a higher IQ than some people who do talk.  Forty years ago  there were a series of experiments in which apes were taught sign languages, proving they were smart enough to use some language. The problem was that apes could not get  beyond cybernetic motives. They used signs to signal their wants to humans and also answered questions creatively (e.g., Human: what’s that (pointing to a swan), Ape: water bird.) So apes are smart and creatuve, but they only volunteered one kind of statement: requests. They told humans they wanted a hug, or an apple, or even that  their tooth needed fixing. So they could signal their wants. Intriguingly, apes that knew how to sign did not start chatting with one another. I assume that was because apes already had ways of making requests of one another and found no advantage in signalling to their fellows they wanted an apple. Get it yourself, one can imagine Ape1 telling Ape2.


In his book, Origins of Communication, Michael Tomasello notes that among wild chimpanzees it is common for a youngster to lose sight of its mother and to begin to howl in anxiety. Other chimpanzees probably know what  the fuss is about and could point mama out to the upset toddler, but they never do that. They never use language or signaling to share their knowledge with others. They do not have the motivation to come to the youngster’s rescue.

But humans pitch in to inform others, even strangers, all the time. It is common for strangers in an area to ask for directions and receive them. jgkess denies that originally there was a  “‘generic’ intent just to ‘inform’ another---that would be insufficiently motivating” but it seems that the motivation has come along somehow since informing others is a routine part of daily, human existence,

It is common for two-year-olds to shout out the names of things they see. A toddler shouts doggie and a mother glances toward a TV screen and says, Yes, that’s a big dog. That is a fairly clear example of a human using language to inform another human for no good  reason beyond the drive to express what the human knows. Human communication is distinctive in function as well as structure from other known communication systems. Babies get adults to do things for them by using a communication system older than language: they cry.

On  this blog, I have insisted for years that the sine qua non of language is the speech triangle: speaker and listener paying joint attention to a topic. Not every utterance is defined by the speech triangle (e.g., Stop in the name of the law) but a communication system that cannot form a speech triangle is not a language.

If you want to imagine hominems first using speech to tell each other what to do, I cannot stop you or prove you wrong, but only when the hominems started using a speech triangle did they begin to use even a proto-language. We can see that almost 2 million years ago, the Homo lineage was passing along knowledge -- specifically, they taught new generations how to make Oldowan tools, We cannot prove they used language to  teach the tool making. They may have just shown students how to smash rocks together to get a cutting edge. The knowledge was passed along for a million years or more and spread over a  wide area. Nor did passing along knowledge stop. The tools eventually became more complex and required more teaching, This steady tradition of passing along knowledge is possible because of humanity’s unusual communal nature.

We depend on one another to become who we are. We become members of whatever community raises us, speaking its language, sharing its  tastes and customs, assuming its assumptions. About the only instinct we have left is the instinct to be like those around us (especially,  those who are raising us). Presumably, Homo habilis was not so dependent on its culture to make its members who  they were, but we have been heading in our current direction for a very long time. At some hazy patch along the way, we introduced language as an especially powerful tool for getting us to share information and thoughts, organizing human communities so that anybody’s genius could be shared. Sharing information, not controlling others, is and has been  the secret of the Homo lineage’s success.

CfP: New directions in language evolution research (Special Issue of “Language Dynamics and Change”)

A replicated typo - Fri, 11/16/2018 - 09:57

A couple of months ago, Peeter Tinits, Jonas Nölle and I organized a theme session with the fairly generic title “New directions in language evolution research” at the SLE conference in Tartu. Now we are planning a Special Issue of the journal “Language Dynamics and Change” (LDC) that covers the topics addressed at the workshop (and perhaps a few more). Our goal is to emphasize the “New Directions” aspect, i.e. to gather really innovative approaches to the evolution of language. We would like to open up the CfP beyond the circle of workshop participants – so everybody interested is invited to submit an abstract, on the basis of which we will make a first selection and invite full papers. Note that if we can’t include your paper in the Special Issue, you can of course still submit it as a regular paper to LDC. If you are interested in contributing, please send an abstract to newdir.langev@gmail.com until December 15th.

Here’s the description of our theme session again:

Research on language evolution is undoubtedly among the fastest-growing topics in linguistics. This is not a coincidence: While scholars have always been interested in the origin and evolution of language, it is only now that many questions can be addressed empirically drawing on a wealth of data and a multitude of methodological approaches developed in the different disciplines that try to find answers to what has been called “the hardest problem in science” (Christiansen & Kirby 2003). Importantly, any theory of how language may have emerged requires a solid understanding of how language and other communication systems work. As such, the questions in language evolution research are manifold and interface in multiple ways with key open questions in historical and theoretical linguistics: What exactly makes human language unique compared to animal communication systems? How do cognition, communication and transmission shape grammar? Which factors can explain linguistic diversity? How and why do languages change? To what extent is thestructure of language(s) shaped by extra-linguistic, environmental factors?

Over the last 20 years or so, evolutionary linguistics has set out to find answers to these and many more questions. As, e.g., Dediu & De Boer (2016) have noted, the field of language evolution research is currently coming of age, and it has developed a rich toolkit of widely-adopted methods both for comparative research, which investigates the commonalities and differences between human language and animal communication systems, and for studying the cumulative cultural evolution of sign systems in experimental settings, including both computational and behavioral approaches (see e.g. Tallerman & Gibson 2012; Fitch 2017). In addition, large-scale typological studies have gained importance in recent research on language evolution (e.g. Evans 2010).

The goal of this workshop is to discuss innovative theoretical and methodological approaches that go beyond the current state of the art by proposing and empirically testing new hypotheses, by developing new or refining existing methods for thestudy of language evolution, and/or by reinterpreting the available evidence inthe light of innovative theoretical frameworks. In this vein, our workshop aims at bringing together researchers from multiple disciplines and theoretical backgrounds to discuss the latest developments in language evolution research. Topics include

– experimental approaches investigating the emergence and/or development of sign systems in frameworks such as experimental semiotics (e.g. Galantucci & Garrod 2010) or artificial language learning (e.g. Kirby et al. 2014);

– empirical research on non-human communication systems as well as comparative research on animal cognition with respect to its relevance for the evolution of cognitive prerequisites for fully-fledged human language (Kirby 2017);

– approaches using computational modelling and robotics (Steels 2011) in order to investigate problems like the grounding of symbol systems in non-symbolic representations (Harnad 1990), the emergence of the particular features that make human language unique (Kirby2017, Smith 2014), or the question to what extent these features are domain-specific, i.e. evolved by natural selection for a specifically linguistic function (Culbertson & Kirby 2016);

– research that explicitly combines expertise from multiple different disciplines, e.g. typology and neurolinguistics (Bickel et al. 2015); genomics, archaeology, and linguistics (Pakendorf 2014, Theofanopoulou et al. 2017); comparative biology and philosophy of language (Moore 2016); and many more.

This latter trend to cross disciplinary boundaries is also evident in the proposed workshop contributions listed below. For instance, many of them approach long-standing questions from historical-typological linguistics from an evolutionary point of view by combining analyses of large typological databases with computational modelling, focusing on the emergence of (near-)universal patterns or the much-discussed topic of a potential connection between group size andlinguistic complexity. Others draw on insights from biology to discuss how thehuman capacity for language came about. What all have in common, however, is that they combine multiple perspectives to shed new light on the question of how language evolved and continues to evolve.


Bickel, Balthasar, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Kamal K. Choudhary,Matthias Schlesewsky & Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky. 2015. TheNeurophysiology of Language Processing Shapes the Evolution of Grammar:Evidence from Case Marking. PLOS ONE 10(8). e0132819.

Christiansen, Morten H. & Simon Kirby. 2003. Language Evolution:The Hardest Problem in Science. In Morten H. Christiansen & Simon Kirby(eds.), Language Evolution, 1–15.(Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language 3). Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.

Culbertson, Jennifer & Simon Kirby. 2016. Simplicity andSpecificity in Language: Domain-General Biases Have Domain-Specific Effects. Frontiers in Psychology 6.doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01964.

Dediu, Dan & Bart de Boer. 2016. Language evolution needs its ownjournal. Journal of Language Evolution1(1). 1–6.

Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Language diversity as a tool for understandingcultural evolution. In Peter J. Richerson & Morten H. Christiansen (eds.),Cultural Evolution : Society, Technology, Language, and Religion, 233–268.Cambridge: MIT Press.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2017. Empirical approaches to the study of languageevolution. Psychonomic Bulletin &Review 24(1). 3–33.

Galantucci, Bruno & Simon Garrod. 2010. Experimental Semiotics: Anew approach for studying the emergence and the evolution of humancommunication. Interaction Studies11(1). 1–13.

Harnad, Stevan. 1990. The symbol grounding problem. Physica D 42. 335–346.

Kirby, Simon, Tom Griffiths & Kenny Smith. 2014. Iterated Learningand the Evolution of Language. CurrentOpinion in Neurobiology 28. 108–114.

Kirby, Simon. 2017. Culture and biology in the origins of linguisticstructure. Psychonomic Bulletin &Review 24(1). 118–137.

Moore, Richard. 2016. Meaning and ostension in great ape gesturalcommunication. Animal Cognition19(1). 223–231.

Pakendorf, Brigitte. 2014. Coevolution of languages and genes. Current Opinion in Genetics &Development 29. 39–44.

Smith, Andrew D.M. 2014. Models of language evolution and change:Language evolution and change. WileyInterdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 5(3). 281–293.

Steels, Luc. 2011. Modeling the Cultural Evolution of Language. Physics of Life Reviews 8. 339–356.

Tallerman, Maggie & Kathleen R. Gibson (eds.). 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Theofanopoulou, Constantina, Simone Gastaldon, Thomas O’Rourke, Bridget D. Samuels, Angela Messner, Pedro Tiago Martins, Francesco Delogu, Saleh Alamri& Cedric Boeckx. 2017. Self-domestication in Homo sapiens: Insights fromcomparative genomics. PLOS ONE12(10). e0185306.

Why are we standing naked?

A replicated typo - Thu, 11/01/2018 - 15:43

This is a guest post by Angarika Deb.

In a lineage of ancestors, humans are the only species left without a coat of body hair. Keeping in mind thermoregulation of bare skin, we speculate conditions for evolution of nakedness. Can it be coupled with bipedality?

The modifiers of evolution itself, are we Homo sapiens any closer to understanding our own emergence yet?

One of the salient features of the Mammals group is possession of body hair. Well, most of them at least. But we stand living proof against that. How, where and why did our body hair disappear and nakedness evolve? While Darwin argued that nakedness evolved for sexual ornamental purposes, Andersson[3] disagrees on the premise that, if sexual traits like a shiny plumage are indicative of good health, skin devoid of hair would convey poor health and won’t attract mates. It is important to determine the initial step of this denudation. A coat of body hair prevents too much heat reaching the body in daytime as well as shielding from cold at night. Protection from wind, wounds, bites, and UV radiation also feature in the advantages. Why then, did Homo sapiens end up losing one great layer of protection? If one believes in ‘Survival of the Fittest’, the benefits stemming from near disappearance of human body hair must surely be great enough to outweigh the costs of these protective functions. The repository of hypotheses trying to explain this step of evolution is still growing.

Our ancestors came from a forested environment, gradually moving to open landscapes (the savanna). Australopithecus gave way to Homo species. This is the period when nakedness is said to have started arising in humans. Scientists are trying to narrow own the environmental conditions and period in history when denudation might have occurred, to be able to predict elective forces for its proliferation. But whether it was a forested habitat or the savanna is a topic of great debate and there is equal support for both. Up until last decade, heavier approval lay on the evolution of nakedness in the savanna. But as calculations grow detailed, we see views shifting towards the idea of naked man first arising in a forested environment, and paleontological evidence supports this[11].

Hairy to naked skin calls for major thermal changes in the body that need to be compensated for, to ensure optimal survival of the individual. A comparison for potential advantages in both environmental conditions have been drawn by Amaral[2] based on calculations by Wheeler[10]. Analysis of Wheeler’s paper, points hat naked skin is at an overall disadvantage when ambient temperature is higher than the body temperature. This is true for the savanna, where temperatures are high due to direct sunlight and minimum shade. Also, night temperatures drop rapidly, making it very chilly. Naked skin receives more sunlight and external heat during the day and loses heat quicker at night, as compared to furry skin. It has been calculated that the thermal load on naked skin is three times higher. This can be partly compensated for by raising the sweating capacity, which is generally higher in humans. But at the same time, airy animals can also increase their sweating capacity almost as high, without losing the hair, and thus have greater fitness. In fact, this trend has been noted in baboons and patas monkeys who have a sweating capacity as high as humans and have developed a denser mantle which reduces the incoming thermal load and provides warmth at night. Thus, the ideal characteristics for an open landscape have been calculated to be retention of body hair whilst increasing the sweating capacity. And this is widely exemplified by numerous hairy species thriving in the savanna. A naked primate additionally suffers losses in water levels of the body due to transpiration from exposed skin. With these disadvantages, emergence of naked man seems unlikely. It is worth mentioning a statement made by Newman in his paper[5] here, which points out that nakedness is a primary disadvantage in an open environment since it requires a compensatory adaptation, sweating. Therefore, it must have stemmed from other selective forces or preceded the move into savanna, at least for its inception.

Amaral further explores the consequences of nakedness in bipeds. Both traits are a remarkable shift from our ancestral structure and their evolution is often speculated to be linked, since they could provide beneficial pre-adaptations for the other to arise. General consensus is that nakedness is more favourable if he animal walks on two legs bipedal) than walking on all fours (quadrupedal). But which one came first is still a subject under study and great conjecture.

A method to address this issue is comparison of the two possible intermediate stages – a naked quadruped and a haired biped – with the initial and final stages – hairy quadruped and naked biped. Wheeler’s calculations give possibilities for both intermediates. A biped animal is highly favoured in a hot savanna setting due to lower body surface exposed to direct sunlight and thus minimal solar flux on body. But nakedness having great disadvantages in such an environment (as discussed above), cannot originate in the savanna and thus a hairy biped should serve as a fitter population alternative. This means, if bipedality arises first, emergence f nakedness would become unlikely. On the other hand, if nakedness originates first in a tropical setting before bipedality, it bestows great profits. A naked quadruped dwelling in forested areas enjoys perks of easier thermal regulation as incoming eat is less and there is no direct sunlight. Additionally, loss of hair would allow the animal to wade more easily in shallow waters (found around forests) for collection of food[6]. It also solves the problem of parasites that harbour on hairy skin[7]. A naked quadruped thus seems a better intermediate stage which would gradually develop bipedality on facing selective pressures – increased thermal load due to movement and settlement in the savanna domain. Amaral[1] suggests that a naked quadruped would eventually develop bipedality as it also starts suffering from lower reproductive fitness. Body hair reduction would lead to infants falling from mother due to inefficient clinging. These arguments correspond more losely to the initial stage of evolution as also proposed by Newman[5]. Wheeler in his paper[8], suggests bipedality as a pre-adaptation for nakedness to evolve but an analysis of his results contradicts his own contention. Results brought forth by Amaral[2] thus shift the time and place of denudation of humans to an earlier period when our ancestors lived in a forested habitat.

Though there is still neither certainty nor unanimity in views regarding the origin of nakedness, it should be remembered that the answer might lie in stitching several hypotheses together. Evolution is a complex process nd a wider angle provides a more acceptable view. It is suggested thus, that a wide repository of theories may contribute decisively to an image of human evolution if they are assigned to their correct period. Unfortunately, fossils cannot help us when it comes to studying differences in skin and hair. But it seems acceptable from our analysis that nakedness might have evolved in a more closed, forested habitat and preceded bipedality. To support this, many other theories competing in the past may be harmonised, to yield important contributions to the understanding of why we stand naked today.

Angarika Deb has completed her MSc in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology from the University of Exeter (Department of Biosciences), UK.



  1. Amaral, L. Q. (1989), Human Evolution 4, 33–44.
  2. Amaral et al, Current Events, Journal of Human Evolution (1996) 30, 357–366.
  3. Andersson, M. B. (1994). Princeton University Press.
  4. MJ Rantala et al, Review, Journal of Zoology 0952-8369 (2006).
  5. Newman, R. (1970), Hum. Biol. 42, 12–27.
  6. Niemitz C, Naturwissenschaften (2010) 97:241–263.
  7. Rantala, M.J. (1999), Int. J. Parasitol. 29, 1987–1989.
  8. Wheeler, P. E. (1991a), Journal of Human Evolution 21, 107–115. 7.
  9. Clarke and Tobias (1995) Science 269:521–524.
  10. Wheeler, P. E. (1992b), Journal of Human Evolution 23, 379–388.
  11. WoldeGabriel et al. (2001), Nature 412:175–178.

Notes toward a theory of the corpus, Part 1: History

A replicated typo - Thu, 09/27/2018 - 19:18

By corpus I mean a collection of texts. The texts can be of any kind, but I am interested in literature, so I’m interested in literary texts. What can we infer from a corpus of literary texts? In particular, what can we infer about history?

Well, to some extent, it depends on the corpus, no? I’m interested in an answer which is fairly general in some ways, in other ways not. The best thing to do is to pick an example and go from there.

The example I have in mind is the 3300 or so 19th century Anglophone novels that Matthew Jockers examined in Macroanalysis(2013 – so long ago, but it almost seems like yesterday). Of course, Jockers has already made plenty of inferences from that corpus. Let’s just accept them all more or less at face value. I’m after something different.

I’m thinking about the nature of historical process. Jockers’ final study, the one about influence, tells us something about that process, more than Jockers seems to realize. I think it tells us that cultural evolution is a force in human history, but I don’t intend to make that argument here. Rather, my purpose is to argue that Jockers has created evidence that can be brought to bear on that kind of assertion. The purpose of this post is to indicate why I believe that.

A direction in a 600 dimension space

In his final study Jockers produced the following figure (I’ve superimposed the arrow):

Each node in that graph represents a single novel. The image is a 2D projection of a roughly 600 dimensional space, one dimension for each of the 600 features Jockers has identified for each novel. The length of each edge is proportional to the distance between the two nodes. Jockers has eliminated all edges above a certain relatively small value (as I recall he doesn’t tell us the cut off point). Thus two nodes are connected only if they are relatively close to one another, where Jockers takes closeness to indicate that the author of the more recent novel was influenced by the author of more distant one.

Each node in that graph represents a single novel. The image is a 2D projection of a roughly 600 dimensional space, one dimension for each of the 600 features Jockers has identified for each novel. The length of each edge is proportional to the distance between the two nodes. Jockers has eliminated all edges above a certain relatively small value (as I recall he doesn’t tell us the cut off point). Thus two nodes are connected only if they are relatively close to one another, where Jockers takes closeness to indicate that the author of the more recent novel was influenced by the author of more distant one.

You may or may not find that to be a reasonable assumption, but let’s set it aside. What interests me is the fact that the novels in this are in rough temporal order, from 1800 at the left (gray) to 1900 at the right (purple). Where did that order come from? There were no dates in 600D description of each novel. As far as I can tell, that must be a product of the historical process that produced those texts. That process must therefore have a temporal direction.

I’ve spent a fair amount of effort explicitly arguing that point [1], but don’t want to reprise that argument here. For the purposes of this piece, assume that that argument is at least a reasonable one to make.

What is that direction? I don’t have a name for it, but that’s what the arrow in the image indicates. One might call it Progress, especially with Hegel looking over your shoulder. And I admit to a bias in favor of progress, though I have no use for the notion of some ultimate telostoward which history tends. But saying that direction is progress is a gesture without substantial intellectual content because it doesn’t engage with the terms in which that 600D space is constructed. What are those terms? Some of them are topics of the sort identified in topic analysis, e.g. American slavery, beauty and affection, dreams and thoughts, Greek and Egyptian gods, knaves rogues and asses, life history, machines and industry, misery and despair, scenes of natural beauty, and so on [3]. Others are stylistic features, such as the frequency of specific words, e.g. the, heart, would, me, lady, which are the first five words in a list Jockers has in the “Style” chapter of Macroanalysis(p. 94).

In a post back in 2014 I suggested that Jockers’ image depicts the Geistof 19th century Anglo-American literary culture [2]. That’s what interests me, the possibility that we’re looking at a 21st century operationalization of an idea from 19th century German idealism. Here’s what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Hegel’s conception of history [4]:

In a sense Hegel’s phenomenology is a study of phenomena (although this is not a realm he would contrast with that of noumena) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is likewise to be regarded as a type of propaedeutic to philosophy rather than an exercise in or work of philosophy. It is meant to function as an induction or education of the reader to the standpoint of purely conceptual thought from which philosophy can be done. As such, its structure has been compared to that of a Bildungsroman (educational novel), having an abstractly conceived protagonist—the bearer of an evolving series of so-called shapes of consciousness or the inhabitant of a series of successive phenomenal worlds—whose progress and set-backs the reader follows and learns from. Or at least this is how the work sets out: in the later sections the earlier series of shapes of consciousness becomes replaced with what seem more like configurations of human social life, and the work comes to look more like an account of interlinked forms of social existence and thought within which participants in such forms of social life conceive of themselves and the world. Hegel constructs a series of such shapes that maps onto the history of western European civilization from the Greeks to his own time.

Now, I am not proposing that Jockers’ has operationalized that conception, those “so-called shapes of consciousness”, in any way that could be used to buttress or refute Hegel’s philosophy of history – which, after all, posited a final end to history. But I am suggesting that can we reasonably interpret that image as depicting a (single) historical phenomenon, perhaps even something like an animating ‘force’, albeit one requiring a thoroughly material account. Whatever it is, it is as abstract as the Hegelian Geist.

How could that be?

Let’s spell out some fairly obvious things about the material underpinning, if you will, of the phenomena represented in that image. Each node represents a novel published in the 19th century, either in Ireland, England, or the United States. There are roughly 3300 novels, which implies something on the order 3300 people, the authors of those novels. Of course, some authors produced more than one text in the corpus, and some texts had more than one author. Moreover, those authors worked with editors, each of whom read the book. And the editors reported to publishers who had to authorize publication, and so on. So lets say we have on the order of 10,000 individuals more or less associated with creation of those 3300 books.

Each book necessarily is an expression of those 10,000 minds. The expression is direct in the case of authors, but not-so-direct in the case of the others. Yet they wouldn’t have been involved with the book unless it somehow answered to or reflected something in their minds, even if it was only a commercial hunch about what would sell. And then we have the readers who (more or less necessarily) see or seek something of themselves in the books they read.

Note however that the fact of publication represents a commercial judgment about the viability of a given title in the marketplace. Editors and publishers, authors too, are aware of that marketplace and take that into account in their decisions. Thus independently of the actual post-publication readership of a book, the decision to publish represents a studied judgment about the taste and desires of the current literary marketplace.

Some books will have had relatively few readers, on the order of 100s or at most 1000s; while others had many readers, tens or hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions in some cases. And these readings, with their associated readers, may have happened within a year or two of publication or may have been spread out over decades or more. Yet the books register in the corpus only once, the year of initial publication [4]. The corpus thus does not accurately represent the presence of those novels in the minds of 19th century readers.

Nor, for that matter, does that corpus represent either the entire 19th century production of Anglophone novels or a representative sample of that production. It’s a convenience sample. It’s what Jockers could cobble together in a reasonable amount of time.

Nonetheless I’m going to say that it represents the (collective) consciousness, perhaps mind if you will, of the 19th century Anglophone reading public. It is by no means a complete representation of the consciousness/mind of that public, but it’s not a mere chimera either. Perhaps a visual analogy will help.

This is a photograph of a high-end apartment building in Lower Manhattan, 8 Spruce Street. For what it’s worth, the building was designed by the “starchitect” Frank Gehry:

The arrow I’ve imposed on Jockers’ graph is a diagonal in the 600D space whose dimensions are defined by those features and so its direction must specified in terms that are commensurate with such features. Would I like to have an intelligible interpretation of that direction? Sure. But let’s leave that aside. We’ve got an abstract space in which we can represent the characteristics of novels (Daniel Dennett might call this a design space) and we’ve got a vector in that space, a direction.What’s that direction about? What is it about texts that is changing as we move along that vector? I don’t know. Can I speculate? Sure. But not here and now. What’s important now is that that vector exists. We can think about it without having to know exactly what it is.

Is that a complete representation of 8 Spruce Street? Of course not. I note that the building is partially hidden by clouds and by another building. It represents the building as it appeared from a certain point of view at a certain time on a certain day, no more, no less. And, of course, it tells us nothing about the building’s interior, much less about those who live there.

If we are going to use that photograph to draw conclusions about that building, we are going to have to be careful. It will only support limited inferences. But it WILL support SOME inferences.

And so it is with Jockers’ snapshot of 19th century Anglo-American fiction. What conclusions can we draw from it? I’ve already drawn one conclusion, that that fiction unfolds or evolves along a certain (as yet uncharacterized) direction in the feature or design space of novelistic possibility. But what determines novelistic possibility?

What is spirit?

The human mind, obviously, the human mind.

Evolutionary psychologists, represented in literary studies by Joseph Carroll and his legion of literary Darwinists (among others), would have us believe that the basic parameters of the human mind are given in biology. Certainly, biology is important, essential, even foundational. But not even Carroll himself believes that biology is all. Biology is shaped by (local) culture.

I’m attracted by the analogy of a board game, such as chess. Biology provides the basic rules of the game, the pieces and their moves, the game board, and the rules of play. Culture provides the tactics and strategy of games play. Those biological rules are thus quite open-ended, leaving many degrees of freedom for cultural elaboration and variation.

What determines those variations? Marxists of all stripes tell us material conditions, modes of production. Sure, why not? But those are hardly simple matters. And beyond that we have happenstance. Things are done this way because at some time and place someone decided to do it for whatever reason and, somehow, it caught on.

I mean, who knows? Biological, material conditions and modes of production, happenstance, what else? At the moment it really doesn’t matter, not for my argument. Biology creates a space of possibilities and culture plays in that space.Think of it like this:

On the left I have indicated the various biological and cultural factors acting on the readers (note that writers are necessarily readers of their own texts) while the various features of literary works are on the right. The important part of the diagram is the middle block, the reader’s mind/brain. What is important is that the biological and cultural factors do not map on to text features in a simple manner. Each text feature is subject to multiple influencing factors, both biological and cultural.

Each person lives through the interaction of cultural and biological factors. Biological traits are inherited from one generation to another as are most of the cultural ones. It’s very difficult for the apple to fall far from the tree, if you will. Evolution: descent with modification. And that’s what we see in Jockers’ figure, the gradual evolution of the 19th century Anglo-American Geistas it expresses itself in the novel. There’s nothing fundamentally mysterious or immaterial about this, though we certainly don’t understand the process. Those books are material objects. The people who produce them and read them are material beings, their brains in particular. How those brains work, we don’t know, though we’re learning more everyday.

In the realm of the aesthetic

I would like to conclude by considering a passage from one of Edward Said’s last essays, “Globalizing Literary Study,” published in 2001 in PMLA[6]. He says:

I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify. Questions and doubts about all these other relations have eroded the formerly perdurable national and aesthetic frameworks, limits, and boundaries almost completely. The notion neither of author, nor of work, nor of nation is as dependable as it once was, and for that matter the role of imagination, which used to be a central one, along with that of identity has undergone a Copernical transformation in the common understanding of it.

I believe that the most interesting way of thinking about that vector in the 600 dimensional “design space” of the 19th century Anglophone novel is to consider the possibility that it is evidence for the existence of that autonomous aesthetic realm [7]. THAT’s why I want to be very careful in thinking about just what a corpus is, what it implies.

In principle the previous diagram takes full account of all the various factors of historical particularity (at the upper left). But it also includes our underlying biological characteristics (lower left). Our engagement with texts must necessarily reflect both realms. That’s where we find the autonomous aesthetic realm, in the tension between biology and culture. Those texts are not fully subsumed by either realm, but emerge through living in both.

I take the fact those 3300 19th century Anglophone novels seem to unfold along a single dimension in design space as evidence of the fundamental integrity and autonomy of the historical process that underlies those texts. That’s what Jockers has shown, even if he hasn’t interpreted his evidence in those terms. How do we then get from a demonstration that historical process is a forcein human history? Couldn’t we think of those novels as epiphenomenal reflections of that process, in the way that some philosophers think of consciousness as an epiphenomenal effect biological processes in the brain?Of course we could think in those terms. Which is to say that thinking of that process – which I think of as a cultural evolutionary one – as itself a force in historyrequires an argument, one that I’ve not provided here. Nor do I intend to. Rather I simply want to indicate that such an argument is now in play. That’s what’s at stake in thinking carefully about a long-term historical corpus of literary texts. We thinking about the nature of history.


[1] See William Benzon, On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel, Working Paper, April 2015, pp. 31, https://www.academia.edu/12112568/On_the_Direction_of_Cultural_Evolution_Lessons_from_the_19th_Century_Anglophone_Novel.

[2] William Benzon, Reading Macroanalysis 7.1: Visualizing the Geist of 19th Century Anglo-American Literary Culture, New Savanna (blog), August 22, 2014, accessed September 25, 2018, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2014/08/reading-macroanalysis-71-visualizing.html.

[3] Jockers identified 500 topics in his analysis and he has created a website where you can examine each of them, http://www.matthewjockers.net/macroanalysisbook/macro-themes/.

[4] Redding, Paul, “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/hegel/>.

[5] I’m assuming this. I don’t know how Jockers handled the issue of multiple printings and different editions.

[6] Edward W. Said, “Globalizing Literary Study”, PMLA116(1), 2001: 64-68.

[7] I first advanced this idea at the end of my 2006 theoretical and methodological paper, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts,August 2006, Article 060608, https://www.academia.edu/235110/Literary_Morphology_Nine_Propositions_in_a_Naturalist_Theory_of_Form.

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