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Darwin-L Message Log 1:267 (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.


<1:267>From mayerg@cs.uwp.edu  Thu Sep 30 08:18:10 1993

Date: Thu, 30 Sep 1993 08:20:18 -0500 (CDT)
From: Gregory Mayer <mayerg@cs.uwp.edu>
Subject: Re: Language, Evolution, Linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

On Wed, 29 Sep 1993 Larry Gorbet (lgorbet@triton.unm.edu) wrote:

>      ... Specifically, I suspect that it is easy to
> underestimate the responsiveness of linguistic systems to their
> environments in part because much of the academic linguistic world is
> inclined to regard any aspect of language that *is* responsive as (ipso
> facto) trivial and uninteresting.

	I think there is a similar distinction made in biology between
aspects that are responsive to the environment, and those that are not.
In biology, those aspects of an organism that respond quickly via natural
selection to changes in the environment are not thought to be trivial and
uninteresting, however, but rather are the subject of a great deal of
study and interest.  What they are often considered to be not useful for,
though, is phylogenetic reconstruction, because such characteristics may
acquire similarities based on similar functional constraints.  This is the
phenomenon of convergence.  Convergent similarities are misleading,
because they do not flow from common ancestry.  It may be that linguists
find these responsive aspects of language uninteresting because they are
concerned with tracing the historical interconnections of languages, and,
like in biology, these responsive aspects of the language may be
misleading as regards their history.  In biology, there has long been a
dual interest in both aspects, and in fact they were among the patterns of
data known in the 19th century which, in Ron Amundson's phrase, "cry out
for explanation." Darwin was quite familiar with them, and they were the
two primary patterns he set out to explain.  As he put it in the
Introduction of the Origin:

	"...a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic
beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution,
geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion
that each species had not been independently created, but had descended,
like varieties, from other species.  Nevertheless such a conclusion, even
if well founded, would be unsatisfactory, until it could be shown how the
innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to
acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly
excites our admiration."

	Patterns of the first type, which in their morphological aspects
are referred to as "Unity of Type", are explained by descent; the second
pattern, which Darwin referred to as the "Conditions of Existence", are
explained by modification.  Some aspects of organisms are explicable on
the basis of the former principle, others on the latter.  The materials of
which vertebrate wings are made and the arrangement of bones within them
are explained by descent (compare a bird with a bat); their shape,
however, is largely explicable on the basis of engineering principles,
without specific reference to their history.  Peter Junger has mentioned
a similar duality of explanation in law: some aspects are deducible from
first principles, but others, he insists, can only be understood as the
end result of an historical process.

	Since I began composing this message several linguists have posted
messages touching on what I've discussed here, with, for example,
convergence due to accident and ease of pronunciation being mentioned.  As
a biologist, I am learning much from this discussion.  It seems that in
both linguistics and biology there is a recognition that certain things
are explicable by timeless design principles (e.g. wings for flight), but
others are explicable only within a historical context (e.g. feathers vs.
skin).  Whewell was right.

Gregory C. Mayer
mayerg@cs.uwp.edu

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