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…

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Phylogenetics in linguistics: the biggest intellectual fraud since Chomsky?

A few weeks ago, Roger Blench gave a talk at the MPI entitled ‘New mathematical methods’ in linguistics constitute the greatest intellectual fraud in the discipline since ChomskyThe title is controversial, to say the least!  The talk argued, amongst other things,  that phylogenetic methods are less transparent and less replicatable than traditional historical reconstruction.   Here are I argue against those points.

I felt like I should respond online, because Roger Blench made the talk slides available online (a similar set of arguments are more fully expressed by here).

Continue reading

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Dan Dennett on Patterns (and Ontology)

I want to look at what Dennett has to say about patterns because 1) I introduced the term in my previous discussion, In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales [1], and 2) it is interesting for what it says about his philosophy generally.

You’ll recall that, in that earlier discussion, I pointed out talk of “free-floating rationales” (FFRs) was authorized by the presence of a certain state of affairs, a certain pattern of relationships among, in Dennett’s particular example, an adult bird, (vulnerable) chicks, and a predator. Does postulating talk of FFRs add anything to the pattern? Does it make anything more predictable? No. Those FFRs are entirely redundant upon the pattern that authorizes them. By Occam’s Razor, they’re unnecessary.

With that, let’s take a quick look at Dennett’s treatment of the role of patterns in his philosophy. First I quote some passages from Dennett, with a bit of commentary, and then I make a few remarks on my somewhat different treatment of patterns. In a third post I’ll be talking about the computational capacities of the mind/brain.

Patterns and the Intentional Stance

Let’s start with a very useful piece Dennett wrote in 1994, “Self-Portrait” [2] – incidentally, I found this quite useful in getting a better sense of what Dennett’s up to. As the title suggests, it’s his account of his intellectual concerns up to that point (his intellectual life goes back to the early 1960s at Harvard and then later at Oxford). The piece doesn’t contain technical arguments for his positions, but rather states what they were and gives their context in his evolving system of thought. For my purposes in this inquiry that’s fine.

He begins by noting, “the two main topics in the philosophy of mind are CONTENT and CONSCIOUSNESS” (p. 236). Intentionality belongs to the theory of content. It was and I presume still is Dennett’s view that the theory of intentionality/content is the more fundamental of the two. Later on he explains that (p. 239):

… I introduced the idea that an intentional system was, by definition, anything that was amenable to analysis by a certain tactic, which I called the intentional stance. This is the tactic of interpreting an entity by adopting the presupposition that it is an approximation of the ideal of an optimally designed (i.e. rational) self-regarding agent. No attempt is made to confirm or disconfirm this presupposition, nor is it necessary to try to specify, in advance of specific analyses, wherein consists RATIONALITY. Rather, the presupposition provides leverage for generating specific predictions of behaviour, via defeasible hypotheses about the content of the control states of the entity.

This represents a position Dennett will call “mild realism” later in the article. We’ll return to that in a bit. But at the moment I want to continue just a bit later on p. 239:

In particular, I have held that since any attributions of function necessarily invoke optimality or rationality assumptions, the attributions of intentionality that depend on them are interpretations of the phenomena – a ‘heuristic overlay’ (1969), describing an inescapably idealized ‘real pattern’ (1991d). Like such abstracta as centres of gravity and parallelograms of force, the BELIEFS and DESIRES posited by the highest stance have no independent and concrete existence, and since this is the case, there would be no deeper facts that could settle the issue if – most improbably – rival intentional interpretations arose that did equally well at rationalizing the history of behaviour of an entity.

Hence his interest in patterns. When one adopts the intentional stance (or the design stance, or the physical stance) one is looking for characteristic patterns. Continue reading

Cognitive Linguistics and the Evolution of Language

On Tuesday, July 21st, this year’s International Cognitive Linguistics Conference will host a theme session on “Cognitive Linguistics and the Evolution of Language” co-organized by three Replicated Typo authors: Michael Pleyer, James Winters, and myself. In addition, two Replicated Typo bloggers are co-authors on papers presented in the theme session.

The general idea of this session goes back to previous work by James and Michael, who promoted the idea of integrating Cognitive Linguistics and language evolution research in several conference talks as well as in a 2014 paper – published, quite fittingly, in a journal called “Theoria et Historia Scientiarum”, as the very idea of combining these frameworks requires some meta-theoretical reflection. As both cognitive and evolutionary linguistics are in themselves quite heterogeneous frameworks, the question emerges what we actually mean when we speak of “cognitive” or “evolutionary” linguistics, respectively.

I might come back to this meta-scientific discussion in a later post. For now, I will confine myself to giving a brief overview of the eight talks in our session. The full abstracts can be found here.

In the first talk, Vyv Evans (Bangor) proposes a two-step scenario of the evolution of language, informed by concepts from Cognitive Linguistics in general and Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar in particular:

The first stage, logically, had to be a symbolic reference in what I term a words-to-world direction, bootstrapping extant capacities that Autralopithecines, and later ancestral Homo shared with the great apes. But the emergence of a grammatical capacity is also associated with a shift towards a words-to-words direction symbolic reference: words and other grammatical constructions can symbolically refer to other symbolic units.

Roz Frank (Iowa) then outlines “The relevance of a ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ approach to ‘language’” – note the scarequotes. She argues that “the CAS approach serves to replace older historical linguistic notions of languages as ‘organisms’ and as ‘species’”.

Sabine van der Ham, Hannah Little, Kerem Eryılmaz, and Bart de Boer (Brussels) then talk about two sets of experiments investigating the role of individual learning biases and cultural transmission in shaping language, in a talk entitled “Experimental Evidence on the Emergence of Phonological Structure”.

In the next talk, Seán Roberts and Stephen Levinson (Nijmegen) provide experimental evidence for the hypothesis that “On-line pressures from turn taking constrain the cultural evolution of word order”. Chris Sinha’s talk, entitled “Eco-Evo-Devo: Biocultural synergies in language evolution”, is more theoretical in nature, but no less interesting. Starting from the hypothesis that “many species construct “artefactual” niches, and language itself may be considered as a transcultural component of the species-specific human biocultural niche”, he argues that

Treating language as a biocultural niche yields a new perspective on both the human language capacity and on the evolution of this capacity. It also enables us to understand the significance of language as the symbolic ground of the special subclass of symbolic cognitive artefacts.

Arie Verhagen (Leiden) then discusses the question if public and private communication are “Stages in the Evolution of Language”.  He argues against Tomasello’s idea that ““joint” intentionality emerged first and evolved into what is essentially still its present state, which set the stage for the subsequent evolution of “collective” intentionality” and instead defends the view that

these two kinds of processes and capacities evolved ‘in tandem’: A gradual increase in the role of culture (learned patterns of behaviour) produced differences and thus competition between groups of (proto-)humans, which in turn provided selection pressures for an increased capability and motivation of individuals to engage in collaborative activities with others.

James Winters (Edinburgh) then provides experimental evidence that “Linguistic systems adapt to their contextual niche”, addressing two major questions with the help of an artificial-language communication game:

(i) To what extent does the situational context influence the encoding of features in the linguistic system? (ii) How does the effect of the situational context work its way into the structure of language?

His results “support the general hypothesis that language structure adapts to the situational contexts in which it is learned and used, with short-term strategies for conveying the intended meaning feeding back into long-term, system-wider changes.”

The final talk, entitled “Communicating events using bodily mimesis with and without vocalization” is co-authored by Jordan Zlatev, Sławomir Wacewicz, Przemysław Żywiczyński,  andJoost van de Weijer (Lund/Torun). They introduce an experiment on event communication and discuss to what extent the greater potential for iconic representation in bodily reenactment compared to in vocalization might lend support for a “bodily mimesis hypothesis of language origins”.

In the closing session of the workshop, this highly promising array of papers is discussed with one of the “founding fathers” of modern language evolution research, Jim Hurford (Edinburgh).

But that’s not all: Just one coffee break after the theme session, there will be a panel on “Language and Evolution” in the general session of the conference, featuring papers by Gareth Roberts & Maryia Fedzechkina; Jonas Nölle; Carmen Saldana, Simon Kirby & Kenny Smith; Yasamin Motamedi, Kenny Smith, Marieke Schouwstra & Simon Kirby; and Andrew Feeney.


“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!


In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales

I’ve decided to take a closer look at Dennett’s notion of free-floating rationale. It strikes me as being an unhelpful reification, but explaining just why that is has turned out to be a tricky matter. First I’ll look at a passage from a recent article, “The Evolution of Reasons” [1], and then go back three decades to a major exposition of the intentional stance as applied to animal behavior [2]. I’ll conclude with some hints about metaphysics.

On the whole I’m inclined to think of free-floating rationale as a poor solution to a deep problem. It’s not clear to me what a good solution would be, though I’ve got some suggestions as to how that might go.

Evolving Reasons

Dennett opens his inquiry by distinguishing between “a process narrative that explains the phenomenon without saying it is for anything” and an account that provides “a reason–a proper telic reason” (p. 50). The former is what he calls a how come? account and the latter is a what for? account. After reminding us of Aristotle’s somewhat similar four causes Dennett gets down to it: “Evolution by natural selection starts with how come and arrives at what for. We start with a lifeless world in which there are lots of causes but no reasons, no purposes at all.” (p. 50).

Those free-floating rationales are a particular kind of what for. He introduces the term on page 54:

So there were reasons before there were reason representers. The reasons tracked by evolution I have called “free-floating rationales” (1983, 1995, and elseswhere), a term that has apparently jangled the nerves of more than a few thinkers, who suspect I am conjuring up ghosts of some sort. Free-floating rationales are no more ghostly or problematic than numbers or centers of gravity. There were nine planets before people invented ways of articulating arithmetic, and asteroids had centers of gravity before there were physicists to dream up the idea and calculate with it. I am not relenting; instead, I am hoping here to calm their fears and convince them that we should all be happy to speak of the reasons uncovered by evolution before they were ever expressed or represented by human investigators or any other minds.

That is, just as there is no mystery about the relationship between numbers and planets, or between centers of gravity and asteroids, so there is no mystery about the relationship between free-floating rationales and X.

What sorts of things can we substitute for X? That’s what’s tricky. It turns out those things aren’t physically connected objects. Those things are patterns of interaction among physically connected objects.

Before taking a look at those patterns (in the next section), let’s consider another passage from this article (p. 54):

Natural selection is thus an automatic reason finder that “discovers,” “endorses,” and “focuses” reasons over many generations. The scare quotes are to remind us that natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons, but is nevertheless competent to perform this “task” of design refinement. This is competence without comprehension.

That’s where Dennett is going, “competence without comprehension” – a recent mantra of his.

It is characteristic of Dennett’s intentional stance that it authorizes the use of intentional language, such as “discovers,” “endorses,” and “focuses”. That’s what it’s for, to allow the use of such language in situations where it comes naturally and easily. What’s not clear to me is whether or not one is supposed to treat it as a heuristic device that leads to non-intentional accounts. Clearly intentional talk about “selfish” genes is to be cashed out in non-intentional talk, and that would seem to be the case with natural selection in general.

But it is one thing to talk about cashing out intentional talk in a more suitable explanatory lingo. It’s something else to actually do so. Dennett’s been talking about free-floating rationales for decades, but hasn’t yet, so far as I know, proposed a way of getting rid of that bit of intentional talk. Continue reading


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


denDennett’s Astonishing Hypothesis: We’re Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains

It’s hard to know the proper attitude to take toward this idea. Daniel Dennett, after all, is a brilliant and much honored thinker. But I can’t take the idea seriously. He’s running on fumes. The noises he makes are those of engine failure, not forward motion.

At around 53:00 into this video (“Cultural Evolution and the Architecture of Human Minds”) he tells us that human culture is the “second great endosymbiotic revolution” in the history of life on earth, and, he assures us, he means the “literally.” The first endosymbiotic revolution, of course, was the emergence of eukaryotic cells from the pairwise incorporation of one prokaryote within another. The couple then operated as a single organism and of course reproduced as such.

At 53:13 he informs us:

In other words we are apes with infected brains. Our brains have been invaded by evolving symbionts which have then rearranged our brains, harnessing them to do work that no other brain can do. How did these brilliant invaders do this? Do they reason themselves? No, they’re stupid, they’re clueless. But they have talents the permit them to redesign human brains and turn them into human minds. […] Cultural evolution evolved virtual machines which can then be installed on the chaotic hardware of all those neurons.

Dennett is, of course, talking about memes. Apes and memes hooked up and we’re the result.

In the case of the eukaryotic revolution the prokaryots that merged had evolved independently and prior to the merging. Did the memes evolve independently and prior to hooking up with us? If so, do we know where and how this happened? Did they come from meme wells in East Africa? Dennett doesn’t get around to explaining that in this lecture as he’d run out of time. But I’m not holding my breath until he coughs up an account.

But I’m wondering if he’s yet figured out how many memes can dance on the head of a pin.

More seriously, how is it that he’s unable to see how silly this is? What is his system of thought like that such thoughts are acceptable? Continue reading


Underwood and Sellers 2015: Beyond narrative we have simulation

It is one thing to use computers to crunch data. It’s something else to use computers to simulate a phenomenon. Simulation is common in many disciplines, including physics, sociology, biology, engineering, and computer graphics (CGI special effects generally involve simulation of the underlying physical phenomena). Could we simulate large-scale literary processes?

In principal, of course. Why not? In practice, not yet. To be sure, I’ve seen the possibility mentioned here and there, and I’ve seen an example or two. But it’s not something many are thinking about, much less doing.

Nonetheless, as I was thinking about How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change? (Underwood and Sellers 2015) I found myself thinking about simulation. The object of such a simulation would be to demonstrate the principle result of that work, as illustrated in this figure:

19C Direction

Each dot, regardless of color or shape, represents the position of a volume of poetry in a one-dimensional abstraction over 3200 dimensional space – though that’s not how Underwood and Sellers explain it (for further remarks see “Drifting in Space” in my post, Underwood and Sellers 2015: Cosmic Background Radiation, an Aesthetic Realm, and the Direction of 19thC Poetic Diction). The trend line indicates that poetry is shifting in that space along a uniform direction over the course of the 19th century. Thus there seems to be a large-scale direction to that literary system. Could we create a simulation that achieves that result through ‘local’ means, without building a telos into the system?

The only way to find out would be to construct such a system. I’m not in a position to do that, but I can offer some remarks about how we might go about doing it.

* * * * *

I note that this post began as something I figured I could knock out in two or three afternoons. We’ve got a bunch of texts, a bunch of people, and the people choose to read texts, cycle after cycle after cycle. How complicated could it be to make a sketch of that? Pretty complicated.

What follows is no more than a sketch. There’s a bunch of places where I could say more and more places where things need to be said, but I don’t know how to say them. Still, if I can get this far in the course of a week or so, others can certainly take it further. It’s by no means a proof of concept, but it’s enough to convince me that at some time in the future we will be running simulations of large scale literary processes.

I don’t know whether or not I would create such a simulation given a budget and appropriate collaborators. But I’m inclined to think that, if not now, then within the next ten years we’re going to have to attempt something like this, if for no other reason than to see whether or not it can tell us anything at all. The fact is, at some point, simulation is the only way we’re going to get a feel for the dynamics of literary process.

* * * * *

It’s a long way through this post, almost 5000 words. I begin with a quick look at an overall approach to simulating a literary system. Then I add some details, starting with stand-ins (simulations of) texts and people. Next we have processes involving those objects. That’s the basic simulation, but it’s not the end of my post. I have some discussion of things we might do with this system followed with suggestions about extending it. I conclude with a short discussion of the E-word. Continue reading

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween