Darwin-L Message Log 1:113 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<1:113>From mayerg@cs.uwp.edu  Mon Sep 13 11:28:46 1993

Date: Mon, 13 Sep 1993 10:42:06 -0500 (CDT)
From: Gregory Mayer <mayerg@cs.uwp.edu>
Subject: Sewall Wright & linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

	I've been much interested in the references and discussion on the
study of language evolution and the study of biological evolution.  It may
be of interest to record that Sewall Wright was also interested in
language evolution.
	Wright (1889-1988), for those unfamiliar with him, was (and is)
one of the most influential figures in evolutionary biology.  Along with
Haldane and Fisher, he is one of the triumvirate that reconciled Mendelian
genetics with natural selection and thus began the evolutionary synthesis
that is the historical progenitor of our present views.  Wright's interest
in language evolution is described W.B. Provine's magnificent intellectual
biography _Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology_ (University of Chicago
Press, 1986).  Wright's interest is worth mentioning here not only for the
sake of those who are not evolutionary biologists, but even these
biologists, who are quite familiar with Provine's book, may not be aware
of it, as there is no entry for "language", "linguistics", "philology",
etc. in Provine's index.

	Provine writes:

	"Sewall began to use his knowledge of Greek... and other languages
[Latin, German]....he read an article On Grimm's law.... He became
fascinated by the evolution of the Indo-European languages and began to
keep notebooks on cognate words and grammatical forms....He literally
filled a number of notebooks with these philological endeavors.
	This interest in philology indicates an early and deep fascination
with the evolution of patterns.  How languages become transformed over
time, and perhaps branched out to become several languages, was often
analogized to processes of evolution in nature by late-nineteenth-century
intellectuals." (p.14)

	Provine quotes Wright as follows:

	"Father..was sometimes sarcastic about my enthusiasms, especially
that for the evolution of the Indo-European languages..." (a
recollection by Wright in 1978; p.17)

	It is important to note that Wright engaged in this activity in
high school.  Provine records no further references by Wright to language
evolution, either published or unpublished, but it might be interesting to
reread some of Wright's work with this early interest in mind.

Gregory C. Mayer

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