Modality-Independent Evolution

X99Lynx at X99Lynx at
Sun Feb 7 19:30:03 UTC 1999

I wrote:
<<It would be the equivalent of untold numbers of
random versions of, say, German that were tried
and dropped before getting a version that survived.
(And then immediately starting the process all over again.)>>

In a message dated 2/7/99 9:17:50 AM, proto-language at replied:

<<This is exactly what happens when a child begins to learn
his language. Many sounds are produced which
native speakers do not recognize, and they are corrected.>>

I think this response raises an issue that's very important
to our understanding of what causes change in language.

Earlier in the thread, DLW had said that he was not referring
"not to individual words but to language."

As the note above says, early learning of sound making in a baby
is probably the closest we come to an "evolution" model in language.
(This kind of behavior is called "operant behavior" and
follows the paradigm R>S, instead of the reflexive Stimulus> Response.
As in biological evolution, the random response precedes the stimulus,
and its reoccurence will depend on the external consequences.
B.F. Skinner specifically analogizes this kind of learning to evolution and
natural selection.)

Obviously this process of change (baby first learning to make sounds)
is quite different from the language changes of historical linguistics.
Grimm's Law demonstrates they are not random, but follow rules.
The operant/evolutionary model would yield p>f, p>g, p>x, p>o, p>z, etc.,
in no particular order.  If something were retained, because of some
success in the specific environment, say p>f, then the process should
immediately begin again: f>a, f>b, f>c, etc.  Being random, there should be
no limitation on what sound comes next.

But because we find in IE that *p>p often enough over a long enough time
to know that language structure does not operate this way.

Phonemes are a lot easier to randomly mutate than biological organisms.
Yet, we find sound rules being much more conservative than the history of
biological change.  In the time period that p*>p, there have been
much more than a 100 million new species generated
by random mutation.  Yet, the number of times /p/ has been vocalized
unchanged in that period has been has been huge.  Once again, phonemes
and grammar rules are easier to mutate than organisms,
so why don't they mutate more than organisms.
Evolutionary change is not the main force at work here.

It's also important to distinguish between evolution
as a system of change and the laws of genetics.

To repeat, the number one consequence of biological evolution is diversity.
If evolution had stopped at the first sign of life, we would all still
be pretty much single cell organisms right now.  (No offense to any
single cell organisms on the list.)

The laws of genetics (inheritance of traits) however conserves forms.
It is most basically a source of the continuity we see in short
term biology.  It would have kept us all single cell organisms, reproducing
by mitosis, if it had its way.  (There are mechanisms for change
within the laws of genetics, but they are narrowly limited.  E.g., sexual
reproduction allows hybridization.)

Evolution (which by the way created the laws of genetics) breaks those
laws every time it creates a new species.

The quintiessential phonemenon addressed by the study of IE is not blooming
diversity.  Obviously, this study centers on the extraordinary persistence
of structure over thousands of years.  And even when it studies change,
those changes are observed to follow forms that are decidedly uniform
and persistent.  (E.g., p*>f.)

For someone like myself, growing up in NYC, the vagaries of language
are no surprise.  Heck, there was a different language spoken on every
block.  The basic surprise that started IE and remains its prime focus
is the amazing continuities and conservation of forms in these

In this sense, the work of the historical linguist is like the
Mendelian geneticist who tracks the genotype through time.
And not at all like the evolutionist who must explain the
implausible existence of the platypus or, better yet, sulphur
metabolizing organisms that live at 500 degree F temperatures
under enormous pressure and who may outnumber
the total population of all organisms on the earth's surface.

One deals with the conservation of forms.  The other with
the lack of that conservation, sometimes in the extreme.

I wrote:
<<That was my point with saying that culture and language are Lamarckian.
There is intentionality that guides them.>>

Proto-language at replied:
<<Sorry, I disagree. There is simple accretion of changes
but no overriding intentionality.>>

I don't know what you mean by "overriding".  But otherwise this
statement is so demonstrably wrong I don't even know how to address it.

<<but at any given moment in time, the object of evolution is
to ensure reproduction and continuance of the organism.>>

If you mean this in some religious sense, I respect it.
In a scientific sense, it makes no sense.  Evolution insures nothing.

<<I think a very strong argument could be made for
the uselessness of all organisms.>>

I feel that way some days, too.  But we do get over it.

Best regards,
Steve Long

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