Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Tim Tyler - Are most words intelligently designed?


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler - and this is a video which responds to one of Steven Pinker's criticisms of memetics - the one where he points out that most words are do not evolve and rather are intelligently designed.

In my book on memetics - which is out now - I take a look at some of the critics and criticisms of memetics. Steven Pinker is one of these critics. Pinker expressed a number of objections to memetics in a 2009 Harvard lecture. Here we will look at his claim that most words did not evolve via a process of blind mutation and selection. Here's Steven on the topic:

[footage of Steven Pinker]

Pinker gives a series of examples of words that he claims that did not arise as a result of blind mutation and selection. It is of course true that his examples are not the result of such processes alone. However organic evolution is not just the result of blind mutation and selection either. There are other processes involved in organic evolution - and one of these is sexual recombination. In each one of Pinker's examples it is recombination - and not mutation and selection - that explains the main features of the resulting word.

To go through Steven's examples of supposed invention and explain how to interpret them properly:

  • Palimony - arose from pal and alimony having sex;
  • Loonie - arose from "loon" and "penny" having sex;
  • Podcast - arose from "iPod" and "broadcast" having sex;
  • Spam - arose from the Monty Python Spam sketch and the idea of unsolicited bulk email having sex.

These forms of recombination are typically the result of a breeding process. So: "iPod" and "broadcast" did not just spontaneously combine to form "podcast", rather they were selected and bred. However breeding happens in the organic world as well. It is most familiar in domesticated dogs, cats, pigeons and sheep. However, breeding is not just done by humans - so, for example, ants farm aphids and selectively cultivate fungi.

So, every single one of the examples Pinker gave of word invention is better interpreted as a case of recombination - where two ideas have sex and contribute part of their own inheritance to their cultural offspring. That is not to say that no words are ever invented from scratch by intelligent designers. However, processes in memetics which are deeply analogous to those in genetics are evidently vastly more common and widespread than Pinker seems to realise. Indeed a failure to consider the possibility that recombination might be involved helps to explain why Pinker doesn't think memetics is worth very much - he hasn't grasped one of its most basic and essential features.

It is important to understand that there is more to evolution than blind mutations and selection. Throughout his critique Pinker keeps emphasizing that some cultural product or another is not the result of blind variation and selection. However, organic evolution isn't based only on blind variation and selection either. There are other processes going on - most notably recombination. Any conception of evolution that attempts to boil everything down to blind variation and selection is so deeply impoverished that it is incapable of modeling even organic evolution.


Pinker's entire critique may be found here.

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