Thursday, April 03, 2008


Evolution & the Evolution of Language

A small article in the recent edition of BBC Focus magazine (No. 188, April 2008) caught my eye:

'The evolution of language is punctuated by rapid bursts in which many new words develop at the same time, a new study has found. University of Reading researchers investigated the way languages have divided and changed over thousands of years of linguistic evolution. They found that vocabulary develops slowly most of the time but undergoes spurts of diversification soon after two languages divide, for example when a group of people emigrate to a new island. One reason new languages may develop quickly after a division is to create a sense of identity. "We use language as a marker of the group we're in," research team member Mark Pagel tells
Focus. "We modify our speech to be like that group, and groups might change their language to collectively establish their identity."' (p. 20.)

Several things strike me about this.

1) Long periods of relative stasis ('language develops slowly most of the time') followed by rapid bursts of diversification sounds more like the 'punctuated equilibria' model of evolution than the original Darwinian variety (although I concur with Dawkins that 'punk eek' is less compatible with the variation plus natural selection mechanism of evolution proposed by Darwin).

2) But of course, language evolution is a process that, at the very least, incorporates intelligence as one of its causes.

3) By analogy, then, one might think about mounting a (relatively weak) argument for thinking that biological evolution, being analogous to a process we know involves intelligence, might plausibly be thought to be a process that likewise involves intelligence.

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