Evolving Linguistic Replicators: Major Transitions and Grammaticalisation

ResearchBlogging.orgJust before Christmas I found myself in the pub speaking to Sean about his work on bilingualism, major transitions and the contrast between language change and the cultural evolution of language. Now, other than revealing that our social time is spent discussing our university work, the conversation brought up a distinction not often made: whilst language change is part of language evolution, the latter is also what we consider to be a major transition. As you evolutionary biologists will know, this concept is perhaps best examined and almost certainly popularised in Maynard Smith & Szathmáry’s (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution. Here, the authors are not promoting the fallacy of guided evolution, where the inevitable consequence is increased and universal complexity. Their thesis is more subtle: that some lineages become more complex over time, with this increase being attributable to the way in which genetic information is transmitted between generations. In particular, they note eight transitions in the evolution of life:

What’s notable about these transitions, and why they aren’t necessarily an arbitrary list, is that all of them share some broad commonalities, namely:

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A history of evolution pt. 2: The Wealth of Nations, Populations and On the Origin

Title page of the original edition of Malthus' 1798 work

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Cultural Diversity, Economic Development and Societal Instability

ResearchBlogging.orgMost of you in the science blogosphere have probably come across Razib’s recent post on linguistic diversity and poverty. The basic argument being that linguistic homogeneity is good for economic development and general prosperity. I was quite happy to let the debate unfold and limit my stance on the subject to the following few sentences I posted previously:

From the perspective of a linguist, however, I do like the idea of really obscure linguistic communities, ready and waiting to be discovered and documented. On the flip side, it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society. Our goal, then, should probably be more focused on documenting, as opposed to saving, these languages.

Since then, the debate has become a lot more heated, with Neuroanthropology wading in against Razib, which, in the second-half of the post at least, is worth reading just to get the general flavour of the other side in this debate. Having said that, I wasn’t convinced by the evidence Greg Downey used to dismiss Razib’s hypothesis, so I decided to actually look at the literature on the subject. The first paper I found upon searching was one by Nettle et al, in which they examine the relationship between cultural diversity and societal instability using a large cross-national data set of 212 nations. Importantly, they look at cultural diversity in the context of three areas: linguistically, ethnically and religious affiliation. Also, they draw a distinction between within-nation (alpha) diversity and between-nation (beta) diversity. Lastly, unlike other studies on the subject, where simple regression or correlation methods are used, the current study employs structural equation modelling (SEM):

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Some Links #10: Poo lady tweets shit

Gillian McKeith: You are what you tweet. If you thought the subject of my title was some five-year who just discovered various nouns for his excrement, then you’re not far off: Gillian McKeith is back, and like any bad-sequel she’s saying the same shit, just repackaged into an eerily similar set of events. What I particularly loved about this article is McKeith’s denial that she’s actually the McKeith in question. Confused? Head over and read the article. It’s short and fun.

A strong dose of regulation will keep the health food industry regular. Interesting article by Martin Robbins (of Lay Scientist) over at the Guardian. I’m not normally one for regulation: I think it’s often a backwards way of looking at an issue. And I’m definitely against our ridiculous zeal for legislation-only solutions. But I do think in the case of the health food industry regulation and legislation are fantastically effective. To bring it back to the post above: McKeith has literally made millions through the exploitation of a weakly controlled industry. Ultimately, though, I do think we need to also consider the other effective weapon against these erroneous claims: education. After all, those who know, know not to buy.

I Write Like… H.P. Lovecraft, apparently. It probably explains the lack of comments on my posts: people are scared shitless. It’s okay, I’m not a venomous wordsmith, just a former linguistics student searching for a new university to call home. See, not so scary now… Click the link if you fancy wasting a minute or so of your time.

The Price of Altruism. I always remember first learning about the Price equation at university, and the sad story of its progenitor, George Price, who committed suicide in 1975. Over a Gene Expression, Razib Khan has written a fantastic, in-depth review of Oren Harman’s book, The Price of Altruism. There are too many snippets of information to pick out for a summary, but here’s an ironically amusing section:

The “hawk” and “dove” morphs made famous by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene go back to Maynard Smith’s work, but the terms themselves were of Price’s invention according to Harman. If I read Harman’s chronology correctly Price was already a fervent Christian by this time, having left atheism in the same period as he launched his career as an evolutionary biologist, and there is some hint that the term “dove” may have been influenced by his particular religious leanings. This possibility seems all the more amusing in light of Dawkins’ later career as an atheist polemicist.

Matt Ridley: When Ideas Have Sex. Love him for his biology, or loathe him for his economics, you can’t help but nod in agreement with Matt Ridley’s TED talk. I think he over emphasizes this apparent trend of good times to come. He clearly hasn’t read Taleb’s Black Swan (and probably isn’t all too interested given his risk-taking strategies at Northern Rock). But his stuff on trade and cultural evolution is fairly rock solid from my perspective.

Some Links #6: We are all Keynesians now. Yeah, but which type?

If you think economic cuts are necessary, you’re being fooled. Martyn Winters (known to me as dad) writes about Joseph Stiglitz’s thoughts on George Osborne’s attempts to reduce the deficit:

You may have heard of Professor Joseph Stiglitz – he’s the Nobel laureate economist who correctly predicted the global crash. He’s distinctly unimpressed with Osbourne’s budget. This, he predicts, will make Britain’s recovery from recession longer, slower and harder than it needs to be. The rise in VAT could even tip us into a double-dip recession. He took time to offer George Osbourne a bit of advice – which will probably go unheeded, because Osbourne’s objectives aren’t necessarily to improve the economy. They are an ideological attack on the state, with the intention of shrinking it by forty percent.

The basis for this is part Keynesian, and has been echoed by other commentators such as Johann Hari, in that we must spend our way out of economic woes. Now I must admit I’m not too fond of how Osborne is going about reducing deficit (raising VAT… huh?), but, for reasons that’ll become apparent below, I do think we need to tackle the deficit.

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The economy as an evolutionary system

A developing interest of mine is that of complex adaptive systems. Like language, ant colonies and the immune system, the economy is such an evolutionary system. As Plektix explains in a very interesting article:

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