The 20th Anniversary of Steven Pinker & Paul Bloom: Natural Language and Natural Selection (1990)

The day before yesterday Wintz mentioned two important birthdays in the field of language evolution (see here): First, Babel’s Dawn turned four, and second, as both Edmund Blair Bolles and Wintz pointed out, Steven Pinker‘s and Paul Bloom‘s seminal paper “Natural Language and Natural Selection” (preprint can be found here) has its 20th anniversary.
Wintz wrote that he planned on writing
“a post on Pinker and Bloom’s original paper, and how the field has developed over these last twenty years, at some point in the next couple of weeks,”
and I thought I’d also offer a short perspective on the paper, by reposting an slightly edited post I wrote on the paper in 2008 (yes I know, I do a lot of reposting of old material, but I’m planning on writing more new stuff as well, I promise 😉 ).
So here we go:

The Media Noose: Copycat Suicides and Social Learning

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.orgI always remember 2008 as the year when the entire UK media descended upon the former mining town of Bridgend. The reason: over the course of two years, 24 young people, most of whom were between the ages of 13 and 17, decided to commit suicide. At the time I was working in Bridgend, so I’m able to appreciate the claims of local MP, Madeleine Moon, that media influence had become part of problem. After all, most editors will tell you: the aim is to sell newspapers. And when this rule is rigorously applied, it should not come as a surprise at the depths some journalists will sink to recycle a news story. Even at a local-level, where you’d think some civic responsibility might exist, journalists clambered over themselves to find a new angle, generating ridiculous claims such as: electromagnetic waves from mobile phones caused the suicides.

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Phylogenetics, Cultural Evolution and Horizontal Transmission

ResearchBlogging.orgFor 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.

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