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In answer to my "future language" message Trupeljak Ozren"
> IMO, evolution always works "away from", not "towards" something
Darwin didn't originate the idea of biological changes over time, which were
quite visible in domestic animal breeding, but many older ideas about such
changes did indeed include the notion that they were changes "towards
something" -- teleological changes.
Darwinian evolution is of course evolution "away from" something, but I
think it is quite widely accepted that teleology remains a very useful
heuristic tool, even if it has no scientific validity, and it certainly
makes for easier accounts of what has been happening.
I would put it this way: evolutionary changes away from something can mimic
or emulate or approximate teleological changes towards something. When
that happens the use of teleological jargon is appropriative, even though we
no longer believe in vitalism or any other metaphysical system that includes
teleology as a principle.
If, for example, a long, slow, but unremitting change in climate occurs,
many animals will undergo evolutionary changes of a similar kind, with,
perhaps, thicker or thinner fur, change in coloration, changes in diet
leading to changes in digestive system structure, and so on. It is
easiest to describe and even predict what will happen to these animals by
looking at their future environment and saying they are changing towards
fitness for that environment.
Opponents of evolution have often pointed to complex structures like the
human eye and demanded to be told exactly how something like an eye could
ever evolve. I've heard evolutionary theorists meet those demands, and I'm
sure they are entirely right about it. But it remains much easier to talk
about that eye as being a goal, the desirable end-product of all that
In an animal of an eyeless species, once a small patch of skin quite close
to the brain acquires a significant sensitivity to light, through some
genetic accident, the future evolution of that animals descendents is
somewhat predictable -- there is a fairly good chance that descendents in
which that patch of skin is slightly depressed, providing some directional
sensitivity, (again by genetic accident) will survive better than their
distant cousins without that nascent eye. And so on.
"Nascent eye" is the key phrase, and it is a very useful one, though it is
pure teleology. Describe this all in terms of genetic accidents as I
hinted at above, and you would capture the truth, the actual sequence of
events, but would be very hard to make sense of those events without a
teleological look ahead at the probable end-product.
This eye example is most interesting to me because I remember rather vividly
listening to Noam Chomsky lecture on why language should be thought of as an
organ like an eye, which we evolved as a species and individually grow,
We don't learn language, Chomsky said, we grow it.
> Our current languages are the result of thousands of years of
> evolution and are actually quite versatile and diverse
Unless the discipline of linguistics has changed very much since I went to
school, that statement must be rejected as entirely contrary to what we know
about human language. The early linguists, prior to the mid-20th century,
expected to find that illiterate indigenous people in Africa, New Guinea,
and the high arctic spoke inferior languages without the expressive
capabilities of modern languages used by literate people. But that proved
not the be the case. No languages primitive enough to be considered
inferior to English or Russian have ever been found.
There are various interpretations of this empirical fact, and some people
remain convinced that language does evolve, but I don't agree. Brains
evolve. Language doesn't. Unlike Chomsky I don't believe that languages
are organs, and I don't believe we grow them. I think they are technology,
and we invent them. What seems to Chomsky and others as the evolution of
language, I see as the accumulation of various inventions and ideas -- the
accumulation of culture.
Though teleology can even be applied (heuristically) to things that do
evolve, it is highly appropriate for discussing human inventions, and where
several human inventions cluster around something better and more natural
than any of them, it is entirely appropriate to consider that something as
an ideal -- as a goal, something worth ever more closely approximating.
To put it another way, languages are not biological things, they are
I have some web pages on this, somewhere. I have too damn many web pages,
and it is getting harder and harder to find what I want, but I'll look
around and send you a URL when I can.
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