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“Speaking Our Minds” Book Club at the International Cognition and Culture Institute Website

Over at the website of the International Cognition and Culture Institute there’s a book club on Thom Scott-Phillips 2014 book “Speaking Our Minds: Why human communication is different, and how language evolved to make it special”   (Thom has written a guest post for Replicated Typo previewing the book, which you can find here).

As of now, there are 16 responses on the blog from various reseachers from different disciplines along with responses by Thom.

Researchers who have commented on various aspects of “Speaking Our Minds” include, for example,

  • the founders of Relevance Theory,
    • Dan Sperber (“Key Notions in the Study ofC ommunication”)
    •  Deirdre Wilson (“Natural language and the language of thought”)
  • primatologist
    • Katja Liebal (“A closer look at communication among our closest relatives”)
  • philosophers
    • Richard Moore (“Why do children but not apes acquire language?”)
    • and Liz Irvine (“Combinatoriality and codes”)
  • evolutionary linguists
    • Kenny Smith (“Communication, culture, and biology in the evolution of language”)
    • and Bart de Boer (“Enjoyable, but doesn’t solve the mystery))

And many others.

Well worth a a read, go check it out!


On the Direction of 19th Century Poetic Style, Underwood and Sellers 2015

Another working paper (title above). Download at:

Abstract, contents, and introduction below:

Abstract: Underwood and Sellers have discovered that over the course of roughly a century (1820-1919) Anglo-American poetry has undergone a consistent change in style in a direction favored by editors and reviewers of elite journals. This directional shift aligns with the one Matthew Jockers found in Angophone novels during roughly the same period (from the beginning of the 19th century to its end). I argue that this change is characteristic of a cultural evolutionary process and sketch a way to simulate such a process as an interaction between a population of texts and a population of writers where texts and writers. I suggest that such directionality is a sign of autonomy in the aesthetic system, that it is not completely coupled to and subsumed by surrounding historical events.


0. Introduction: Looking at Cultural Evolution whether You Like It or Not 2
1. Cosmic Background Radiation, an Aesthetic Realm, and the Direction of 19thC Poetic Diction 8
2. Beyond Whig History to Evolutionary Thinking 14
3. Could Heart of Darkness have been published in 1813? – a digression 19
4. Beyond narrative we have simulation 22

0. Introduction: Looking at Cultural Evolution whether You Like It or Not

I was of course thrilled to read How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change? (Underwood and Sellers 2015). Why? Because they provide preliminary evidence that 19th century Anglophone poetic culture has a direction. Just what that direction, and how to characterize it, that’s something else. But there does appear to be a direction. And just why is that exciting? Because Matthew Jockers made the same discovery about the 19th century Anglophone novel. To be sure, that’s not what he claimed – I’ve had to reinterpret his work (see my working paper, On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel) – but that’s what he has in fact done.

So we’ve got two investigations making the same observation: there is a long-term direction 19th century literary culture. But not the same, as Jockers looked at novels and Underwood and Sellers looked at poetry. Moreover their observational methods are quite different. Jockers uncovered direction by looking for similarity between texts where similarity judgments are based on a variety of stylistic measures and on topic analysis. Underwood and Smalls bumped into directionality by looking for differences between the general run of literary texts and texts selected for review by elite publications. Jockers’ work, almost by design, uncovered continuity between successive cohorts of texts, but simply ignored elite culture. Underwood and Smalls had no explicit interest in local continuity but, by looking at elite choice, uncovered a possible factor in directional cultural change: the “pressure” of elite preference on the system as a whole. Continue reading

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Rice, collectivism and cultural history

Today I published a short commentary on a recent paper which found correlations between rice growing and collectivism (Talhelm et al., 2014).  We’ve written about collectivism before (and here).  However, while this may sound like a spurious correlation, there’s more to it:  The theory is that communities which engage in more intensive practices, and therefore require help and collaboration of others, are biased towards a collectivist attitude (as opposed to an individualist attitude).  Rice growing is more intensive than wheat growing, and requires more extensive irrigation, both of which may require collaboration from neighbours.

The really interesting thing about Talhelm et al.’s study is that they look at data within a single country – ChinaThey also find correlations at the county level: Neighbouring counties which differ in the proportion of rice grown (the so-called rice-wheat border) differ in a range of sociological measures of individualism.

Still, the study did not directly control for possible shared history – either of farming practices or social attitudes.  I was recently a reviewer for another commentary on the paper, and decided to look a little deeper.

Continue reading


ICPhS Phonetic Evolution Meeting. Proceedings and Registration closing.

At this year’s International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Glasgow, there is a special interest satellite meeting on the evolution of phonetic capabilities. I posted a list about the program here:…015-in-glasgow/10675.html

This is just an update to let people know that:

A) The proceedings booklet is now available online here:

B) The deadline for registration to the meeting is 24th June.

Registration is £10, and can be completed through the ICPhS registration page under “Registration only with no accommodation”.

If you would like to register only for this meeting, without registering for the main ICPhS conference, you can do so by emailing

More info can be found here:

For any other queries, contact


Cultural Evolution and Oral Tradition: ‘Information transfer’ at the micro scale

It’s clear that one problem I have with Dennett’s memetics is this his conception face-to-face mechanisms of cultural evolution – like the transfer of information from one computer to another – seems rather thin, unrealistically so. I tend to think that meaning is something arrived at through negotiation whereas Dennett writes as though one-shot one-way ‘information transfer’ is sufficient to the process.

I want to present some passages from David Rubin, Memory in Oral Tradition: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (Oxford UP 1995) that I think merit close consideration. These are passages about oral epic and so are relevant to thinking about folktales, myth and such, stories that are held in memory and delivered to an audience without benefit of written prompt. One thing we need to keep in mind is that, in oral culture, the notion of faithful repetition is not the same as it is in literate culture. In the literate world repetition means word-for-word. In oral cultures it does not. A faithful recounting of a story is one where the same characters are involved in the same (major) incidents in (pretty much) the same order. Word-for-word recounting is not required; in fact, such a notion is all but meaningless. With no written (or otherwise recorded) verification, how do you tell?

This passages illustrates that nicely (pp. 137-138):

Avdo Medjedovic was the best singer recorded by Lord and Parry. An example of his learning a new song provides insights into what it is that the poetic-language learner must learn about his genre (Lord, 1960; Lord & Bynum, 1974). A singer sang a song of 2,294 lines that Avdo Medjedovic had never heard before. When the song was finished, Avdo Medjedovic was asked if he could sing the same song. He did, only now the song was 6,313 lines long. The basic story line remained the same, but, to use Lord’s description, “the song lengthened, the ornamentation and richness accumulated, and the human touches of character, touches that distinguish Avdo Medjedovic from other singers, imparted a depth of feeling that had been missing” (p. 78). Avdo Medjedovic’s song retold the same story in his own words, much as subjects in a psychology experiment would retell a story from a genre with which they were familiar, but Avdo Medjedovic’s own words were poetic language and his story was a song of high artistic quality. Although the particular words changed, the words added were all traditional; and so the stability of the tradition, if not the stability of the words of a particular telling of a story, was ensured.

Several aspects of this feat are of interest. First, the song was composed without preparation and sung at great speed. There was no time for preparation before the 6,313 lines were sung, and once the song began, the rhythm allowed little time for Avdo Medjedovic to stop and collect his thoughts. Such a feat implies a well-organized memory and the equivalent of an efficient set of rules for production. Second, the song expanded yet remained traditional in style, demonstrating that more than a particular song was being recalled. Rather, rules or parts drawn from other songs were being used. Third, although Avdo Medjedovic was creative by any standards, he was not trying to create a novel song; he believed that he was telling a true story just the way he had heard it, though perhaps a little better. To do otherwise would be to distort history.

So, an expert listens to a story than runs to 2,294 lines and then immediately repeats it back, but embellished to 6,313. Would he be able to do the same thing the next day or ten days or a year later? Probably. Continue reading


Where I’m at on cultural evolution, some quick remarks

I don’t know.

Some notes to myself.

1. Cultural Analogs to Genes and Phenotypes

I’ve spent a fair amount of time off and on over the last two decades hacking away at identifying cultural analogues to biological genes and phenotypes. In the past few years that effort has taken the form of an examination of Dan Dennett. I more or less like the current conceptual configuration, where I’ve got Cultural Beings as an analog to phenotypes and coordinators as analogs to genes. As far as I can tell – and I AM biased, of course, it’s the best such scheme going.

And it just lays there. So what? I don’t see that it allows me to explain anything that can’t otherwise be explained. Nor does it have obvious empirical consequences that one could test in obvious ways. It seems to me mostly a formal exercise at this point. In that it is not different from any version of memetics nor from Sperber’s cultural attractor theory. These are all formal exercises with little explanatory value that I can see.

That’s got to change. But how? I note that dealing with words as evolutionary objects seems somewhat different from treating literary works (or musical works and performances, works of visual art, etc.) as evolutionary objects.

Issues: Design, Human Communication

2. Cultural Direction

Perhaps the most interesting work I’ve done in the past year as been my work on Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis and, just recently, on Underwood and Sellers’ paper on 19th century poetry. In the case of Jockers’ work on the novel, he’d done a study of influence which I’ve reconceptualized as a demonstration that the literary system as a direction. In the case of Underwood and Sellers, they’ve found themselves looking at directionality, but they hadn’t been looking for it. Their problem was to ward of the conceptual ‘threat’ of Whig historicism; they want to see if they can accept the directionality but not commit themselves to Whiggishness, and I’ve spent some time arguing that they need not worry.

What excites me is that two independent studies have come up with what looks like demonstrations of historical direction. I take this as an indication of the causal structure of the underlying historical process, which encompasses thousands upon thousands of people interaction with and through thousands of texts over the course of a century. What shows up in the texts can be thought of as a manifestation of Geist and so these studies are about the apparent direction of Geist. Continue reading

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Evolang 11: Call for papers

The next Evolution of Language Conference will take place in New Orleans on March 21 -24, 2016.  The call for papers is now open.

The deadline for submissions is September 4th.  See the call for papers for more details.

This year there are some notable changes, including double blind reviewing, electronic proceedings and the possibility of adding supplementary materials.

I’m looking forwards to it already!

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What the Songbird Said Radio Programme

BBC radio 4 have a new radio programme about songbirds and human language including contributions from Simon Fisher, Katie Slocombe and Johan Bolhuis, among others.

You can listen here:

And here’s the synopsis:

Could birdsong tell us something about the evolution of human language? Language is arguably the single thing that most defines what it is to be human and unique as a species. But its origins – and its apparent sudden emergence around a hundred thousand years ago – remains mysterious and perplexing to researchers. But could something called vocal learning provide a vital clue as to how language might have evolved? The ability to learn and imitate sounds – vocal learning – is something that humans share with only a few other species, most notably, songbirds. Charles Darwin noticed this similarity as far back as 1871 in the Descent of Man and in the last couple of decades, research has uncovered a whole host of similarities in the way humans and songbirds perceive and process speech and song. But just how useful are animal models of vocal communication in understanding how human language might have evolved? Why is it that there seem to be parallels with songbirds but little evidence that our closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, share at least some of our linguistic abilities?

Computational Construction Grammar and Constructional Change

Call For Participation

Computational Construction Grammar and Constructional Change
Annual Conference of the Linguistic Society of Belgium
8 June 2015, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

After several decades in scientific purgatory, language evolution has reclaimed its place as one of the most important branches in linguistics, and it is increasingly recognised as one of the most crucial sources of evidence for understanding human cognition. This renewed interest is accompanied by exciting breakthroughs in the science of language. Historical linguists can now couple their expertise to powerful methods for retrieving and documenting which changes have taken place. At the same time, construction grammar is increasingly being embraced in all areas of linguistics as a fruitful way of making sense of all these empirical observations. Construction grammar has also enthused formal and computational linguists, who have developed sophisticated tools for exploring issues in language processing and learning, and how new forms of grammar may emerge in speech populations.

Separately, linguists and computational linguists can therefore explain which changes take place in language and how these changes are possible. When working together, however, they can also address the question of why language evolves over time and how it emerged in the first place. This year, the BKL-CBL conference therefore brings together top researchers from both fields to put evidence and methods from both perspectives on the table, and to take up the challenge of uniting these efforts.

Invited Speakers
The conference contains presentations by 5 different keynote speakers.
* Graeme Trousdale (University of Edinburgh)
* Luc Steels (VUB/ IBE Barcelona)
* Kristin Davidse (University of Leuven)
* Peter Petré (University of Lille)
* Arie Verhagen (University of Leiden)

Poster Presentations
We still accept 500-word abstracts for poster presentations. All presentations must represent original, unpublished work not currently under review elsewhere. Work presented at the conference can be selected as a contribution for a special issue of the Belgian Journal of Linguistics (Summer 2016).

Important dates
* Abstract Submission: 29 May 2015
* Notification of acceptance: 1 June 2015
* Conference: 8 June 2015

Introductory tutorial on Fluid Construction Grammar
Learn how to write your own operational grammars in Fluid Construction Grammar in our tutorial on 7 and 9 June. The tutorial is practically oriented and mainly consists of hands-on exercises. Participation is free but registration is required.

Organising Committee
* Katrien Beuls, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
* Remi van Trijp, Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Paris, France


Follow-up on Dennett and Mental Software

This is a follow-up to a previous post, Dennet’s WRONG: the Mind is NOT Software for the Brain. In that post I agreed with Tecumseh Fitch [1] that the hardware/software distinction for digital computers is not valid for mind/brain. Dennett wants to retain the distinction [2], however, and I argued against that. Here are some further clarifications and considerations.

1. Technical Usage vs. Redescription

I asserted that Dennett’s desire to talk of mental software (or whatever) has no technical justification. All he wants is a different way of describing the same mental/neural processes that we’re investigating.

What did I mean?

Dennett used the term “virtual machine”, which has a technical, if a bit diffuse, meaning in computing. But little or none of that technical meaning carries over to Dennett’s use when he talks of, for example, “the long-division virtual machine [or] the French-speaking virtual machine”. There’s no suggestion in Dennett that a technical knowledge of the digital technique would give us insight into neural processes. So his usage is just a technical label without technical content.

2. Substrate Neutrality

Dennett has emphasized the substrate neutrality of computational and informatic processes. Practical issues of fabrication and operation aside, a computational process will produce the same result regardless of whether or not it is implemented in silicon, vacuum tubes, or gears and levels. I have no problem with this.

As I see it, taken only this far we’re talking about humans designing and fabricating devices and systems. The human designers and fabricators have a “transcendental” relationship to their devices. They can see and manipulate them whole, top to bottom, inside and out.

But of course, Dennett wants this to extend to neural tissue as well. Once we know the proper computational processes to implement, we should be able to implement a conscious intelligent mind in digital technology that will not be meaningfully different from a human mind/brain. The question here, it seems to me, is: But is this possible in principle?

Dennett has recently come to the view that living neural tissue has properties lacking in digital technology [3, 4, 5]. What does that do to substrate neutrality? Continue reading