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EvoLang paper submission now open

The website for paper submission to EvoLang XI is now open.  The link is here (external EasyChair link).

The deadline is September 4th, 2015.

This year there will be no printed book of papers.  All accepted papers will be made available online.  The submission form also allows an optional tweet-length summary, which will be included in the printed proceedings alongside the title and will be live-tweeded during the conference.

It’s possible to include supplementary materials alongside the submission.  Authors are encouraged to make data or code available, but all information necessary to understand and evaluate the submission should be included in the main paper.  Reviewers will not see the supplementary materials.

All supplementary materials should be submitted within a single zip file, which should also include a readme file describing the contents.  Supplementary materials should be referenced in the main text (e.g. “see supplementary materials”).

See the conference website for more details.


An Inquiry into & a Critique of Dennett on Intentional Systems

A new working paper. Downloads HERE:

Abstract, contents, and introduction below:

* * * * *

Abstract: Using his so-called intentional stance, Dennett has identified so-called “free-floating rationales” in a broad class of biological phenomena. The term, however, is redundant on the pattern of objects and actions to which it applies and using it has the effect of reifying the pattern in a peculiar way. The intentional stance is itself a pattern of wide applicability. However, in a broader epistemological view, it turns out that we are pattern-seeking creatures and that phenomenon identified with some pattern must be verified by other techniques. The intentional stance deserves no special privilege in this respect. Finally, it is suggested that the intentional stance may get its intellectual power from the neuro-mental machinery it recruits and not from any special class of phenomena it picks out in the world.


Introduction: Reverse Engineering Dan Dennett 2
Dennett’s Astonishing Hypothesis: We’re Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains 6
In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales 9
Dan Dennett on Patterns (and Ontology) 14
Dan Dennett, “Everybody talks that way” – Or How We Think 20

Introduction: Reverse Engineering Dan Dennett

I find Dennett puzzling. Two recent back-to-back videos illustrate that puzzle. One is a version of what seems to have become his standard lecture on cultural evolution, this time entitled

As such it has the same faults I identify in the lecture that occasioned the first post in this collection, Dennett’s Astonishing Hypothesis: We’re Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains. It’s got a collection of nicely curated examples of mostly biological phenomenon which Dennett crafts into an account of cultural evolution though energetic hand-waving and tap-dancing.
And then we have a somewhat shorter video that is a question and answer session following the first:

I like much of what Dennett says in this video; I think he’s right on those issues.

What happened between the first and second video? For whatever reason, no one asked him about the material in the lecture he’d just given. They asked him about philosophy of mind and about AI. Thus, for example, I agree with him that The Singularity is not going to happen anytime soon, and likely not ever. Getting enough raw computing power is not the issue. Organizing it is, and as yet we know very little about that. Similarly I agree with him that the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is a non-issue.

How is it that one set of remarks is a bunch of interesting examples held together by smoke and mirrors while the other set of remarks is cogent and substantially correct? I think these two sets of remarks require different kinds of thinking. The second set involve philosophical analysis, and, after all Dennett is a philosopher more or less in the tradition of 20th century Anglo-American analytic philosophy. But that first set of remarks, about cultural evolution, is about constructing a theory. It requires what I called speculative engineering in the preface to my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil. On the face of it, Dennett is not much of an engineer.

And now things get really interesting. Consider this remark from a 1994 article [1] in which Dennett gives an overview of this thinking up to that time (p. 239):

My theory of content is functionalist […]: all attributions of content are founded on an appreciation of the functional roles of the items in question in the biological economy of the organism (or the engineering of the robot). This is a specifically ‘teleological’ notion of function (not the notion of a mathematical function or of a mere ‘causal role’, as suggested by David LEWIS and others). It is the concept of function that is ubiquitous in engineering, in the design of artefacts, but also in biology. (It is only slowly dawning on philosophers of science that biology is not a science like physics, in which one should strive to find ‘laws of nature’, but a species of engineering: the analysis, by ‘reverse engineering’, of the found artefacts of nature – which are composed of thousands of deliciously complicated gadgets, yoked together opportunistically but elegantly into robust, self-protective systems.)

I am entirely in agreement with his emphasis on engineering. Biological thinking is “a species of engineering.” And so is cognitive science and certainly the study of culture and its evolution.

Earlier in that article Dennett had this to say (p. 236):

It is clear to me how I came by my renegade vision of the order of dependence: as a graduate student at Oxford, I developed a deep distrust of the methods I saw other philosophers employing, and decided that before I could trust any of my intuitions about the mind, I had to figure out how the brain could possibly accomplish the mind’s work. I knew next to nothing about the relevant science, but I had always been fascinated with how things worked – clocks, engines, magic tricks. (In fact, had I not been raised in a dyed-in-the-wool ‘arts and humanities’ academic family, I probably would have become an engineer, but this option would never have occurred to anyone in our family.)

My reaction to that last remark, that parenthesis, was something like: Coulda’ fooled me! For I had been thinking that an engineering sensibility is what was missing in Dennett’s discussions of culture. He didn’t seem to have a very deep sense of structure and construction, of, well, you know, how design works. And here he is telling us he coulda’ been an engineer.

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EvoLang XI: Call for workshop proposals

In addition to the general session, The 11th Evolution of Language Conference will be able to host a number of thematically focused half-day workshops to be held between 09:00 and 13:45 on the first day of the conference March 21st (e.g. accommodating 8 half-hour slots, 15 minutes for an introduction, and 30 minutes for a coffee break).

Workshop proposals should be sent to by October 2nd, 2015.  Proposals should include a title, the names of the organisers and a one paragraph summary of the theme.

Notification of acceptance will be given by October 16th, 2015. The responsibility for the detailed scheduling of the workshops and for the quality of workshop contributions will rest with workshop conveners. It is suggested that the workshop contributions be short papers (e.g. 4 pages) in the format of the main submissions to the conference (see the Call for Papers section of the website).  It will be possible to publish the workshop papers online, alongside the main conference papers.  A list of workshops from the previous conferences is available here.

For more information, see the EvoLangXI website.


Vocal Iconicity Challenge (Deadline Extension: August 15th)

Earlier this year I mentioned that Gary Lupyan and Marcus Perlman were running a competition to win a $1000. All you have to do is pop over to their website, record yourself doing some sounds, and then submit. The good news is that they’ve extended the deadline until August 15th. So, if you fancy yourself as the iconic vocalisation master, then go to


Plenaries for EvoLang announced

The plenary speakers for EvoLang XI have been announced.  As well as standard plenaries, there are two discussion plenaries, focussed on a theme with discussants taking different positions.

The deadline for paper submission is the 4th of Setpember 2015 (see the conference website).


Discussion Plenaries

Language localization in the brain

Gricean communication

Single Plenaries

  • Vincent Janik (dolphin communication, Biology, University of St. Andrews)
  • Joan Bybee (usage-based grammaticalization, Linguistics, University of New Mexico)
  • Ljiljana Progovac (Evolution of Syntax, Linguistics,Wayne State University)
  • Erich Jarvis (neurobiology of birdsong, Neurobiology, Duke University)
  • Dean Falk (paleoneurology/motherese, Anthropology, Florida State University)
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Future tense and saving money: methods

Our recent paper on testing the correlation between future tense and saving money uses a variety of statistical methods, which I’ll summarise in this post.

The challenge was looking at correlations between traits of individual people while controlling for properties of their cultural history.  Saving money is an individual trait which can change in the short term, while languages are properties of groups which change over very long periods of time.  In addition, we would like to control for three sources of non-independence:  similarities between people’s economic conditions caused by them being in the same state, similarities in their language and culture caused by historical relations and similarities in their language and culture caused by cultural contact.

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commonsense think twirl dif

Dan Dennett, “Everybody talks that way” – Or How We Think

Note: Late on the evening og 7.20.15: I’ve edited the post at the end of the second section by introducing a distinction between prediction and explanation.

Thinking things over, here’s the core of my objection to talk of free-floating rationales: they’re redundant.

What authorizes talk of “free-floating rationales” (FFRs) is a certain state of affairs, a certain pattern. Does postulating the existence of FFRs add anything to the pattern? Does it make anything more predictable? No. Even considering the larger evolutionary context in which talk of FFRs adds nothing (p. 351 in [1]):

But who appreciated this power, who recognized this rationale, if not the bird or its individual ancestors? Who else but Mother Nature herself? That is to say: nobody. Evolution by natural selection “chose” this design for this “reason.”

Surely what Mother Nature recognized was the pattern. For all practical purposes talk of FFRs is simply an elaborate name for the pattern. Once the pattern’s been spotted, there is nothing more.

But how’d a biologist spot the pattern? (S)he made observations and thought about them. So I want to switch gears and think about the operation of our conceptual equipment. These considerations have no direct bearing on our argument about Dennett’s evolutionary thought, as every idea we have must be embodied in some computational substrate, the good ideas and the bad. But the indirect implications are worth thinking about. For they indicate that a new intellectual game is afoot.

Dennett on How We Think

Let’s start with a passage from the intentional systems article. This is where Dennett is imagining a soliloquy that our low-nesting bird might have. He doesn’t, of course, want us to think that the bird ever thought such thoughts (or even, for that matter, perhaps thought any thoughts at all). Rather, Dennett is following Dawkins in proposing this as a way for biologists to spot interesting patterns in the life world. Here’s the passage (p. 350 in [1]):

I’m a low-nesting bird, whose chicks are not protectable against a predator who discovers them. This approaching predator can be expected soon to discover them unless I distract it; it could be distracted by its desire to catch and eat me, but only if it thought there was a reasonable chance of its actually catching me (it’s no dummy); it would contract just that belief if I gave it evidence that I couldn’t fly anymore; I could do that by feigning a broken wing, etc.

Keeping that in mind, lets look at another passage. This is from a 1999 interview [2]:

The only thing that’s novel about my way of doing it is that I’m showing how the very things the other side holds dear – minds, selves, intentions – have an unproblematic but not reduced place in the material world. If you can begin to see what, to take a deliberately extreme example, your thermostat and your mind have in common, and that there’s a perspective from which they seem to be instances of an intentional system, then you can see that the whole process of natural selection is also an intentional system.

It turns out to be no accident that biologists find it so appealing to talk about what Mother Nature has in mind. Everybody in AI, everybody in software, talks that way. “The trouble with this operating system is it doesn’t realize this, or it thinks it has an extra disk drive.” That way of talking is ubiquitous, unselfconscious – and useful. If the thought police came along and tried to force computer scientists and biologists not to use that language, because it was too fanciful, they would run into fierce resistance.

What I do is just say, Well, let’s take that way of talking seriously. Then what happens is that instead of having a Cartesian position that puts minds up there with the spirits and gods, you bring the mind right back into the world. It’s a way of looking at certain material things. It has a great unifying effect.

So, this soliloquy way of mind is useful in thinking about the biological world and something very like it is common among those who have to work with software. Dennett’s asking us to believe that, because thinking about these things in that way is so very useful (in predicting what they’re going to do) that we might as well conclude that, in some special technical sense, they really ARE like that. That special technical sense is given in his account of the intentional stance as a pattern, which we examined in the previous post [3].

What I want to do is refrain from taking that last step. I agree with Dennett that, yes, this IS a very useful way of thinking about lots of things. But I want to take that insight in a different direction. I want to suggest that what is going on in these cases is that we’re using neuro-computational equipment that evolved for regulating inter personal interactions and putting it to other uses. Mark Changizi would say we’re harnessing it to those other purposes while Stanislaw Dehaene would talk of reuse. I’m happy either way. Continue reading


Become a founding member of the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution

There is a new society for the study of cultural evolution, who are currently recruiting a base of founding members. People interested in language evolution are encouraged to join here:

They encourage the following people to become founding members:

  • Academic professionals, graduate students, and undergraduate students from any discipline relevant to cultural evolution. They especially encourage the next generation of scientists to become involved.
  • Anyone (professional or nonprofessional) who is trying to accomplish positive cultural change in the real world and who would like to base their efforts on cultural evolutionary theory.
  • Anyone (professional or nonprofessional) with an intellectual interest in cultural evolutionary theory who would like to get involved and support the newly emerging field.
  • They are especially eager for our members to come from all cultures around the world—an appropriate ideal for a Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution!

Learn an Alien Language!

I’ve set up a little experiment in collaboration with a small armada of co-authors (Jonas Nölle, Peeter Tinits, and Michael Pleyer). Be a pioneer in interstellar communication and try to accomplish an important mission:

Many thanks to Thomas Hartmann for programming the online interface and to James Winters for some enormously helpful advice on the design of the experiment.

We’ll keep you posted about the results…