Evolutionary linguistics

Back to the Drawing Boards

Babel's Dawn - Fri, 01/03/2020 - 20:47

Anyone familiar with this blog knows of my frustrations with Noam Chomsky. He seems to be so smart and logical, and yet never says anything that sounds half-way right or even usable. For example, he recently published an essay (Catalan Journal of Linguistics, “Some Puzzling Foundational Issues”) that considers the evolution of language, by which Chomsky means “the evolution of the Language Faculty." Is that what most people mean when they consider the evolution of language? I doubt it. Any ordinary person picking up an essay on “the evolution of language” would probably be expecting an account of how people began to use words. The biggest conundrum would be how people reached an agreement as to what words meant what things. How have I and my neighbors come to share the word and meaning of shoe? Or whatever the first word was?

This obvious question involves various difficulties and the answer depends on more factors than are first evident. Is one of those factors a “Language Faculty”? It would seem plausible, but Chomsky defines his concept in such a way that it is irrelevant to the study of language origins. Yet I found his latest piece interesting because it reveals that Chomsky is beginning to admit to the usual difficulties when he tries to make his logic match reality. He has had to rethink a key operation in his theory, something called Merge.

Anybody who has studied Chomsky’s work has seen the pattern many  times. Chomsky proposes some simple principles about language. Then he offers a brilliant, and simple, solution to explain how the principles can be used to generate all the sentences of a language, at which point he and his disciples begin examining empirical evidence to demonstrate the simplicity and correctness of his idea. At first, the work claims success. Then difficulties appear and the simple proposal must be defended by increased claims that the difficulties can be ignored. Then the difficulties are too blatant to be waved away, and Chomsky announces a change of mind. The simple solution was wrong, a new solution has been found, and the cycle begins again.

Chomsky has won many admirers for his ability to change his mind, but he has never changed his initial principles of language—e.g., language structure reflects a computation; all languages rest on the same invariant rules; the ability to compute sentences according to the invariant rules rest on an inborn faculty of the mind. If we take another look at Chomsky’s work, we might say that instead of regularly changing his mind, he never changed it. From the beginning of his published work (in the 1950s) until today, over 60 years later, he has stuck by the same principles even though he has never found a way to make them work. All of the practical progress made in machine composition and translation has followed other techniques.

In his paper on “Some Puzzling Foundational Issues,” Chomsky is once again changing his mind without having to change his premises. The hand waving is getting desperate.

What might an alternative set of language principles look like? We might say that language allows communities to consider shared topics. It does this by drawing attention to whatever seems relevant. Different communities may be interested in widely differing topics and may have quite distinct notions of relevance. Thus, different languages can be profoundly unlike one another. Yet they will all share something abstract, a common method of directing and keeping attention on a topic and its relevant details.

There are other descriptions of language. I have given the one I happen to believe as a result of working on this blog, but my point is not that I am right but that we there are more possibilities than are found in Chomsky’s philosophy.

The aim of Chomsky’s latest paper is to present what can be rescued from the wreckage of his latest crash, and frankly I don’t care what his salvage operation looks like. I’m more interested in the elaborate hocus pocus by which he waves away rivals that might question his unchanging principles.

The biggest rival to Chomsky, because it is the most commonsensical, is the idea that the rules of language can be known by studying languages as they are used. Thus, if you want to understand French, read and parse French documents, or listen to French conversations. Sixty years ago, Chomsky got a lot of respectful attention in the intellectual press by denying this point. He said that a sentence in French, English or any language had a surface structure that could be directly examined. But he argued, things cannot all be explained by surface structure, so we have to examine a deep structure, and that deep structure follows the same rules, no matter what the language.

To the objection, what about grammatical mistakes—if we have some innate set of rules, why do we speak so badly?—Chomsky distinguished between linguistic competence (the rules we know) and linguistic performance (the errors we make as a result of a variety of frictions and impediments to perfect behavior).

Surface and deep structure, linguistic competence and performance—with these tools Chomsky set out to conquer linguistics. By the mid 1960s he had abandoned the search for a common deep structure in favor of the quest for a Universal Grammar (UG) that would generate sentences in any language. By now there is a complex set of interfaces that replaces concepts of competence and performance. The UG generates the formal sentences that define an Internal (I) Language. A second language, the External (E) Language is made public by speech, writing, hand signs and other means. The language we find around us is generated by the UG in the form of I-Language sentences which are then translated by the body’s sensory-motor system into the more familiar E-Languages of the world.

The problem with this account has always been in the translation of universal to communal languages. It did not work with the switching from deep to surface structures and it still isn’t working. What has changed is that Chomsky no longer even pretends to be looking for a way to get from one form to the other. For many years, in his lectures Chomsky would introduce the I-Language/E-Language distinction and say he was interested only in I-Language and proceed to ignore language as it is encountered everywhere. That’s why I sat up when I saw in this paper that he now attempts, at least partially, to justify ignoring E-language.

Here is his presentation:

  • First, he looks at the interfaces where the language is handed off for further processing: the core I-language (internal language) generates solely representations on one interface: C-I (Conceptual Intentional interface), essentially a kind of language of thought. And that’s probably close to, or probably we will discover totally invariant among human beings. [There it is, the  restatement of the all-languages-are-alike doctrine he has preached since the middle of the 20th century.]
  • Next, Chomsky endows E-Language with all the properties that most people would like to understand when they think about language: It seems that the complexity, the variety of language arise overwhelmingly if not completely from the ancillary operations which lead to externalization which we know draws upon our sensory motor systemAnd it’s pretty natural that that should be complex and vary because you have to match two systems that essentially have nothing to do with one another. [Tada! This is a huge concession. Chomsky now grants that E-Languages are now seen as radically unlike I-Languages.] The internal system seems to have arisen pretty suddenly along with modern humans [Note: modern humans did not arise suddenly but gradually over a couple of million years!] and the SM (Sensory-Motor) system have been around for hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions of years, and have absolutely nothing to do with language. So when we try to connect these two things, it’s necessarily going to be a complex operation, and in fact the external operations, although they certainly follow principles and rules of a restricted variety they nevertheless violate just about any principle of computational complexity one can imagine, and they do vary a lot, change a lot, generation to generation and so on.[Another tada.]
  • Finally, after admitting that E-Languages bear little to no resemblance to I-Language, he throws E-Language out the window and declares for the study of I-Language: So I’ll just assume that, admittedly without any arguments – it’s been discussed elsewhere – and take a look at the generative mechanisms for the core I-Language mapping to C-I.

Usually, I am stuck between frustration and admiration when Chomsky pulls one of these maneuvers. The frustration is over the use of con-man tricks, pulling notions from thin air and saying they are what matters, not the money you are being asked to contribute to the cause. Yet I have always been impressed by the audacity of the man, the sheer gall of waving aside questions that generations have wondered about, as though they were a mere bag of shells (to quote Ralph Kramden).

This time, however, I have a happier response; I smell victory here. Chomsky seems to have finally realized he cannot forever dismiss his critics and their data. At least he now concedes that we  cannot learn French without examining French language as a thing in itself. Furthermore, he grants that linguistic performance (to use an abandoned bit of jargon) depends on mastering sensory-motor skill. True, he also says the sensory-motor system has absolutely nothing to do with language, but this assertion is empirically false and can be shown so.  Starting with Italian linguistic philosophers and then spreading to points around the globe, a school has developed that argues the various grammars for individual, natural languages are based on how words and phrases focus and redirect attention (attention is part of the sensory-motor system). If that school is right and natural language structure depends on sensory-motor powers, the whole of I-language becomes irrelevant and can be ignored as though neither a UG nor an internal-language even existed. In the end, it is surface structure and utterances of the E-Languages that matter.

Chomsky has had a long career and a much celebrated one. Along the way many people have tried to adapt one or the other I-Language systems to their own field of interest and eventually have discovered the emptiness of the metaphor. It is worth remembering the practical question that kicked off these studies: how can you build a machine that can generate any of the sentences found in a particular language and not generate any sentences not found in the language? There is no point in going back to the drawing boards to better define an I-Language if the sentences of every public language "violate just about any principle of computational complexity one can imagine, and they do vary a lot, change a lot, generation to generation." No machine will generate all and only the sentences of any particular language if it sticks to a simple computation based on invariant syntax.

Just How Long Ago Did Adam Eat that Apple?

Babel's Dawn - Thu, 12/12/2019 - 15:35

In thinking about how language might have begun, one of the tempting details of the human vocal system has been the “laryngeal descent.” The larynx (aka, the voice box or the “Adam’s apple”) moved a bit down the throat. This anatomical detail was long thought to be exclusive to humans and was also believed to be important in producing certain acoustic distinctions between vowels, so that English speakers can say poke or puke without causing confusion. As the descent appears to have been only 200,000 years old, it seemed that the descent might have had something to do with the introduction of speech, which many people believe to be at most 200,000 years old. Put crudely, the hypothesis said that the human cognitive features needed to support language developed first, but speech only appeared after the laryngeal descent.

This hypothesis supported the Chomsky school of linguistics which asserts that language first emerged as a tool for supporting thinking and only later interfaced with the ability  to vocalize and engage in speech.

It has been known for some  time now that the laryngeal descent is not found only in humans. A report in the latest Science magazine—"Which way to the dawn of speech?” by Jean-Louis Boë et al—reviews the work on laryngeal descent and determined that the previously accepted date for the descent was a bit late. In fact, the paper claims that the trait belongs to many apes, is not essential for making vowel distinctions, and has been part of the human ancestral lineage for at least 20 million years. The surviving great apes all share much of that lineage with us, thus falsifying the conjecture that the laryngeal descent was one of the last steps in evolving speech.

Boë et al go on to ask, “While speech had been thought of as an enabling communication of already developed linguistic cognition, should it now be thought of as an early driver of linguistic cognitive development?” This blog has never expressed the process in quite that way, but it has long supported the notion that vocalizations led to words which led to phrases and, ultimately, to modern language. This latest report does not prove the point, but at least it removes some theoretical obstacles to accepting this blog’s position.

 

Divergence and Reticulation in Cultural Evolution

A replicated typo - Wed, 11/27/2019 - 19:42

That’s the title of my latest working paper. You can download it here: https://www.academia.edu/41095277/Divergence_and_Reticulation_in_Cultural_Evolution_Some_draft_text_for_an_article_in_progress.

And you can participate in a discussion of it here: https://www.academia.edu/s/9b97738023.

Abstract, Contents, and introductory material below.


* * * * *


Abstract: In a recent review of articles in computational criticism Franco Moretti and Oleg Sobchuk bring up the issue of tree-like (dendriform) vs. reticular phylogenies in biology and pose the question for the form taken by the evolution of cultural objects: How is cultural information transmitted, vertically (leading to trees) or horizontally (yielding webs)? Dendriform phylogenies are particularly interesting because one can infer the phylogenetic history of an ensemble of species by examining the current state. The horizontal transmission of information in webs obscures any historical signal. I examine a few cultural examples in some detail, including jazz styles and natural language, and then take up the 3300 node graph Matthew Jockers (Macroanalysis 2013) used to depict similarity relationships between 3300 19th century Anglophone novels. The graph depicts a web-like mesh of texts but, uncharacteristically of such patterns, also exhibits a strong historical signal. (Just how that is possible is the subject of another draft.)


Contents
What’s Up? 1
The need for theory: Cultural evolution 2
Trees, Nets, and Inheritance in Biology 4
Divergence and reticulation in culture 7
Jockers’ Graph, a reticulate network 18 Appendix: A quick guide to cultural evolution 22  


What’s Up?
In the past year we have had two reviews of recent work in computational criticism:

Nan Z. Da, The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies, Critical Inquiry 45, Spring 2019, 601-639.
Franco Moretti and Oleg Sobchuk, Hidden in Plain Sight: Data Visualization in the Humanities, New Left Review 118, July August 2019, 86-119.

Though both are critical of that work, they are quite different in tone and intent. Da is broadly dismissive and sees little value in it. Moretti and Sobchuk see considerable value in the work, but are disappointed that it is largely empirical in character, failing to articulate a theoretical superstructure that deepens our understanding of literary history.

I’ve been working on a critique of those papers which seems to have expanded into a primer on thinking about literary culture as an evolutionary phenomenon. I’m currently imaging that the final article will have five parts:

  1. Genealogy in literary history
  2. Unidirectional trends in cultural evolution
  3. Jockers’ Graph: Direction in the 19th century Anglophone novel
  4. Expressive culture as a force in history
  5. A quick guide to cultural evolution for humanists

I have already posted draft material for the second part of the article, which centers on a graph from Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis (2013) [1].

That graph was my central concern from the beginning. It is the most interesting conceptual object I’ve seen in computational criticism, but it is easily misunderestimated and glossed over – as far as I know Da’s understandable but unfortunate dismissal is the only treatment of it in the referred literature. The problem, it seems to me, is that a proper appreciation of it requires a conceptual framework that doesn’t exist in the literature. My objective, then, is to begin assembling such a framework.

Moretti and Sobchuk didn’t mention it at all as their review was confined to journal articles. But it merits consideration in a framework that did establish in their review, if only barely. The invoke a distinction from evolutionary biology, that between tree-like (dendriform) phylogenies and free-form or web-like phylogenies, and suggest that it is important for understanding the relationship between literary for and history (pp. 108 ff.). Jockers graph is web-like network of texts but it exhibits an important feature of dendriform phylogenies, it displays a strong temporal signal. Thus a discussion of issues raised by Moretti and Sobchuk is a good way to begin constructing the missing conceptual framework.

This document consists of draft material for the discussion, the first part of the planned article, and the fifth part. The fifth part, the appendix is straight forward, and I have included it the end of this document. Once I have discussed the issue of dendriform vs. web-like relationships I introduce Jockers’s graph.

In the second part of the article, unidirectional trends in cultural evolution, I plan to say a few words about time and directionality. I will then take up a number of the examples Moretti and Sobchuk review in their article. While they don’t frame them as evidence for unidirectional trends, that is what they are. From my point of view that’s the most interesting and important aspect of their review, they gather those articles into one place. I will be placing those articles in the context of other work showing unidirectional trends.

I don’t yet know whether I’ll post draft materials on the second and fourth sections before drafting the whole article.

The need for theory: Cultural evolution

Now let us turn to Moretti and Sobchuk. Here is their penultimate paragraph (112-113):


Tree-like, linear, reticulate . . . why should we even care about the shape of cultural history? We should, because that shape is implicitly a hypothesis about the forces that operate within history; the tentative, intuitive beginning of a theoretical framework. ‘Theories are, even more than laboratory instruments, the essential tools of the scientist’s trade’, wrote Thomas Kuhn over a half century ago; too bad we didn’t heed his advice. Although the crass anti-intellectualism of Wired—‘correlation is enough’, ‘the scientific method is obsolete’—has fortunately remained an exception, what seems to have happened is that, as the amount of quantitative evidence at our disposal was increasing, our attempts at in-depth explanations were losing their strength. Disclaimers, postponements, ad hoc reactions, false modesty, leaving inferences ‘for another day’ . . . such have been, far too often, our inconclusive conclusions.


Ah, “the forces that operate within history”, that’s what we’re after, no? And we’re not going to get there without theory, yes?

I believe that that theory will be about culture as an evolutionary phenomenon. It is clear that both Moretti and Sobchuk believe that as well, but they do not introduce or frame their essay that way. They introduce it as a methodological inquiry into the use of visualization. It is only as the essay unfolds that evolution emerges as an ideational engine parallel to if not quite driving their interest in visualization.

Accordingly it is necessary to make some preliminary remarks about cultural evolution. Work in cultural evolution has blossomed in the last quarter century but:

While humanities and social science scholars are interested in complex phenomena—often involving the interaction between behaviour rich in semantic information, networks of social interactions, material artefacts and persisting institutions—many prominent cultural evolutionary models focus on the evolution of a few select cultural traits, or traits that vary along a single dimension […]. Moreover, when such models do build in more traits, these typically are taken to evolve independently of one another […]. Within cultural evolutionary theory, this strategy holds that the dynamics and structure of cultural evolutionary phenomena can be extrapolated from models that represent a small number of cultural traits interacting in independent (or non-epistatic) processes. This kind of strategy licences the modelling of simple trait systems, either with an eye to describing the kinematics of those simple systems, or to illuminate the evolution and operation of mechanisms underpinning their transmission […]. [2]

Hence, if students of literature want to think about culture as a phenomenon of evolutionary processes, we will not find suitable models and methods in existing work on cultural evolution. Though we certainly need to be aware of and conversant with that work, we are going to have to construct models and methods suitable to our material. That is the primary objective of this essay. To that end, then, I will be introducing a several of examples of work on cultural evolution in other domains.

Biologists, of course, has been developing evolutionary theory over the last half century. While they agree on basic issues, many details are still under contention. When we, then, as students of literary culture set out to adapt evolutionary theory to the analysis of literary phenomena, just what do we take from biological thinking and how do we do it? Various approaches exist in the general cultural literature, but this is hardly the place to sort through them – though I have prepared a brief appendix with pointers into those discussions. What Moretti and Sobchuk seem to have taken over is the distinction between tree-like lineages and more chaotic, network-like lineages. So that’s where I will start.

Where I am going, though, is toward an argument which says that that distinction is a reflection of the mechanisms that underlie the evolutionary process and it is to those mechanisms that we must look in adapting evolutionary theory to the study of human culture. Cultural evolution unfolds though collectivities of human minds, and they give cultural evolution a different texture, if you will, and different large scale patterns.


References

[1] On the direction of literary history: How should we interpret that 3300 node graph in Macroanalysis, Version 2, https://www.academia.edu/40550795/On_the_direction_of_literary_history_How_should_we_interpret_that_3300_node_graph_in_Macroanalysis_Version_2.

[2] Buskell, A., Enquist, M. & Jansson, F. A systems approach to cultural evolution. Palgrave Commun 5, 131 (2019) pp. 4-5, doi:10.1057/s41599-019-0343-5 https://rdcu.be/bVNtP.

A quick guide to cultural evolution for humanists

A replicated typo - Wed, 11/20/2019 - 12:14

I’m currently working on a long article in which I review two recent critiques of computational criticism (one by Nan Z. Da and the other by Franco Moretti and Oleg Sobchuk). Moretti and Sobchuk introduce cultural evolution into their discussion, but don’t say much about it, and I’m suspect that their audience, and mine, is unfamiliar with current work in the area. Accordingly I’ve decided to prepare a brief appendix to serve as a guide. Since I will be citing my own work in my article, and further developing my views, I do not mention it in this guide.

Much of the recent work on cultural evolution is empirical; researchers count things and see how they behave over time. This work requires minimal commitment to a specific theory or model of how cultural evolution works. That is perhaps wise, as there is no consensus on how to relate the relevant biological concepts to cultural entities and processes. These questions can help you organize and sort through the different conceptualizations.

1. What is the target/beneficiary of the evolutionary dynamic?

Is it a human or collection of humans that benefits directly or is it the cultural entity itself. “Directly” is the key word, as humans must ultimately benefit, otherwise cultural evolution is just a waste of biological resources. To the extent that there is a “mainstream” approach it is something called “gene-culture coevolution” or “dual inheritance theory.” In this approach humans are the direct beneficiaries of cultural success.

When Richard Dawkins proposed the meme as a cultural replicator in The Selfish Gene (1976) he proposed that the meme itself was the direct beneficiary of evolution. This allows for a potential conflict between cultural and biological evolution. A cultural trait like celibacy among the religious, for example, would seem to conflict with a biological ‘imperative’ to reproduce.

2. Replication (copying) or (re)construction.

Independently of the first question, how is the cultural entity transmitted from one person to another? Is it a process of imitation or reconstruction? Genes replicate through a process of copying, hence Dawkins’ choice of a term, “meme”, to suggest that. He sees genes as cultural replicators, and many researchers agree with this.

In 1996 Dan Sperber published Explaining Culture in which he argued that, no, cultural entities aren’t copied. Rather they’re reconstructed. Hence instances will differ from one another.

3. Is there a meaningful distinction comparable to the biological distinction between phenotype and genotype?

As far as I can tell, this distinction has little meaning for those focusing on empirical work. They count what they can count. And it doesn’t seem to have much purchase among adherents of gene-cultural coevolution or dual-inheritance theory. For these investigators we have populations of humans on the one hand, and cultural entities on the other. At this level of abstraction those cultural entities are all of the same kind.

The distinction comes into play when you take the position that cultural entities themselves are the direct beneficiaries of the evolutionary process. Dawkins sometimes talks of memes as though they are comparable to biological genes, implying that there are phenotypic entities as well. Other times, however, he talks of memes as viruses, in which case there is no phenotypic entity. As far as I can tell, Sperber doesn’t make this distinction either.

4. Are the genetic elements of culture inside people’s heads or are they in the external environment?

Dawkins was ambiguous on this point in The Selfish Gene. There is a strong tendency to conceptualize culture’s genetic entities, if you will, as being inside people’s heads. Most meme advocates do, and I believe that Sperber and his followers do as well. But one can take another position, that the culture’s genetic entities are in the external world in one form or another. That’s the position I take.

What to read?

I would recommend that humanists with no background in evolutionary thought start with Gary Taylor’s Cultural Selection: Why Some Achievements Survive The Test Of Time And Others Don’t (Basic Books: 1996). It side-steps the theoretical mess around and about those four questions and discusses a lot of examples. I read it years ago and so don’t recall any specifics, but this publisher’s blurb seems reasonable:

[Taylor] argues that culture is not what was done, but what is remembered and that the social competition among different memories is as dynamic as the biological struggle for survival. Taylor builds his argument on a broad base of cultural achievements, from Michelangelo to Frankenstein, from Shakespeare to Casablanca, from Freud to Invisible Man. He spans the continents to draw upon Japanese literature, Native American history, ancient Greek philosophy, and modern American architecture.

What’s next? I would suggest: Laland, K. M. and G. R. Brown, Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior, (Oxford University Press: 2002). That’s the edition I read, but there is a second edition published in 2011. Laland and Brown cover not only cultural evolution in its various conceptual forms, but evolution and human behavior more generally, including sociobiology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology. As I recall, the title is apt, sense and nonsense.

Then you might want to look at a relatively short document (37 pp.) giving summaries and positions articulated in a workshop Daniel Dennett convened in 2010. It was held at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Participants: Dan Dennett, Susan Blackmore, Rob Boyd, Nicolas Cladière, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joseph Henrich, Olivier Morin, Peter Richerson, Dan Sperber, and Kim Sterelny. They run through various issues centered on the second question above. The document is published by the International Cognition & Culture Institute (founded by Dan Sperber) as Cultural Evolution Workshop (2010) at this link, http://cognitionandculture.net/ebooks/. You can download it as a PDF or iBook.

For gene-culture coevolution and/or dual inheritance I would recommend Alexander Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences (University of Chicago Press: 2011). This is only moderately technical.

If you want to further investigate memetics, you should start with Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. It’s been reissued several times; any edition will do. Read the whole thing, not just the memetics chapter; that will give you a better understanding of what was on his mind when he posited the existence of memes. Once you’ve read that you should read this paper, Jeremy Trevelyan Burman, The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976-1999, Perspectives on Science 2012, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 75-104. Burman explains how the concept went from a relatively informal and ambiguous idea to the popular concept of a viral agent moving from mind to mind. Also look at Derek Gatherer, Why the ‘Thought Contagion’ Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics, Journal of Memetics-Evolutionary Models of Transmission, vol. 2, 1998, pp. 1-21, http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/gatherer_d.html. Gatherer argues against the idea that culture’s genetic elements are entities in the brain/mind.

Dan Sperber’s book – Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach (Wiley: 1996) – is relatively short and quite readable. He talks of an epidemiology of representations and adopts the term “attractor” from complex dynamics. A cultural attractor is a bit like a Platonic Ideal (though I suspect Sperber would reject the comparison); it is a form toward which cultural entities evolve according to factors of attraction. These factors might be some psychological preferences and/or environmental features that favor a cultural entity. This approach has come to be known as cultural attraction theory (CAT).

For a different take on the subject you can read Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York, Pantheon Books: 1999). Wright is working outside the nexus of the four questions I’ve listed above. He takes a long view of human history, from origins up to the present, and argues that we are moving toward ever more sophisticated modes of cooperative interaction. His title, NonZero, is a term from game theory. A zero sum game is one where one party’s gain is necessarily another party’s loss. A nonzero sum game, in contrast, is one where all parties can come out better than they were before entering into the interaction. Wright’s other point of departure is an empirical literature in anthropology and archaeology that dates mostly to the third quarter of the previous century. These scholars were interested in measuring the cultural complexity of existing, but also historical, societies and developed sophisticated statistical tools for doing so. Wright then argues that culture evolves toward more complex forms with more cooperative interactions between people.

As a bonus, you might want to look through the archives of the listserve associated with the Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, which was published from 1997 to 2005. It was an online journal, here: http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/. The list is archived here: http://cfpm.org/~majordom/memetics/about.html#archives.

Finally, the Cultural Evolution Society was founded a couple of years ago: https://culturalevolutionsociety.org/.

The computational envelope of language – Once more into the breach

A replicated typo - Sun, 10/27/2019 - 11:51

Time to saddle-up and once more ride my current hobby horse, or one of them at least. In this case, the idea that natural language is the simplest aspect of human activity that is fundamentally and irreducibly computational in nature.

Let’s back into it.

* * * * *

Is arithmetic calculation computational in kind?

Well yes, of course. If anything is computation, that sure is.

Well then, in my current view, arithmetic calculation is language from which meaning has been completely removed, squeezed out as it were, leaving us with syntax, morphology, and so forth.

Elaborate.

First, let’s remind ourselves that arithmetic calculation, as performed by writing symbols on some surface, is a very specialized form of language. Sure, we think of it as something different from language…

All those years of drill and practice in primary school?

Yes. We have it drilled into our heads that arithmetic is one thing, over here, while language is something different, over there. But it’s obvious, isn’t it, that arithmetic is built from language?

OK, I’ll accept that.

So, arithmetic calculation has two kinds of symbols, numerals and operators. Both are finite in number. Numerals can be concatenated into strings of any length and in any order and combination.

OK. In the standard Arabic notation there are ten numerals, zero (0) through (9).

That’s correct.

And we’ve got five operators, +, -, * [times], ÷, and =. And, come to think of it, we probably should have left and right parenthesis as well.

OK. What’s the relationship between these two kinds of symbols?

Hmmmm….The operators allow as to specify various relationships between strings of numerals.

Starting with, yes, starting with a basic set of equivalences of the form, NumStr Op NumStr = NumStr, where Op is one from +, -, *, and ÷ and NumStr is a string of one or, in the case of these primitive equivalences, two numerals. [1]

Thus giving us those tables we memorized in grade school. Right!

What do you mean by semantics being removed?

Well, what are the potentially meaning-bearing elements in this collection?

That would be the numerals, no?

Yes. What do they mean?

Why, they don’t meaning anything…

Well… But they aren’t completely empty, are they?

No.

Elaborate. What’s not empty about, say, 5?

5 could designate…

By “designate” you mean “mean”?

Yes. 5 could designate any collection with five members. 5 apples, 5 oranges, 5 mountains, 5 stars…

What about an apple, an orange, a mountain, a star, and a dragon?

Yes, as long as there’s five of them.

Ah, I see. The numerals, or strings of numerals, are connected to the world though the operation of counting. When we use them to count, they, in effect, become numbers. But, yes, that’s a very general kind of relationship. Not much semantics or meaning there.

Right. And that’s what I mean by empty of semantics. All we’ve got left is syntax, more or less.

Sounds a bit like Searle in his Chinese Room.

Yes, it does, doesn’t it?

The idea is that the mental machinery we use to do arithmetic calculation, that’s natural computation, computation performed by a brain, from which semantics has been removed. That machinery is there in ordinary language, or even extraordinary language. Language couldn’t function without it. That’s where language gets its combinatorial facility.

And THAT sounds like Chomsky, no?

Yes.

* * * * *

And so it goes, on and on.

When the intellectual history of the second half of the twentieth century gets written, the discovery of the irreducibly computational nature of natural language will surely be listed as one of the highlights. Just who will get the honor, that’s not clear, though Chomsky is an obvious candidate. He certainly played a major role. But he didn’t figure out how an actual physical system could do it (the question was of little or no interest to him), and surely that’s part of the problem. If so, however, then we still haven’t gotten it figured out, have we?

* * * * *

[1] Isn’t that a bit sophisticated for the Glaucon figure in this dialog? Yes, but this is a 21st century Glaucon. He’s got a few tricks up his sleeve.

[2] Sounds a bit like the Frege/Russell set theory definition of number: a natural number n is the collection of all sets with n elements.

Language Evolution at the UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference

A replicated typo - Fri, 10/11/2019 - 08:58

The UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference will be hosted at the University of Birmingham next year, July 27 to 30. This interdisciplinary conference is focused on the intersection between language and cognition, and it accepts submissions from all areas of linguistics, including experimental and computational research on language evolution, language origins, iconicity, and cognitive and functional approaches to historical linguistics.
The plenary speakers for this conference include Adele Goldberg (Princeton University), Caroline Rowland (MPI Nijmegen), Mark Dingemanse (Radboud University) and Gabriella Vigliocco (University College London).

The call for papers is online, with a December 30 deadline for 500 word abstracts.

Besides submitting to the main session, the conference organizers welcome proposals for pre-conference workshops, which can be skills-based workshops lead by single researchers or teams of researchers, as well as series of talks by different researchers on specific topics.

Call for Contributions: Public Engagement in Language Evolution session

A replicated typo - Sun, 10/06/2019 - 18:53

Next year at EvoLang, I’m doing a short session on public engagement in Language Evolution. As part of this, I have been given a small part of the poster session to have a little exhibition/discussion corner about public engagement initiatives. As such, I am now recruiting contributions that outline existing initiatives. Contributions will use the 2-page EvoLang template (available here: https://www.evolang.org/submissions). Contributions should outline the initiative and make clear:

  • The objective(s) for the public engagement initiative
  • Reflections on success and areas for improvement
  • Good practice to be learnt from these reflections

Contributions will be reviewed in relation to space constraints, but I hope to have a good diversity of examples. Please email contributions to hannah.little@uwe.ac.uk before January 3rd 2020. Questions to the same address.

More context of the session is below:

Public engagement has always been an important aspect of academia. Breaking the barrier between research and the public can foster knowledge, equality, trust and accountability. On a more pragmatic level, funders increasingly require impact statements and plans for public dissemination. However, language evolution as a field has unique difficulties meeting these demands.

Evolutionary linguistics is difficult to explain to those outside the field. Much research presented at EvoLang has implications for our knowledge of human origins, but the implications for current and future humans often remain unclear, creating a “relevance gap”. Further, the abstractness of research based on models (computational or experimental) and not referring to concrete artefacts, fossils or living examples, creates another barrier for explanation. Since EvoLang started, many researchers have undertaken public engagement initiatives that address this relevance gap in different ways. 

In this session, we will explore existing and future objectives for public engagement with language evolution research. We will discuss ways to frame language evolution to make it accessible to the public, and present examples of good practice, as well as lessons to be learnt, from previous and ongoing public engagement initiatives.

Initiatives will be split into 2 sections, mirroring two (non comprehensive) models for public engagement: deficit and participation (Trench, 2008).

The deficit model sees the public as having a knowledge deficit and seeks to fix that through one-way communication. Typical examples are documentaries (e.g. Through the Wormhole episode “How do Aliens Think”, Sayenga, 2013) and science journalism (e.g. Babel Magazine, Little, 2018). Discussion within the session will focus on good practice around creating relevant and intuitive explanations for concepts within language evolution.

The participation model works on the principle that all participants in a public engagement initiative can contribute, and that all have a stake in the outcome. Many public engagement initiatives in language evolution have recruited members of the public as participants in data-collection exercises at public events including festivals (e.g. Verhoef et al., 2015), science centres and museums (e.g. Cluskley, 2018; Raviv & Arnon, 2018), or as games (e.g. The Color Game, Morin et al., 2018). While involvement as an experimental participant is a contribution, it does not necessarily create a sense of having a stake in the outcome, or even understanding the outcome. Therefore one of the key aspects of the session will be discussing good practice for increasing public understanding around these initiatives.

As a result of the submissions, a collaborative review paper of initiatives and best practice for public engagement in language evolution may be produced for submission to the Journal of Language Evolution. If you’d like to contribute to this, but cannot contribute to the session, please email me on hannah.little@uwe.ac.uk

References

Cuskley, C. (2018). Alien symbols for alien language: iterated learning in a unique, novel signal space. In The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 12th International Conference (EVOLANGXII). Ed. by C. Cuskley et al. NCU Press. doi (Vol. 10, No. 12775, pp. 3991-1).

Kirby, S., Perman, T. & St John, R. (2017) Sing the Gloaming. Galloway Dark Sky Park, Scotland.

Little, H. (2018) “Babel on 5”. Babel: The Language Magazine, Issue 23. Page 42-44.

Morin, O., Winters, J., Müller, T. F., Morisseau, T., Etter, C., & Greenhill, S. J. (2018). What smartphone apps may contribute to language evolution research. Journal of Language Evolution, 3(2), 91-93.

Raviv, L., & Arnon, I. (2018). Systematicity, but not compositionality: Examining the emergence of linguistic structure in children and adults using iterated learning. Cognition, 181, 160-173.

Sayenga, K. (Producer). (2013). Through the Wormhole [Television series]. Revelations Entertainment.

Trench, B. (2008). Towards an analytical framework of science communication models. In Communicating science in social contexts (pp. 119-135). Springer, Dordrecht.

Verhoef, T., Roberts, S. G., & Dingemanse, M. (2015). Emergence of systematic iconicity: transmission, interaction and analogy.


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