Tom Givon tgivon at
Sun Aug 14 18:00:03 UTC 2011

Dear FUNK folks,

After our recent discussion, prompted by Fritz Newmeyer's initial 
question on multi-functionality of structures, Sherm Wilcox alerted me 
to a vast and (seemingly) relevant literature in evolutionary biology. 
The standard term used in that literature-- "degeneracy" -- is a bit 
ugly to the ear but has a purely technical meaning: "...the ability of 
elements that are structurally different to perform the same function or 
yield the same output..." (Edelman and Gally 2001). The bio-evolutionary 
literature suggests that this phenomenon is not ubiquitous not only in 
language but also in biology, where it is increasingly regarded as a 
major component in the evolution of complex adaptive systems (CAS). 
Because of the (strange...) constraints imposed on FUNKNET posts, I 
cannot attach the three papers that Sherm kindly passed my way. The 
relevance of that literature to what we observe in language is further 
underscored by the fact that in language "degeneracy" is a core 
component of diachronic change, and is thus fundamentally a 
developmental phenomenon. This parallels the situation in biology, where 
the signigficance of "degeneracy" is seen as, primarily, evolutionary. 
The three papers I got from Sherm are:

Edelmen, G.M. and J.A. Galley (2001) "Degeneracy and complexity in 
biological systems"  PNSA, Nov. 20, 2001, vo. 98

Whitacre, J. M. (2010) "Degeneracy: A link between evolvability, 
robusness and complexity in biological systems, Theoretical Biology and 
Medical Modeling, 7.6

Mason, P.H. (2010) "Degeneracy at multiple levels of complexity", 
Biological Theory, 5.3

Cheers,  TG

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