Darwin-L Message Log 5:108 (January 1994)

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.

<5:108>From delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu  Wed Jan 19 13:05:15 1994

Date: Wed, 19 Jan 1994 11:01:44 -0800 (PST)
From: Scott C DeLancey <delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu>
Subject: Re: Systematics and linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Kent Holsinger's summary this morning of the parallels we've been
working on between biological and linguistic evolution pretty well
captures what Sally and I have been saying.  There are two points
that haven't been foregrounded in the discussion, that could still
use clarification:

> 2) Convergence is more frequent (or at least more frequently invoked) in
>    biological evolution than in language evolution.

I would make a gross analogical equation of corresponding morphemes (and
hence words) in language to molecular sequences, and of typological
similarities among languages to morphological similarities among species.
The first criteria are the most compelling in both fields, because they
cannot be the result of convergence.  But while biologists have only
(relatively) recently had molecular sequencing data of various kinds
available, they have had to deal all along with morphological similarities
and the related problem of convergence.  Linguists, of course, have had
word and morphological* comparisons as their primary data from the
beginning of historical linguistics, and have never paid much attention
to typological similarities--thus the problem of convergence doesn't
come up much.

> 3) In both biological systematics and historical linguistics resemblances
>    decay enough over time that it may become difficult (perhaps in the case
>    of languages, impossible) to identify historical relationships, even
>    though in both cases we are (reasonably) certain that our objects of study
>    all share a single common ancestor some time in the distant past.  To use
>    cladistic terminology, both life and human languages are monophyletic.

Actually this is a precarious assumption in linguistics.  (I think this
is where this discussion got started, but I'm not sure we ever came
to grips with this issue).  There are both biological and memetic aspects
to the origin of language, and these need to be sorted out before we
can get very far with the question of monogenesis vs. polygenesis.
It's clear that there are some biological adaptations to linguistic
behavior in humans, though there's bitter controversy about what kind
and how extensive and specific they are.  (Bitter in part because no
one has anything really substantive to contribute to the issue).  So
presumably the initial development of linguistic behavior took place
in a single population ancestral to all modern humans.  But we have
no clear idea how far that development went, and it remains conceivable
(though IMO certainly the less likely hypothesis) that the development
of what we would recognize as full-fledged language was a cultural
rather than biological development which could have occurred more than

Scott DeLancey                       delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403

*I hope everybody's easy with the fact that "morphological" means
quite different things in linguistics and biology.

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