IAS 2018

Nathalie Gontier was invited to give two talks at the IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind & Society on Explanation in evolutionary linguistic sciences & Roots of reticulate evolutionary theories in natural philosophy. Thanks to Arantzazu Etxeberria Agiriano for inviting!

University of the Basque Country, San Sebastián, May 14th & 15th, 2018


Monday, May 14th, 11:30 a.m. |

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Rather than present a theory on the origin and evolution of language, I focus on the various epistemological frameworks that have been introduced to understand and study the origin and evolution of language. Evolutionary linguistics is a relatively young field of research that originated a mere 30 years ago as an outgrowth, on the one hand of the rise of computational linguistics (itself an outgrowth of cybernetics and information theory), and on the other evolutionary psychology. Pinker & Bloom’s 1990 article published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences is often considered a first seminal paper, and the introduction of the EVOLANG conference series a direct response. Nonetheless, research on the origin and evolution of language is very old and has roots in, on the one hand, moral social contract theory, and on the other, the rise of natural history research. Such research originally included both synchronic and diachronic research into the origin of language, but synchronic research became favored, first, because of the publication ban on diachronic research by the French linguistic society in 1866; later due to the favoring of synchronic, systems theoretical approaches by early linguists and anthropologists, and finally due to the rise of biolinguistics. Nonetheless, research on the biological origins of language associates, on the one hand, with the rise of behaviorism, ethology, evolutionary epistemology and comparative psychology; on the other, with the continuation of diachronic sociocultural research and the continuous development of taxonomic and phylogenetic tools to classify the world different languages and their diaspora. And though evolutionary linguistics is a field that originated partly by opposing itself to Chomskyan and biolinguistic programs, the role of neuro- and biolinguists in reviving evolutionary research is not to be underestimated. Today, the study of language evolution is becoming devided into research on the origins of communication in primates, the origin and evolution of protolanguage, and the study of macroevolutionary language dynamics. While originally working from within a universal selectionist approach, the biggest challenge for the field today is incorporating findings associated with the extended evolutionary synthesis.


Tuesday, May 15th, 11:30 a.m. | Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Symbiosis, symbiogenesis, hybridization, virolution and infectious heredity are forms of reticulate evolution that are currently drawing the attention of philosophers of science because of the discussions they raise on the origin of life and the diversification of major cell types, the nature of biological individuality, and the limited scope of the traditional Modern Synthesis in defining and explaining all aspects of life’s evolution. Research on the innovative nature of reticulate evolution currently overshadows inquiries into the scientific and sociocultural context wherein these ideas first emerged. Hybridization theories were first formulated in relation to the ethnic mixing induced by colonialism and imperialism, with religious, political and scientific leaders speaking out against the mixing of ethnicities – an idea also endorsed by the eugenicist founders of the Modern Synthesis. Symbiosis and symbiogenesis associate with the rise of communitarian and socialist ideologies that opposed liberal ideas of free market economy that in turn associate with natural selection theory. And research on virolution and infectious heredity associates with attempts at eradicating disease. All aspects of reticulate evolution thus originally carried a negative sociocultural connotation. To understand why reticulate evolution has long been researched outside the mainstream Neodarwinian framework, it is necessary to go beyond comparing these theoretical frameworks from within science and the role they play in evolution, and to take the sociocultural, political and historical aspects into account.


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