It’s Charles Darwin’s birthday today! He’s 202. So in celebration I’ve written a post on the still ongoing controversy which the theory of evolution by natural selection caused and is causing, specifically with regards to the emergence of human intelligence.
Alfred Russel Wallace is widely seen as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection. While Darwin had been formulating his theory from as early as the late 1830s, he kept quite about it for more than twenty years while he amassed evidence to support it. In 1858 Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist of the same time, sent Darwin a letter outlining for him a theory of evolution which very closely mirrored Darwin’s own. The pair co-presented their theory to the Linnaean Society in 1858 but due to Darwin’s long time amassing evidence and refining his ideas, it was his book, On The Origin of Species, which was published in 1859 and set Darwin’s name firmly in the history books as the discoverer of natural selection.
While Wallace’s part in the discovery of natural selection is far from undocumented or unknown, it is largely for presenting ‘the same ideas’ as Darwin for which he is known and what is rarely discussed in the differences in their ideas. In this post I will briefly discuss a new(ish) paper by Steven Pinker on the evolution of human intelligence and some the differences between the thinking of Darwin and Wallace on the subject.
Darwin, unsurprisingly, asserted that the abstract nature of human intelligence can be fully explained by natural selection. In opposition to this Wallace claimed that it was of no use to ancestral humans and therefore could only be explained by intelligent design:
“Natural selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a few degrees superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher.”(Wallace, 1870:343)
Unsurprisingly most scientists these days do not agree with Wallace on either the point that the human brain could not be the result of natural selection or that as a result of this problem it must have been a product of design by a higher being. It would be both dismissive and dull to leave the discussion at that however, which is where Pinker comes in. Despite Wallace’s argument probably coming to the wrong conclusion he does bring up some very interesting questions which need answering, namely that of; “why do humans have the ability to pursue abstract intellectual feats such as science, mathematics, philosophy, and law, given that opportunities to exercise these talents did not exist in the foraging lifestyle in which humans evolved and would not have parlayed themselves into advantages in survival and reproduction even if they did?” (Pinker, 2010:8993)
Continue reading “Intelligence: Darwin vs. Wallace”
There have been some very interesting discussions of the relationship between language and thought recently, including for example, Sean’s absolutely fascinating series of posts about the evolution of colour terms, a great post on descriptions of motion in different languages over at the lousy linguist (here), Guy Deutscher’s article “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” (for discussions, see e.h. here and here), a slightly less recent piece by Lera Boroditsky in the Wall Street Journal, and an excellent recent discussion of her article by Mark Liberman (here). (see also James’ post, including a great/terrible joke about Whorf).
One of the things that Deutscher wrote in his article was that:
“The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us.”
As I’ve written a bit about this topic on my other blog, Shared Symbolic Storage, I’ll repost a short series of posts over the next couple of days.
As Deutscher said, this is a very fascinating avenue of linguistic research that gives much insight into the nature of language and cognition as well as their relationship. In addition, it also presents us with new facts and considerations we have to take into account when we think about how language and cognition evolved.
Continue reading “Language, Thought and Space (I): Lumpers and Splitters”
I’m not normally one for violent resolutions to sloppy science, but in taking inspiration from one such perpetrator I’m promoting a Falcon Punch policy. Above is a graphical example of a successful Falcon Punch: the goal being to hurl your target onwards and upwards into a flaming ball of scientific shame.
Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims. I had planned on writing a more substantial article on how yet another science writer, in this case one Howard Falcon-Lang, is claiming that Darwin has once again been felled by a new study. Greg Laden, however, beat me to the punch with a damning critique:
Continue reading “Some Links #16: Why I want to Falcon Punch (some) BBC Science Writers”
The limitations of geological periods, imposed by physical science, cannot, of course, disprove the hypothesis of transmutation of species; but it does seem sufficient to disprove the doctrine that transmutation has taken place through ‘descent with modification by natural selection’. — Lord Kelvin (Of Geological Dynamics, 1869).
It might seem odd that I start a post about evolution with a quote claiming natural selection is inadequate to account for the transmutation of species. It is, though, highly relevant to what I’m going to discuss in the post, and strikes at the heart of why it’s fundamental for us to understand the theory of evolution by natural selection. See, in 1869, Lord Kelvin’s position was fairly reasonable, and, as you’d expect for a man of such high scientific standing, the available evidence in physics did seem to conflict with Darwin’s theory. The Sun was one particularly salient point of contention: to get the diversity of species we see on Earth, evolution needs a long time to work (on the order of hundreds of millions, if not billions of years), yet according to 19th-century physics the Sun could only have been burning for 40-million years.
Continue reading “A history of evolution pt.1: Ancient Greece to Lamarck”
For me, recent computational accounts of language evolution provide a compelling rationale that cultural, as opposed to biological, evolution is fundamental in understanding the design features of language. The basis for this rests on the simple notion of language being not only a conveyor of cultural information, but also a socially learned and culturally transmitted system: that is, an individual’s linguistic knowledge is the result of observing the linguistic behaviour of others. Here, this well-attested process of language acquisition, often termed Iterated Learning, emphasises the effects of differential learnability on competing linguistic variants. Sounds, words and grammatical structures are therefore seen to be the products of selection and directed mutation. As you can see from the use of terms such as selection and mutation it’s clear we can draw many parallels between the literature on language evolution and analogous processes in biology. Indeed, Darwin himself noted such similarities in the Descent of Man. However, one aspect evolutionary linguists don’t seem to borrow is that of a null model. Is it possible that the changes we see in languages over time are just the products of processes analogous to genetic drift?
Continue reading “Words as alleles: A null-model for language evolution?”
Bill Benzon of New Savanna has a long article over at On the Human about cultural evolution. It touches on some very important topics, which includes an example of coordinating behaviour:
Consider the bi-modal clapping that routinely rewards a successful performances—music, drama, circus, etc.—in eastern European communities, but which is less common in western Europe and North America. Z. Néda and colleagues (2000) have investigated this phenomenon, recording applause for a number of performances in Romania and Hungary. The applause would start out randomly and then quickly become strongly synchronized. Synchronized clapping would continue for a short while (one mode) and then disintegrate into random clapping (the other mode), from which synchronized clapping would reemerge, and so forth.
He also emphasises the importance of, and the need for, description in cultural evolution, drawing on Darwin’s own situation in the 19th Century:
Consider the situation of Darwin faced in the 19th century. When he began formulating his ideas on the origin of species he had three bodies of knowledge to work from: prior thought on the topic, his own observations over three decades, and the cumulative results of four centuries of descriptive work in natural history (cf. Ogilvie 2006) to which he had access through books and collections. That descriptive work provided models for his own observation and description. Plants and animals, and their lifeways, are very complex. Which traits and features are the most important to observe and describe? That is not an obvious matter, and it took naturalists decades to arrive the useful descriptive methods (cf. Foucault 1973, pp. 128 ff.). Secondly, it gave him the means to abstract and generalize from his own observations, to explore their implications throughout the natural world, most of which, of course, was beyond his immediate experience.
I’m planning on posting a comment tomorrow, but only if I’ve got something worth adding to the discussion. I think there are definitely areas worth looking at, such as the use of phylogenetic techniques in investigating culture, though I’m still juggling in my head whether they are entirely relevant to the conversation at hand. Also, be sure to check out John Wilkins’ comment about memes.
How does natural selection account for language? Darwin wrestled with it, Chomsky sidestepped it, and Pinker claimed to solve it. Discerning the evolution of language is therefore a much sought endeavour, with a vast number of explanations emerging that offer a plethora of choice, but little in the way of consensus. This is hardly new, and at times has seemed completely frivolous and trivial. So much so that in the 19th Century, the Royal Linguistic Society in London actually went as far as to ban any discussion and debate on the origins of language. Put simply: we don’t really know that much. Often quoted in these debates is Alfred Russell Wallace, who, in a letter to Darwin, argued that: “natural selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape whereas he possesses one very little inferior to that of an average member of our learned society”.
This is obviously relevant for those of us studying language evolution. If, as Wallace challenged, natural selection (and more broadly, evolution) is unable to account for our mental capacities and behavioural capabilities, then what is the source behind our propensity for language? Well, I think we’ve come far enough to rule out the spiritual explanations of Wallace (although it still persists on some corners of the web), and whilst I agree that biological natural selection alone is not sufficient to explain language, we can certainly place it in an evolutionary framework.
Such is the position of Prof Terrence Deacon, who, in his current paper for PNAS, eloquently argues for a role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity. He’s been making these noises for a while now, as I previously mentioned here, with him also recognising evolutionary-similar processes in development. However, with the publication of this paper I think it’s about time I disseminated his current ideas in more detail, which, in my humble opinion, offers a more nuanced position than the strict modular adaptationism previously championed by Pinker et al (I say previously, because Pinker also has a paper in this issue, and I’m going to read it before making any claims about his current position on the matter).
Continue reading “Answering Wallace's challenge: Relaxed Selection and Language Evolution”
It is well documented that Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population greatly influenced both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace’s independent conception of their theory of natural selection. In it, Malthus puts forward his observation that the finite nature of resources is in conflict with the potentially exponential rate of reproduction, leading to an inevitable struggle between individuals. Darwin took this basic premise and applied it to nature, as he notes in his autobiography:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.
The interaction of demographic and evolutionary processes is thus central in understanding Darwin’s big idea: that exponential growth will eventually lead to a large population, and in turn will generate competition for natural selection to act on any heritable variation which conferred a greater fitness advantage. Under these assumptions we are able to interpret the evolutionary record of most species by appealing to two basic causal elements: genes and the environment. As we all know, in most cases the environment generates selection pressures to which genes operate and respond. For humans, however, the situation becomes more complicated when we consider another basic causal element: culture. The current paper by Richerson, Boyd & Bettinger (2009) offers one way to view this muddied situation by delineating the demographic and evolutionary processes through the notion of time scales:
The idea of time scales is used in the physical environmental sciences to simplify problems with complex interactions between processes. If one process happens on a short time scale and the other one on a long time scale, then one can often assume that the short time scale process is at an equilibrium (or in some more complex state that can be described statistically) with respect to factors governed by the long scale process. If the short time scale and long time scale interact, we can often imagine that at each time step in the evolution of the long time scale process, the short time scale process is at “equilibrium.” A separation of time scales, if justified, makes thinking about many problems of coupled dynamics much easier.
Continue reading “Cultural innovation, Pleistocene environments and demographic change”
For some time now, evolutionary biologists have used phylogenetics. It is a well-established, powerful set of tools that allow us to test evolutionary hypotheses. More recently, however, these methods are being imported to analyse linguistic and cultural phenomena. For instance, the use of phylogenetics has led to observations that languages evolve in punctuational bursts, explored the role of population movements, and investigated the descent of Acheulean handaxes. I’ve followed the developments in linguistics with particular interest; after all, tracing the ephemeral nature of language is a daunting task. The first obvious road block is that prior to the invention of writing, the uptake of which is limited in geography and history, language leaves no archaeological record for linguists to examine. One particular note I’d like to make is that when Charles Darwin first formulated his theory of natural selection, he took inspiration from linguistic family trees as the basis for his sketch on the evolutionary tree of life. So it seems rather appropriate that phylogenetic approaches are now being used to inform our knowledge regarding linguistic evolution.
Continue reading “Phylogenetics, Cultural Evolution and Horizontal Transmission”