Sherman Wilcox wilcox at
Sun Aug 14 18:45:29 UTC 2011

Thanks, Tom, for posting this. 

As I mentioned to Tom, I'm a bit surprised that this concept of degeneracy isn't discussed more in linguistics. It seems directly relevant to the issue that Fritz raised, for example. Also, the people who do discuss it make some important distinctions between it and redundancy, a useful distinction to make for linguists, I think. Their thoughts on robustness and evolvability (which for biologists seems to be a synonym for "innovation") are also relevant to linguists.

As Tom mentioned, this is a vast literature that includes not only biology but also neuroscience, physics, chemistry, and even social science. For example, in a chapter entitled "Distributed Agency Within Intersecting Ecological, Social, and Scientific Processes" Peter Taylor coins the term "heterogeneous construction" to show how different paths can lead to the same developmental outcome, which seems to be yet another expression of degeneracy (thanks to Paul Mason for pointing this out to me). Taylor's chapter is in a book, "Cycles of Contingency," edited by Susan Oyama.

Here are a few more references:

Price, C. J., & Friston, K. J. (2002). Degeneracy and cognitive anatomy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(10), 416-421.

Tononi, G., Sporns, O., & Edelman, G. M. (1999). Measures of degeneracy and redundancy in biological networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96(6), 3257.

Whitacre, J., & Bender, A. (2010). Degeneracy: a design principle for achieving robustness and evolvability. J Theor Biol, 263(1), 143-153.

I'm currently working on a book that will include a chapter on dynamic systems/complex adaptive systems and degeneracy. I'd be most interested to hear other's thoughts and input on this.

Sherman Wilcox, Ph.D.
Department of Linguistics
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131
505-277-0928 (v/tty)

On Aug 14, 2011, at 12:00 PM, Tom Givon wrote:

> 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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