teleology and language

From: Douglas P. Wilson (
Date: Tue Apr 30 2002 - 16:54:45 BST

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    From: "Douglas P. Wilson" <>
    Subject: teleology and language
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    In answer to my "future language" message Trupeljak Ozren"
    <> wrote:

    > 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
    evolutionary change.

    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
    mathematical things.

    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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