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Darwin-L Message Log 1:239 (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.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<1:239>From LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU  Tue Sep 28 16:27:50 1993

Date: Tue, 28 Sep 1993 16:27:50 -0500
From: "JOHN LANGDON"  <LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU>
To: Darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution

In message <24856.749248937@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>  writes:

> There *is* directionality in linguistic change, especially
> in sound change, which is regular and not generally subject to
> speakers' whims.  Sound changes are irreversible.  If two sounds
> merge completely, for instance, the merger can never be reversed.
> And it is possible in many cases to say with confidence that X may
> turn to Y, but not vice versa.  Language change is unpredictable,
> but it isn't random: it happens as a result of pattern pressures
> of various kinds (because certain kinds of things are harder to
> learn and/or perceive than others), with or without influence from
> a foreign language.

> I know of no evidence that population size affects
> the rate of linguistic change, except in relatively minor ways (e.g.
> when a taboo system causes rapid vocabulary replacement).

I'm just guessing about correlation with population size. By lack of
directionality, I mean there is no external influence determining which changes
will occur, and I doubt that there is any internal property of the language
which determines any but minor changes. (Correct me if I am wrong-- I am an
evolutionary anthropologist, not a linguist.) True natural selection is given
direction by an external influence-- the inclusive environment-- even if that
direction is not predictable.

Although genetic drift is random, it is constrained by at least two factors: it
has to work with genetic variation that is both possible and already present
and it operates only on those variations with little or no selective value
(adaptationally neutral). You seem to be saying that language has direction
because of similar constraints. To me that enhances the analogy with genetic
drift. The distinction between determination and constraint is important.

Otherwise I agree with you.

JOHN H. LANGDON      email LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU
DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY    FAX  (317) 788-3569
UNIVERSITY OF INDIANAPOLIS   PHONE (317) 788-3447
INDIANAPOLIS, IN 46227

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