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VII. Our Earthuman Ascent: A Major Evolutionary Transition in Individuality

1. A Cultural (Geonome) Code : Systems Linguistics

Ritt, Nikolaus. Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. A University of Vienna linguist sketches a sophisticated theory of the appearance of human language within a “generalized Darwinism” which combines the modern synthesis with the formative impetus of complex dynamic systems. By this expansion, a strong, iterative congruence is observed between the genetic and linguistic or memetic codes. A section is entitled “Life and Language seen as Complex Adaptive Systems.”

I shall argue that it is not only possible to speak, metaphorically, of languages as if they were entities with a life of their own, but that they indeed are. Although they are not made of genes, their constituents do qualify as replicators and are capable of evolution. (x) Instead, the historicity of languages is much easier to account for, if they are regarded as open, dynamical systems which are capable of adaptive self-organization and similar, in this respect, to autonomous life forms. In that sense, languages will be seen as analogous to the genetic systems that inhabit and evolve in the biosphere of our planet, as well as to all the systems that work upon similar principles. (17)

Schaller, Mark, et al, eds. Evolution and Social Psychology. New York: Psychology Press, 2006. A large volume of the latest efforts to situate human behavioral interactions within an evolutionary frame. Co-editors are Jeffery Simpson and Douglas Kenrick, along with luminaries such as Robin Dunbar, Constantine Sedikides, and Linnda Caporael.

Sigman, Mariano and Guillermo Cecchi. Global Organization of the Wordnet Lexicon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 99/1742, 2002. Languages exhibit the same universal dynamics as occur in genetic networks.

Semantic links follow power-law, scale-invariant behaviors typical of self-organizing networks…If meaning not only results from a correspondence with external objects, but also depends on the interrelationships with other meanings, an understanding of the lexicon as a collective process implies a characterization of the structure of the graph, i.e., the global organization of the lexicon. (1742)

Spencer, Matthew, et al. Phylogenetics of Artificial Manuscripts. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 227/4, 2004. Since a basic congruence has been found between biological evolution, natural languages, archeological artifacts and the copying of manuscript texts, methods of standard phylogenetic analysis can be used in all these areas. An implication is a common identity between DNA molecules and words.

Steels, Luc. Agent-Based Models for the Emergence and Evolution of Grammar. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 371/20150447, 2016. The paper in the Major Synthetic Evolutionary Transitions issue (Ricard Sole) by the Free University of Brussels systems linguist provides a good current example of a genesis synthesis based upon an independent nonlinear dynamic source, which then informs and shapes each episodic stage. In this case, our loquacious human abilities are further evidence of its common appearance.

Human languages are extraordinarily complex adaptive systems. They feature intricate hierarchical sound structures, are able to express elaborate meanings and use sophisticated syntactic and semantic structures to relate sound to meaning. What are the cognitive mechanisms that speakers and listeners need to create and sustain such a remarkable system? What is the collective evolutionary dynamics that allows a language to self-organize, become more complex and adapt to changing challenges in expressive power? This paper focuses on grammar. It presents a basic cycle observed in the historical language record, whereby meanings move from lexical to syntactic and then to a morphological mode of expression before returning to a lexical mode, and discusses how we can discover and validate mechanisms that can cause these shifts using agent-based models. (Abstract)

Cultural evolutionary dynamics. All models we developed are based on an instantiation of evolutionary dynamics at the cultural, more precisely linguistic, level. Evolutionary dynamics requires that there is a population of units that multiply with inheritance, exhibit variation and undergo selection, effecting the distribution of traits. Here, the traits are strategies and constructions built with them, stored in the individual memories of the agents. They multiply through social learning as a part of language games. (5)

Steels, Luc. Language as a Complex Adaptive System. Marc Schoenauer, et al, eds. Parallel Problem Solving from Nature. Berlin: Springer, 2000. Communication is due to “autonomous distributed agents” involved with learning, organization, selectionism, and co-evolution, which proceed by structural coupling and multi-level formation.

Steels, Luc, ed. Experiments in Cultural Language Evolution. Amsterdam: Johns Benjamins, 2013. A European effort to connect our linguistic attributes with the evolutionary origins they must have had by way of self-organizing propensities that are in place prior to selection. Two main parts are Emergence of Perceptually Grounded Vocabularies, and Emergence of Grammatical Systems. See also Luc Steels’ paper How Language Emerges in Situated Embodied Interactions in New Perspectives on the Origins of Language (Benjamins, 2013).

This (first) chapter outlines the main challenges a theory for the cultural evolution of language should address and proposes a particular theory which is worked out and explored in greater detail in the remaining chapters of this book. The theory rests on two biologically inspired mechanisms, namely selection and self-organization, mapped onto the cultural, more specifically, linguistic domain. Selectionism is an alternative to rational top-down design. It introduces a distinction between processes that generate possible linguistic variants in a population (for example, different ways to express tense and aspect) and processes that select some variants to survive and become dominant in a language, based on criteria that translate into increased communicative success, such as expressive adequacy, minimal cognitive effort, learnability and social conformity. Self-organization occurs when speakers and hearers align their communication systems based on the outcome of each interaction. It explains how convergence may arise without central coordination or direct telepathic meaning transfer. This chapter explains these basic hypotheses in more detail and introduces a methodology for exploring them based on the notion of a language game. (Introduction: Self-organization and Selection in Cultural Language Evolution)

Steyvers, Mark and Joshua Tenebaum. The Large-Scale Structure of Semantic Networks. Cognitive Science. 29/1, 2005. As later cited by Markosova above, researchers at UC, Irvine and MIT find the same scale-free organization that repairs everywhere else in nature to similarly grace “human semantic knowledge.”

We present statistical analyses of the large-scale structure of 3 types of semantic networks: word associations, WordNet, and Roget’s Thesaurus. We show that they have a small-world structure, characterized by sparse connectivity, short average path lengths between words, and strong local clustering. In addition, the distributions of the number of connections follow power laws that indicate a scale-free pattern of connectivity, with most nodes having relatively few connections joined together through a small number of hubs with many connections. These regularities have also been found in certain other complex natural networks, such as the World Wide Web. (41)

Stratford, Barney. The Topology of Knowledge. Journal of Mathematical Psychology. 53/6, 2009. An Oxford University computer scientist considers how linguistic forms might be rightly appreciated as exemplary manifestations of a self-similar natural geometry.

Based on ideas from information theory, in particular the method of arithmetic coding, we describe a metric on sets of strings. In fact, these spaces correspond exactly with compact ultrametric spaces, and we explore their properties in detail. In particular, we look at contraction mappings in these spaces, as they are of fundamental importance in building fractals. We introduce a connection between fractal geometry and formal language theory. There are a number of parallels that can be drawn between the operations that are carried out on fractals and those that occur in formal language theory, and this leads to speculation about how deep the connection goes. (Abstract, 502)

Stroik, Thomas and Michael Putnam. The Structural Design of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. University of Missouri, and Penn State University system linguists provide another take on “The Biolinguistic Turn” (Chapter 1), akin to Balari and Lorenzo above, but proceed, per the first quote, to seek the causal roots of human discourse within a cosmic material essence.

The importance of Turing’s Thesis to our work is that it brings physical constrants and structural design into biology. It calls for as Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini note, a constraint-based biology that questions “blind trial and error followed by natural selection” as a basis for biological growth and assumes instead that “It’s vastly more plausible to suppose that the causes of these (biological) forms are to be found in the elaborate self-organizing interactions between several components that are indeed coded for genes (protein complexes, morphogenetic gradients, hormones, cell-cell interactions, and so on) and the strictures dictated by chemical and physical forces.” According to this line of argumentation, the evolution of organisms is not primarily governed by extrinsic forces, but rather is driven by the design properties internal to the organism in question. (6)

Although there have been numerous investigations of biolinguistics, many of which appeal to the importance of Turing’s Thesis (that the structural design of systems must obey physical and mathematical laws), these studies have by and large ignored the question of the structural design of language. They have paid significant attention to identifying the components of language – settling on a lexicon, a computational system, a sensorimotor performance system, and a conceptual-intentional performance system; however, they have not examined how these components must be inter-structured to meet thresholds of simplicity, generality, naturalness, and beauty, as well as of biological and conceptual necessity. In this book, Stroik and Putnam argue that the narrow syntax – the lexicon, the Numeration, and the computational system – must reside, for reasons of conceptual necessity, within the performance systems. As simple as this novel design is, it provides, as Stroik and Putnam demonstrate, radical new insights into what the human language faculty is, how language emerged in the species, and how language is acquired by children. (Publisher)

Studdert-Kennedy, Michael. How did Language go Discrete? Tallerman, Maggie, ed. Language Origins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Amongst an updated collection from an April 2002 conference at Harvard on the biological roots of speech, morphology, syntax, and symbol, a consideration of a deep analogy between the linguistic and genetic codes.

Tallerman, Maggie and Kathleen Gibson, eds. Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. A 750 page compendium with five Parts: Insights from Comparative Animal Behavior; The Biology of Language Evolution: Anatomy, Genetics, and Neurology; The Prehistory of Language: When and Why Did Language Evolve?; Launching Language: The Development of a Linguistic Species; and Language Change, Creation, and Transmission in Modern Humans. Authorship of the 65 entries is luminary, such as Dorothy Cheney, Frans de Waal, Irene Pepperberg, Tecumseh Fitch, Eors Szathmary, Merlin Donald, Jacques Vauclair, Michael Arbib, Stephen Mithen, Rebecca Caan, Dean Falk, Robin Dunbar, Terrence Deacon, and Joan Bybee. A notable paper might be “Self-Organization and Language Evolution” by Bart de Boer on the spontaneous emergence of speech phonetics and lexicons.

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