Chomsky on Language Evolution

Noam Chomsky recently gave a lecture on the poverty of the stimulus at UCL  responding to topics such as language evolution and artificial language learning experiments. From about 89 minutes in he discusses iterated learning and language evolution, saying the conclusions derive from “serious illusions about evolution”:

Chomsky’s criticism of iterated learning experiments (see post here and here) is based on two points.  First, the emergence of structure is more to do with the intelligence of the modern humans taking part in the experiment than a realistic language evolving scenario.  He suggests that structure would not emerge in a series of computer programs without human intelligence.  As as a colleague pointed out, however, the first iterated learning experiments used computational models of this kind.  Secondly, he suggests that the view of evolution employed in the explanation of these systems is a pop-psychology, gradual hill-climbing one.  In fact, Chomsky claims, evolution of traits such as language or eyes derive from single, frozen accidents.  That is, evolution moves in leaps and bounds rather than small steps (Jim Hurford recently gave a lecture entitled ‘Reconciling linguistic jerks and biological creeps‘ on this topic).  Why else would humans be the only species with language?

Geoffrey Pullum counters this last point by asking why would an innately specified UG emerge so rapidly, but then freeze for tens of thousands of years, when (borrowing Phillip Lieberman’s point) traits such as lactose tolerance have emerged in the human genome within two thousand years.  Chomsky gives some examples of traits that have developed rapidly, but then only changed marginally.

I don’t think that proponents of iterated learning paradigms would have a problem with a sudden emergence of a capacity for advanced linguistic communication.  Although there is a continuity between human and non-human communication systems, we have some tricks that other animals don’t (see Michael’s post here).  However, the evolution of the structure of language after these mutations could owe a huge amount to processes of cultural transmission.  The universals we see in the world’s languages, then would be an amplification of weak biological biases.

However, Chomsky seems disillusioned with the whole field of what he calls ‘the evolution of communication’.  At least we didn’t get it as bad as exemplar theory, which he dismisses as “so outlandish it’s not worth thinking about”.

[Edit: I originally attributed Mark Liberman instead of Phillip Lieberman.  Now I’ve made this error in both directions!]

Mapping Linguistic Phylogeny to Politics

In a recent article covered in NatureNews in Societes Evolve in Steps, Tom Currie of UCL, and others, like Russell Gray of Auckland, use quantitative analysis of the Polynesian language group to plot socioanthropological movement and power hierarchies in Polynesia. This is based off of previous work, available here, which I saw presented at the Language as an Evolutionary Systemconference last July. The article claims that the means of change for political complexity can be determined using linguistic evidence in Polynesia, along with various migration theories and archaeological evidence.

I have my doubts.

Note: Most of the content in this post is refuted wonderfully in the comment section by one of the original authors of the paper. I highly recommend reading the comments, if you’re going to read this at all – that’s where the real meat lies. I’m keeping this post up, finally, because it’s good to make mistakes and learn from them. -Richard

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I had posted this already on the Edinburgh Language Society blog. I’ve edited it a bit for this blog. I should also state that this is my inaugural post on Replicated Typo; thanks to Wintz’ invitation, I’ll be posting here every now and again. It’s good to be here. Thanks for reading – and thanks for pointing out errors, problems, corrections, and commenting, if you do. Research blogging is relatively new to me, and I relish this unexpected chance to hone my skills and learn from my mistakes. (Who am I, anyway?) But without further ado:

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In a recent article covered in NatureNews in Societes Evolve in StepsTom Currie of UCL, and others, like Russell Gray of Auckland, use quantitative analysis of the Polynesian language group to plot socioanthropological movement and power hierarchies in Polynesia. This is based off of previous work, available here, which I saw presented at the Language as an Evolutionary Systemconference last July. The article claims that the means of change for political complexity can be determined using linguistic evidence in Polynesia, along with various migration theories and archaeological evidence.

I have my doubts. The talk that was given by Russell Gray suggested that there were still various theories about the migratory patterns of the Polynesians – in particular, where they started from. What his work did was to use massive supercomputers to narrow down all of the possibilities, by using lexicons and charting their similarities. The most probable were then recorded, and their statistical probability indicated what was probably the course of action. This, however, is where the ability for guessing ends. Remember, this is massive quantificational statistics. If one has a 70% probability chance of one language being the root of another, that isn’t to say that that language is the root, much less that the organisation of one determines the organisation of another. But statistics are normally unassailable – I only bring up this disclaimer because there isn’t always clear mapping between language usage and migration.

Continue reading “Mapping Linguistic Phylogeny to Politics”