Category Archives: Evolution

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Why Disagree? Some Critical Remarks on the Integration Hypothesis of Human Language Evolution

Shigeru Miyagawa, Shiro Ojima, Robert Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya have recently published a new paper in Frontiers in Psychology, which can be seen as a follow-up to the 2013 Frontiers paper by Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya (see Hannah’s post on this paper). While the earlier paper introduced what they call the “Integration Hypothesis of Human Language Evolution”, the follow-up paper seeks to provide empirical evidence for this theory and discusses potential challenges to the Integration Hypothesis.

The basic idea of the Integration Hypothesis, in a nutshell, is this: “All human language sentences are composed of two meaning layers” (Miyagawa et al. 2013: 2), namely “E” (for “expressive”) and “L” (for “lexical”). For example, sentences like “John eats a pizza”, “John ate a pizza”, and “Did John eat a pizza?” are supposed to have the same lexical meaning, but they vary in their expressive meaning. Miyagawa et al. point to some parallels between expressive structure and birdsong on the one hand and lexical structure and the alarm calls of non-human primates on the other. More specifically, “birdsongs have syntax without meaning” (Miyagawa et al. 2014: 2), whereas alarm calls consist of “isolated uttered units that correlate with real-world references” (ibid.). Importantly, however, even in human language, the Expression Structure (ES) only admits one layer of hierarchical structure, while the Lexical Structure (LS) does not admit any hierarchical structure at all (Miyagawa et al. 2013: 4). The unbounded hierarchical structure of human language (“discrete infinity”) comes about through recursive combination of both types of structure.

This is an interesting hypothesis (“interesting” being a convenient euphemism for “well, perhaps not that interesting after all”). Let’s have a closer look at the evidence brought forward for this theory.

Miyagawa et al. “focus on the structures found in human language” (Miyagawa et al. 2014: 1), particularly emphasizing the syntactic structure of sentences and the internal structure of words. In a sentence like “Did John eat pasta?”, the lexical items John, eat, and pasta constitute the LS, while the auxiliary do, being a functional element, is seen as belonging to the expressive layer. In a more complex sentence like “John read the book that Mary wrote”, the VP and NP notes are allocated to the lexical layer, while the DP and CP nodes are allocated to the expressive layer.

Fig. 9 from Miyagawa et al. (2014), illustrating how unbounded hierarchical structure emerges from recursive combination of E- and L-level structures

Fig. 9 from Miyagawa et al. (2014), illustrating how unbounded hierarchical structure emerges from recursive combination of E- and L-level structures

As pointed out above, LS elements cannot directly combine with each other according to Miyagawa et al. (the ungrammaticality of e.g. John book and want eat pizza is taken as evidence for this), while ES is restricted to one layer of hierarchical structure. Discrete infinity then arises through recursive application of two rules:

(i) EP →  E LP
(ii) LP → L EP
Rule (i) states that the E category can combine with LP to form an E-level structure. Rule (ii) states that the L category can combine with an E-level structure to form an L-level structure. Together, these two rules suffice to yield arbitrarily deep hierarchical structures.

The alternation between lexical and expressive elements, as exemplified in Figure (3) from the 2014 paper (= Figure 9 from the 2013 paper, reproduced above), is thus essential to their theory since they argue that “inside E and L we only find finite-state processes” (Miyagawa et al. 2014: 3). Several phenomena, most notably Agreement and Movement, are explained as “linking elements” between lexical and functional heads (cf. also Miyagawa 2010). A large proportion of the 2014 paper is therefore dedicated to phenomena that seem to argue against this hypothesis.

For example, word-formation patterns that can be applied recursively seem to provide a challenge for the theory, cf. example (4) in the 2014 paper:

(4) a. [anti-missile]
b. [anti-[anti-missile]missile] missile

The ostensible point is that this formation can involve center embedding, which would constitute a non-finite state construction.

However, they propose a different explanation:

When anti- combines with a noun such as missile, the sequence anti-missile is a modifier that would modify a noun with this property, thus, [anti-missile]-missile,  [anti-missile]-defense. Each successive expansion forms via strict adjacency, (…) without the need to posit a center embedding, non-regular grammar.

Similarly, reduplication is re-interpreted as a finite state process. Furthermore, they discuss N+N compounds, which seems to violate “the assumption that L items cannot combine directly — any combination requires intervention from E.” However, they argue that the existence of linking elements in some languages provides evidence “that some E element does occur between the two L’s”. Their example is German Blume-n-wiese ‘flower meadow’, others include Freundeskreis ‘circle of friends’ or Schweinshaxe ‘pork knuckle’. It is commonly assumed that linking elements arose from grammatical markers such as genitive -s, e.g. Königswürde ‘royal dignity’ (from des Königs Würde ‘the king’s dignity’). In this example, the origin of the linking element is still transparent. The -es- in Freundeskreis, by contrast, is an example of a so-called unparadigmatic linking element since it literally translates to ‘circle of a friend’. In this case as well as in many others, the linking element cannot be traced back directly to a grammatical affix. Instead, it seems plausible to assume that the former inflectional suffix was reanalyzed as a linking element from the paradigmatic cases and subsequently used in other compounds as well.

To be sure, the historical genesis of German linking elements doesn’t shed much light on their function in present-day German, which is subject to considerable debate. Keeping in mind that these items evolved gradually however raises the question how the E and L layers of compounds were linked in earlier stages of German (or any other language that has linking elements). In addition, there are many German compounds without a linking element, and in other languages such as English, “linked” compounds like craft-s-man are the exception rather than the rule. Miyagawa et al.’s solution seems a bit too easy to me: “In the case of teacup, where there is no overt linker, we surmise that a phonologically null element occurs in that position.”

As an empiricist, I am of course very skeptical towards any kind of null element. One could possibly rescue their argument by adopting concepts from Construction Grammar and assigning E status to the morphological schema [N+N], regardless of the presence or absence of a linking element, but then again, from a Construction Grammar point of view, assuming a fundamental dichotomy between E and L structures doesn’t make much sense in the first place. That said, I must concede that the E vs. L distinction reflects basic properties of language that play a role in any linguistic theory, but especially in Construction Grammar and in Cognitive Linguistics. On the one hand, it reflects the rough distinction between “open-class” and “closed-class” items, which plays a key role in Talmy’s (2000) Cognitive Semantics and in the grammaticalization literature (cf. e.g. Hopper & Traugott 2003). As many grammaticalization studies have shown, most if not all closed-class items are “fossils” of open-class items. The abstract concepts they encode (e.g. tense or modality) are highly relevant to our everyday experience and, consequently, to our communication, which is why they got grammaticized in the first place. As Rose (1973: 516) put it, there is no need for a word-formation affix deriving denominal verbs meaning “grasp NOUN in the left hand and shake vigorously while standing on the right foot in a 2 ½ gallon galvanized pail of corn-meal-mush”. But again, being aware of the historical emergence of these elements begs the question if a principled distinction between the meanings of open-class vs. closed-class elements is warranted.

On the other hand, the E vs. L distinction captures the fundamental insight that languages pair form with meaning. Although they are explicitly talking about the “duality of semantics“, Miyagawa et al. frequently allude to formal properties of language, e.g. by linking up syntactic strutures with the E layer:

The expression layer is similar to birdsongs; birdsongs have specific patterns, but they do not contain words, so that birdsongs have syntax without meaning (Berwick et al., 2012), thus it is of the E type.

While the “expression” layer thus seems to account for syntactic and morphological structures, which are traditionally regarded as purely “formal” and meaningless, the “lexical” layer captures the referential function of linguistic units, i.e. their “meaning”. But what is meaning, actually? The LS as conceptualized by Miyagawa et al. only covers the truth-conditional meaning of sentences, or their “conceptual content”, as Langacker (2008) calls it. From a usage-based perspective, however, “an expression’s meaning consists of more than conceptual content – equally important to linguistic semantics is how that content is shaped and construed.” (Langacker 2002: xv) According to the Integration Hypothesis, this “construal” aspect is taken care of by closed-class items belonging to the E layer. However, the division of labor envisaged here seems highly idealized. For example, tense and modality can be expressed using open-class (lexical) items and/or relying on contextual inference, e.g. German Ich gehe morgen ins Kino ‘I go to the cinema tomorrow’.

It is a truism that languages are inherently dynamic, exhibiting a great deal of synchronic variation and diachronic change. Given this dynamicity, it seems hard to defend the hypothesis that a fundamental distinction between E and L structures which cannot combine directly can be found universally in the languages of the world (which is what Miyagawa et al. presuppose). We have already seen that in the case of compounds, Miyagawa et al. have to resort to null elements in order to uphold their hypothesis. Furthermore, it seems highly likely that some of the “impossible lexical structures” mentioned as evidence for the non-combinability hypothesis are grammatical at least in some creole languages (e.g. John book, want eat pizza).

In addition, it seems somewhat odd that E- and L-level structures as “relics” of evolutionarily earlier forms of communication are sought (and expected to be found) in present-day languages, which have been subject to millennia of development. This wouldn’t be a problem if the authors were not dealing with meaning, which is not only particularly prone to change and variation, but also highly flexible and context-dependent. But even if we assume that the existence of E-layer elements such as affixes and other closed-class items draws on innate dispositions, it seems highly speculative to link the E layer with birdsong and the L layer with primate calls on semantic grounds.

The idea that human language combines features of birdsong with features of primate alarm calls is certainly not too far-fetched, but the way this hypothesis is defended in the two papers discussed here seems strangely halfhearted and, all in all, quite unconvincing. What is announced as “providing empirical evidence” turns out to be a mostly introspective discussion of made-up English example sentences, and if the English examples aren’t convincing enough, the next best language (e.g. German) is consulted. (To be fair, in his monograph, Miyagawa (2010) takes a broader variety of languages into account.) In addition, much of the discussion is purely theory-internal and thus reminiscent of what James has so appropriately called “Procrustean Linguistics“.

To their credit, Miyagawa et al. do not rely exclusively on theory-driven analyses of made-up sentences but also take some comparative and neurological studies into account. Thus, the Integration Hypothesis – quite unlike the “Mystery” paper (Hauser et al. 2014) co-authored by Berwick and published in, you guessed it, Frontiers in Psychology (and insightfully discussed by Sean) – might be seen as a tentative step towards bridging the gap pointed out by Sverker Johansson in his contribution to the “Perspectives on Evolang” section in this year’s Evolang proceedings:

A deeper divide has been lurking for some years, and surfaced in earnest in Kyoto 2012: that between Chomskyan biolinguistics and everybody else. For many years, Chomsky totally dismissed evolutionary linguistics. But in the past decade, Chomsky and his friends have built a parallel effort at elucidating the origins of language under the label ‘biolinguistics’, without really connecting with mainstream Evolang, either intellectually or culturally. We have here a Kuhnian incommensurability problem, with contradictory views of the nature of language.

On the other hand, one could also see the Integration Hypothesis as deepening the gap since it entirely draws on generative (or “biolinguistic”) preassumptions about the nature of language which are not backed by independent empirical evidence. Therefore, to conclusively support the Integration Hypothesis, much more evidence from many different fields would be necessary, and the theoretical preassumptions it draws on would have to be scrutinized on empirical grounds, as well.

References

Hauser, Marc D.; Yang, Charles; Berwick, Robert C.; Tattersall, Ian; Ryan, Michael J.; Watumull, Jeffrey; Chomsky, Noam; Lewontin, Richard C. (2014): The Mystery of Language Evolution. In: Frontiers in Psychology 4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401

Hopper, Paul J.; Traugott, Elizabeth Closs (2003): Grammaticalization. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johansson, Sverker: Perspectives on Evolang. In: Cartmill, Erica A.; Roberts, Séan; Lyn, Heidi; Cornish, Hannah (eds.) (2014): The Evolution of Language. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference. Singapore: World Scientific, 14.

Langacker, Ronald W. (2002): Concept, Image, and Symbol. The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. 2nd ed. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter (Cognitive Linguistics Research, 1).

Langacker, Ronald W. (2008): Cognitive Grammar. A Basic Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miyagawa, Shigeru (2010): Why Agree? Why Move? Unifying Agreement-Based and Discourse-Configurational Languages. Cambridge: MIT Press (Linguistic Inquiry, Monographs, 54).

Miyagawa, Shigeru; Berwick, Robert C.; Okanoya, Kazuo (2013): The Emergence of Hierarchical Structure in Human Language. In: Frontiers in Psychology 4. doi 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00071

Miyagawa, Shigeru; Ojima, Shiro; Berwick, Robert C.; Okanoya, Kazuo (2014): The Integration Hypothesis of Human Language Evolution and the Nature of Contemporary Languages. In: Frontiers in Psychology 5. doi 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00564

Rose, James H. (1973): Principled Limitations on Productivity in Denominal Verbs. In: Foundations of Language 10, 509–526.

Talmy, Leonard (2000): Toward a Cognitive Semantics. 2 vol. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

P.S.: After writing three posts in a row in which I critizised all kinds of studies and papers, I herby promise that in my next post, I will thoroughly recommend a book and return to a question raised only in passing in this post.  [*suspenseful cliffhanger music*]

Skewed frequencies in phonology. Data from Fry (1947), based on an analysis of 17,000 sounds of transcribed British English text; cited in Taylor (2012: 162f.). “Token frequencies refer to the occurrences of the sounds in the text comprising the corpus; type frequencies are the number of occurrences in the word types in the text.”

The Myth of Language Universals at Birth

[This is a guest post by Stefan Hartmann]

 

“Chomsky still rocks!” This comment on Twitter refers to a recent paper in PNAS by David M. Gómez et al. entitled “Language Universals at Birth”. Indeed, the question Gómez et al. address is one of the most hotly debated questions in linguistics: Does children’s language learning draw on innate capacities that evolved specifically for linguistic purposes – or rather on domain-general skills and capabilities?

Lbifs, Blifs, and Brains

Gómez and his colleagues investigate these questions by studying how children respond to different syllable structures:

It is well known that across languages, certain structures are preferred to others. For example, syllables like blif are preferred to syllables like bdif and lbif. But whether such regularities reflect strictly historical processes, production pressures, or universal linguistic principles is a matter of much debate. To address this question, we examined whether some precursors of these preferences are already present early in life. The brain responses of newborns show that, despite having little to no linguistic experience, they reacted to syllables like blif, bdif, and lbif in a manner consistent with adults’ patterns of preferences. We conjecture that this early, possibly universal, bias helps shaping language acquisition.

More specifically, they assume a restriction on syllable structure known as the Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP), which has been proposed as “a putatively universal constraint” (p. 5837). According to this principle, “syllables maximize the sonority distance from their margins to their nucleus”. For example, in /blif/, /b/ is less sonorous than /l/, which is in turn less sonorous than the vowel /i/, which constitues the syllable’s nucleus. In /lbif/, by contrast, there is a sonority fall, which is why this syllable is extremely ill-formed according to the SSP.

A simplified version of the sonority scale.

A simplified version of the sonority scale

In a first experiment, Gómez et al. investigated “whether the brains of newborns react differentially to syllables that are well- or extremely ill-formed, as defined by the SSP” (p. 5838). They had 24 newborns listen to /blif/- and /lbif/-type syllables while measuring the infant’s brain activities. In the left temporal and right frontoparietal brain areas, “well-formed syllables elicited lower oxyhemoglobin concentrations than ill-formed syllables.” In a second experiment, they presented another group of 24 newborns with syllables either exhibiting a sonority rise (/blif/) or two consonants of the same sonority (e.g. /bdif/) in their onset. The latter option is dispreferred across languages, and previous behavioral experiments with adult speakers have also shown a strong preference for the former pattern. “Results revealed that oxyhemoglobin concentrations elicited by well-formed syllables are significantly lower than concentrations elicited by plateaus in the left temporal cortex” (p. 5839). However, in contrast to the first experiment, there is no significant effect in the right frontoparietal region, “which has been linked to the processing of suprasegmental properties of speech” (p. 5838).

In a follow-up experiment, Gómez et al. investigated the role of the position of the CC-patterns within the word: Do infants react differently to /lbif/ than to, say, /olbif/? Indeed, they do: “Because the sonority fall now spans across two syllables (ol.bif), rather than a syllable onset (e.g., lbif), such words should be perfectly well-formed. In line with this prediction, our results show that newborns’ brain responses to disyllables like oblif and olbif do not differ.”

How much linguistic experience do newborns have?

Taken together, these results indicate that newborn infants are already sensitive for syllabification (as the follow-up experiment suggests) as well as for certain preferences in syllable structure. This leads Gómez et al. to the conclusion “that humans possess early, experience-independent linguistic biases concerning syllable structure that shape language perception and acquisition” (p. 5840). This conjecture, however, is a very bold one. First of all, seeing these preferences as experience-independent presupposes the assumption that newborn infants do not have linguistic experience at all. However, there is evidence that “babies’ language learning starts from the womb”. In their classic 1986 paper, Anthony DeCasper and Melanie Spence showed that “third-trimester fetuses experience their mothers’ speech sounds and that prenatal auditory experience can influence postnatal auditory preferences.” Pregnant women were instructed to read aloud a story to their unborn children when they felt that the fetus was awake. In the postnatal phase, the infants’ reactions to the same or a different story read by their mother’s or another woman’s voice were studied by monitoring the newborns’ sucking behavior. Apart from the “experienced” infants who had been read the story, a group of “untrained” newborns were used as control subjects. They found that for experienced subjects, the target story was more reinforcing than a novel story, no matter if it was recited by their mother’s or a different voice. For the control subjects, by contrast, no difference between the stories could be found. “The only experimental variable that can systematically account for these findings is whether the infants’ mothers had recited the target story while pregnant” (DeCasper & Spence 1986: 143).

Continue reading

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Happy Darwin Day!

I had hoped to celebrate Darwin day with a longer post discussing how language is often viewed as a challenging puzzle to natural selection. My main worry is that the formal design metaphor used in much of linguistics has been used, incorrectly IMHO, to divert attention away from studying language as a biological system based on organic logic. If this doesn’t make much sense, then you can do some background reading with Terrence Deacon’s paper, Language as an emergent function: Some radical neurological and evolutionary implications. Alas, that’s all I have to say on the matter for now, but if you’re looking for something related to Darwin, evolution and the origin of language, then I strongly suggest you head over to the excellent Darwin Correspondence project and read their blog post on the subject:

Darwin started thinking about the origin of language in the late 1830s. The subject formed part of his wide-ranging speculations about the transmutation of species. In his private notebooks, he reflected on the communicative powers of animals, their ability to learn new sounds and even to associate them with words. “The distinction of language in man is very great from all animals”, he wrote, “but do not overrate—animals communicate to each other” (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 542-3). Darwin observed the similarities between animal sounds and various natural cries and gestures that humans make when expressing strong emotions such as fear, surprise, or joy. He noted the physical connections between words and sounds, exhibited in words like “roar”, “crack”, and “scrape” that seemed imitative of the things signified. He drew parallels between language and music, and asked: “did our language commence with singing—is this the origin of our pleasure in music—do monkeys howl in harmony”? (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 568).

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Koalas use a novel vocal organ to produce unusually low-pitched mating calls

Before Tecumseh Fitch put forward the size exaggeration hypothesis, many thought that the lowered larynx was unique to humans, which suggested that it was an adaptation specifically for the production of speech. However, Fitch showed that lowered larynxes appear in other animals, most notably the red deer, to exaggerate their perceived body-size by making the low calls of a typically larger animal. Whether this is the adaptive pressure that caused the human larynx to lower is still a controversial issue, and I talk about a couple of hypotheses here.

I was reminded of this this morning when I saw this Koala on the BBC news making incredibly low mating calls. However, the Koala don’t achieve this incredibly low bellow by lowering their larynx, instead they have an extra, larger pair of (previously undocumented) vocal folds spanning the intra-pharyngeal ostium (IPO), an oval opening within the velum.

The really short paper, along with a really creepy figure of a koala cut in two, is here:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982213013444

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A Note on Memes and Historical Linguistics

When I began my most recent series of posts on memes, I did so because I wanted to think specifically about language: Does it make sense to treat words as memes? That question arose for a variety of reasons.

In the first place, if you are going to think about culture as an evolutionary phenomenon, language automatically looms large as so very much of culture depends on or is associated with language. And language consists of words, among other things. Further, historical linguistics is a well-developed discipline. We know a lot about how languages have changed over time, and change over time is what evolution is about.

However, words have meanings. And word meanings are rather fuzzy things, subject to dispute and to change that is independent of the word-form itself. Did I really want to treat word meanings as memes? That seemed rather iffy. But if I don’t treat word meanings as memetic, then what happens to language?

But THAT’s not quite how I put it going into that series of posts. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that words have forms and meanings. I don’t know whether it was my freshman year or my sophomore year that I read Roland Barthe’s Elements of Semiology (English translation 1967). That gave me Saussure’s trilogy of sign, signifier, and signified, the last of which seemed rather mysterious: “the signified is not ‘a thing’ but a mental representation of the ‘thing’.” Getting comfortable with that distinction, between the thing and the concept of the thing, that took time and effort.

That’s an aside. Suffice to say, I got comfortable with that distinction. The distinction between signifier and signified was much easier.

And yet that distinction was not uppermost in my mind when I thought of language and cultural evolution. When I thought of memes. When I approached this series of essays, though some papers by Daniel Dennett, I thought of words they same way Dennett did, the whole kit and caboodle had to be a meme. It was the sign that’s the meme.

That’s not how I ended up, of course. That ending took me a bit by surprise. Coming down that home stretch I was getting worried. It appeared to me that I was faced with two different classes of memes: couplers and the other one. What I did then was to divide the other one into two classes: targets and designators. And to do that I had to call on that thing I’ve known for decades and split the word in two: signifier and signified. It’s only the signifier that’s memetic. Signifiers are memes, but not signifieds.

It took me a couple of months to work that out, and I’d known it all along.

Sorta’.

What does that have to do with historical linguistics? Historical linguistics is based mostly on the study of relationships among signifiers, that is, relationships among the memetic elements of languages. Which makes sense, of course.

But… Continue reading

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Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett

This is the final post in my current series on memes, cultural evolution, and the thought of Daniel Dennett. You can download a PDF of the whole series HERE. The abstract and introduction are below.

* * * * *

Abstract: Philosopher Dan Dennett’s conception of the active meme, moving about from brain to brain, is physically impossible and conceptually empty. It amounts to cultural preformationism. As the cultural analogue to genes, memes are best characterized as the culturally active properties of things, events, and processes in the external world. Memes are physically embodied in a substrate. The cultural analogue to the phenotype can be called an ideotype; ideotypes are mental entities existing in the minds of individual humans. Memes serve as targets for designing and fabricating artifacts, as couplers to synchronize and coordinate human interaction, and as designators (Saussaurian signifiers). Cultural change is driven by the movement of memes between populations with significantly different cultural practices understood through different populations of ideotypes.

* * * * *

Introduction: Taming the Wild Meme

These notes contain my most recent thinking on cultural evolution, an interest that goes back to my dissertation days in the 1970s at the State University of New York at Buffalo. My dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978), included a chapter on narrative, “From Ape to Essence and the Evolution of Tales,” (subsequently published as “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self”). But that early work didn’t focus on the process of cultural evolution. Rather, it was about the unfolding of ever more sophisticated cultural forms–an interest I shared with my teacher, the late David G. Hays.

My current line of investigation is very much about process, the standard evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention as applied to cultural forms, rather than living forms. I began that work in the mid-1990s and took my cue from Hays, as I explain in the section below, “What’s a meme? Where I got my conception”. At the end of the decade I had drafted a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic 2001), in which I arrived at pretty much my current conception, but only with respect to music: music memes are the culturally active properties musical sound.

I didn’t generalize the argument to language until I prepared a series of posts conceived as background to a (rather long and detailed) post I wrote for the National Humanities Institute in 2010: Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities (PDF HERE). But I didn’t actually advance this conception in that post. Rather, I tucked it into an extensive series of background posts that I posted at New Savanna prior to posting my main article. That’s where, using the emic/etic distinction, I first advanced the completely general idea that memes are observable properties of objects and things that are culturally active. I’ve collected that series of posts into a single downloadable PDF: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2.

But I still had doubts about that position. Though the last three of those background posts were about language, I still had reservations. The problem was meaning: If that conception was correct, then word meanings could not possibly be memetic. Did I really want to argue that?

The upshot of this current series of notes is that, yes, I really want to argue it. And I have done at some length while using several articles by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as my foil. For the most part I focus on figuring out what kinds of entities play the role of memes, but toward the end, “Cultural Evolution, So What?”, I have a few remarks about long-term dynamics, that is, about cultural change. Continue reading

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Turtles All the Way Down: How Dennett Thinks

An Essay in Cognitive Rhetoric

I want to step back from the main thread of discussion and look at something else: the discussion itself. Or, at any rate, at Dennett’s side of the argument. I’m interested in how he thinks and, by extension, in how conventional meme theorists think.

And so we must ask: Just how does thinking work, anyhow? What is the language of thought? Complicated matters indeed. For better or worse, I’m going to have to make it quick and dirty.

Embodied Cognition

In one approach the mind’s basic idiom is some form of logical calculus, so-called mentalese. While some aspects of thought may be like that, I do not think it is basic. I favor a view called embodied cognition:

Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing.

In general, dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition. Proponents of embodied cognitive science view this as a serious mistake. Sometimes the nature of the dependence of cognition on the body is quite unexpected, and suggests new ways of conceptualizing and exploring the mechanics of cognitive processing.

One aspect of cognition is that we think in image schemas, simple prelinguistic structures of experience. One such image schema is that of a container: Things can be in a container, or outside a container; something can move from one container to another; it is even possible for one container to contain another.

Memes in Containers

The container scheme seems fundamental to Dennett’s thought about cultural evolution. He sees memes as little things that are contained in a larger thing, the brain; and these little things, these memes, move from one brain to another.

This much is evident on the most superficial reading of what he says, e.g. “such classic memes as songs, poems and recipes depended on their winning the competition for residence in human brains” (from New Replicators, The). While the notion of residence may be somewhat metaphorical, the locating of memes IN brains is not; it is literal.

What I’m suggesting is that this containment is more than just a contingent fact about memes. That would suggest that Dennett has, on the one hand, arrived at some concept of memes and, on the other hand, observed that those memes just happen to exist in brains. Yes, somewhere Over There we have this notion of memes as the genetic element of culture; that’s what memes do. But Dennett didn’t first examine cultural process to see how they work. As I will argue below, like Dawkins he adopted the notion by analogy with biology and, along with it, the physical relationship between genes and organisms. The container schema is thus foundational to the meme concept and dictates Dennett’s treatment of examples.

The rather different conception of memes that I have been arguing in these notes is simply unthinkable in those terms. If memes are (culturally active) properties of objects and processes in the external world, then they simply cannot be contained in brains. A thought process based on the container schema cannot deal with memes as I have been conceiving them. Continue reading

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Cultural Evolution, So What?

I’d like this to be the last post in this series except, of course, for an introduction to the whole series, from Dan Dennett on Words in Cultural Evolution on through to this one. We’ll see.

I suppose the title question is a rhetorical one. Of course culture evolves and of course we need to a proper evolutionary theory in order to understand culture. But the existing body of work is not at all definitive.

In the first section of this post I have some remarks on genes and memes, observing that both concepts emerged as place-holders in a larger ongoing argument. The second section jumps right in with the assertion, building on Dawkins, that the study of evolution must start by accounting for stability before it can address evolutionary change. The third and final section takes a quick look at change by looking at two different verstions of “Tutti Frutti”. There’s an appendix with some bonus videos.

From Genes to Memes

I’ve been reading the introduction to Lenny Moss, What Genes Can’t Do (MIT 2003), on Google Books:

The concept of the gene, unlike that of other biochemical entities, did not emerge from the logos of chemistry. Unlike proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, the gene did not come on the scene as a physical entity at all but rather as a kind of placeholder in biological theory… The concept of the gene began not with the intention to put a name on some piece of matter but rather with the intention of referring to an unknown something, whatever that something might turn out to be, which was deemed to be responsible for the transmission of biological form between generations.

Things changed, of course, in 1953 when Watson and Crick established the DNA molecule and the physical locus of genes.

The concept of the meme originated in a similar way. While the general notion of cultural evolution goes back to the 19th century, it was at best of secondary, if not tertiary, importance in the 1970s when Dawkins write The Selfish Gene. And while others had offered similar notions (e.g. Cloake), for all practical purposes, Dawkins invented the concept behind his neologism, though it didn’t began catching on until several years after he’d published it.

The concept still functions pretty much as a placeholder. People who use it, of course, offer examples of memes and arguments for those examples. But there is no widespread agreement on a substantial definition, one that has been employed in research programs that have increased our understanding of human culture. Continue reading

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CogSci 2013: Communication Leads to the Emergence of Sub-optimal Category Structures

Next up is Catriona Silvey, Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith, who use an experiment which gets participants to categorise shapes from a continuous space either in a communicative condition or a non-communicative condition. You can read it here (you should, it’s really awesome, and I only describe it briefly below): http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~s1024062/silvey_cogsci.pdf

Silvey et al. are interested in how semantic categories emerge. They set up an experiment in which participants were given a continuous semantic space:

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In one condition single participants had to simply divide the space up into different labeled categories. In another condition, participants had to play a communication game. Participants communicated in pairs using the same semantic space. In both conditions, participants were given nonsense words to label their categories. Participants could assign as many categories as they liked.

In the communication condition one participant was the sender and one was the receiver. The sender chose a word to communicate a given shape from the grid above, and the receiver had to chose which shape they thought the word referred too. Participants were then given feedback as to whether the receiver had chosen the right image. They were then given a score based on how close the chosen shape was to the original given shape. The sender and received swapped roles every trial. Together they labelled every shape 4 times throughout the experiment and the last label for each shape chosen by both participants were taken for analysis.

An optimal categorisation strategy within this game would be to give every shape its own label, however, memory constraints are likely to stop participants using this strategy. Given that you will score more if shapes are closer, it was expected that participants would use small, clustered and equally sized categories in order to optimise getting the right shape, and if not, maximising their score.

In the non-communicative experiment, participants arranged the categories in fairly balanced chunks that would have served relatively optimally for the communication game. However, despite expectations, participants in the communicative condition behaved sub-optimally and did not maximise their communicative success (their score in the game) in that their categories weren’t clustered or optimal in colour or size.  This could have been caused by the communicative condition having extra pressure for the learnability of categories, as well as a pressure for communicative success, which the non-communicative condition did not have. The authors argue that this is possibly a demonstration for how real languages arrive at suboptimal categories, e.g. where words vary as to whether they represent a very small category or represent a much broader part of the semantic space.

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Dennett’s Preformationist Memetics

In thinking about my previous post I realized that my criticism of Dennett’s meme doctrine–that memes are mental entities that move from brain to brain like software viruses or Java apps–amounts to asserting that he’s a preformationist. What’s that? Here’s what the Wikipedia says:

In the history of biology, preformationism (or preformism) is the idea that organisms develop from miniature versions of themselves.

Instead of assembly from parts, preformationists believe that the form of living things exist, in real terms, prior to their development.

The Wikipedia article comes with this illustration, which is a 1695 drawing of a sperm by Nicolaas Hartsoeker.

Preformation

There you see it on the left, the little human-form homunculus. And there, on the right, the form gets larger and larger during prenatal development.

How, you might ask, could Dennett possibly be a preformationist? After all, ideas don’t have physical shape? Well, no, I suppose they don’t. Here’s what I have in mind (I’m quoting from the end of my previous post):

While I define the ideotype as the cultural analog of the biological phenotype, the objects and processes that I identify as ideotypes are much like Dennett’s memes. They exist inside people’s head, in their minds, as do Dennettian memes, for the most part. Continue reading