Sunday, 21 June 2015

Language - missing phylum of memetics

Language should always have been the king of the subjects studied by students of memetics and cultural evolution. Speech and writing have built-in error correction mechanisms. They are some of the things which are most likely to be copied with high fidelity - and thus to exhibit cumulative adaptations as they evolve. However linguists have not been very prominent in the field of cultural evolution. Famous students of language evolution - such as Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky - are apparently clueless newbies when it comes to the topic.

I checked for books on the topic of the cultural evolution of language. There are:

This is a pretty small list. Also, all the books on it are very recent. When I became interested in cultural evolution, there was practically nothing.

This post asks: what happened? Why weren't linguists early adopters of memes and cultural evolution?

Though I think this is a good question, I don't have a terribly good answer. What follows are my speculations:

I think that many of the cultural evolution pioneers had backgrounds in evolution and population genetics. Most linguists would have lacked this background. They would have found much of the primary the literature hard to follow or irrelevant.

Also, until recently, cultural evolutionists were few and far between. Only in the last few years have supporters been coming out of the woodwork in large numbers. The dates on my book list reflect this. However, I think if I made corresponding lists for the cultural evolution of science, technology and religion, the 'science' and 'religion' lists would have more items on them - though the 'technology' list might have fewer.

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