Monday, 15 October 2012

Evolution of Biosystems vs. Evolution of Languages

The evolution of biosystems is often likened to the evolution of languages [UncommonDescent]. The two even have common visual representations, i.e. both are thought of as trees (see Figs. 1-2).

Fig.1. Darwinian "tree of life".

Fig.2. Families of Indo-European languages.

In certain cases large quantities of people or animals can behave like non-living matter and consequently their behaviour can be described by the same laws as the ones we use to describe the behaviour of non-living matter. For example, migrations of nations can accurately enough be modelled as viscous fluid flow on a surface [Pickover 2008]. But can we assume that something similar is true with respect to the evolution of languages?

Let us put aside the information-theoretic problems of biological evolution we discussed earlier here and focus on the analogy. I have problems with it (assuming Darwinian evolution). 

The first reason why I am not happy with it is the rules vs. constraints dichotomy highlighted by David Abel in "the First Gene" [Abel 2011].

By definition, semantics defines a set of rules for the interpretation of declared syntactic constructs. Empirical science testifies to the fact that rules are not the same as constraints. Rules in practice are always defined by intelligent decision makers whereas constraints are represented by physico-chemical interactions necessarily present in any physical system. In the case of linguistics, the decision makers are:
  • Communicating people:
    • Individuals influential in the development of a language — such as Sts Cyrill and Methodius for the Slavs, Pushkin for the modern Russian or Chaucer and Shakespeare for the English language — as well as
    • ordinary language speakers.
  • People communicating with machines
    • This is similar to the above. Perhaps, the only difference is that in the latter case the number of decision makers involved is much smaller, while the process itself is a lot more formal. 
Undoubtedly, a spoken language is influenced by large numbers of people over long periods of time but it does not mean we can discount the intelligence of the their agency.

Redefining the rules of syntax interpretation in linguistics is always done by decision makers in a given context. However, in classical Darwinism or in neo-Darwinism, intelligent agency is ruled out.

The second reason why I cannot agree with the analogy is that random variation, drift and natural selection postulated in evolution theories to be major creativity factors are not capable of reliably generating large quantities of functionally specified information, which natural or computer languages exhibit. Massive empirical evidence suggests that the only reliably identifiable source of functionally specified information is intelligence of decision makers creating formal systems (in particular, languages).


  1. David Abel (2011): The First Gene
  2. Clifford A. Pickover (2008): Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  3. readers' internet forum.

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