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Darwin-L Message Log 4:15 (December 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.


<4:15>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Mon Dec  6 23:49:07 1993

Date: Tue, 07 Dec 1993 00:55:34 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Different meanings of "drift"
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Following along on the discussion of drift I began to get the feeling that
the term was being used differently by the linguists and the evolutionary
biologists, and sure enough, that seems to be the case.  Checking in my newly
acquired copy of Raimo Anttila's _Historical and Comparative Linguistics_
(John Benjamins, 1989) I find the following definition:

  "In linguistic change, an observable tendency toward a goal is known as
  _drift_.  As in biology, it takes a form of complex synchronization, for
  example, loss of inflection with increased use of prepositions and word
  order in English.  It is also understandable why two related languages can
  go different ways.  If they both start out from a particular imbalance,
  say, a 'hole' of some kind in any level of grammar, one may fill it, the
  other may eliminate the odd term.  Or they can independently resort to the
  same remedy, and the result will look as if it had been inherited in both."
  (p. 194)

While the phenomena described here are clearly recognizable to an evolutionary
biologist, the definition of drift here is almost the _opposite_ of what
evolutionary biologists mean by drift.  Evolutionary biologists usually
contrast drift with natural selection, drift being a process of random change
in the absence of selection, and selection being a process of directed change
"toward a goal" (a local adaptive peak).  One of the standard textbooks on
evolutionary biology (Futuyma) defines genetic drift as "Random changes in the
frequencies of two or more alleles or genotypes within a population", and
although the term drift was not used by Darwin as far as I know, and although
he didn't know anything about modern genetics, the basic idea of drift, as
something to be contrasted with change through selection, was clear to him I
think.  Here's an extract from the _Origin of Species_ (1st ed., p. 81):

  "This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious
  variations, I call Natural Selection.  Variations neither useful nor
  injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a
  fluctuating element...."

Is there a linguistic term for purely random, non-directed change in language,
corresponding to our sense of drift?  (Linguistic drift is like drifting in a
strong current, maybe.)

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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