Thursday, July 10, 2008

Has Language Become Parasitic?

I have been reading about recent studies on the origins of language, The First Word by Christine Kenneally. She tells about many empirically undecidable narratives, but there is clearly no consensus. There is not even evidence that the current technically enhanced use of human language has any evolutionary survival value. We use language for fun and profit, but those concepts do not correlate with biological fitness.

From an evolutionary perspective the survival value of even culturally selected human information is not obvious. Our symbol-based technological culture has given humans power over natural forces that can cure disease, increase lifespan, counter the effects of genetic deficiencies, and unleash weapons of mass destruction. None of these achievements look good from an evolutionary perspective. Even most literature appears to be popular more for its entertainment value than for survival value. Language and its technologies allow local human values to replace natural selection.

5000 years has seen enormous cultural changes largely the result of language, but this is only a moment in evolutionary time, and natural selection operates over indefinitely longer time scales, and it will ultimately decide survival or extinction. We are still entirely dependent on the genetic language to construct the neural architecture that allows natural and artificial languages.

E. O. Wilson claims that for this reason the genes hold culture on a leash. He says the leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool. But Dennett argues to the contrary that by allowing language, “genes provide not a leash but a launching pad, from which you can get almost anywhere, by one devious route or another.” I recommend reading Dennett’s paper at,;

also, Lanier’s response to Dennett:, which in my opinion is more of an amendment that does not alter Dennett’s basic argument.

The media, the Internet and cell phones have certainly altered our culture, especially among the young, but I find it hard to find any evidence that survival of the species has been enhanced. Many teachers are convinced that their students’ learning is being subverted by communication overload. Clearly, the most primitive uses of communication for hunting and fighting has survival value, but Ira has not convinced me that religion is more than wishful thinking.

Obviously, there is much more to say on the subject. For discussion, I would suggest there is an optimum level of language usage. Speech should not be entirely free. There should be a cost. What are your views?



Howard Pattee said...

Before Ira refutes my over-statement about religion, let me amend it by agreeing that wishful thinking, along with all myths, may or may not have great survival value.


Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for posting a new Topic related to your earlier Biosemiotics Topic.

As you point out, we cannot judge if a gene is adaptive until it has been around for eons. The memes for metaphoric languages have been around for only 6000 years and they ride atop the genes for big human brains, which have been around for only 100,000 years.

I think we should, at least tentatively, assume they are adaptive! If we guessed right, that will be great. If wrong, we won't be around to accept the blame for our error.

If the system of genes is complex enough to have some sort of "consciousness", and if it judges languages to be a threat to survival of life on Earth, I guess it will destroy us non-adaptive big brained parasites (perhaps using our own WMD :^).

Meanwhile, the technology and science made possible by language will continue to develop. Genetic engineering will continue to extend the "leash" by which genes hold culture. If we survive long enough, we may see memes lead genes around on a leash. (Did you ever see a big dog drag a man around by the leash?)

Howard also writes: "I would suggest there is an optimum level of language usage. Speech should not be entirely free. There should be a cost. What are your views?"

Coincidentally, I am working on a new Blog Topic titled "Freedom of the Press - Guardians at the Gate are Gone!" As the Internet and Blogs and print-on-demand have shown, our ability to spread opinions and facts and lies is nearly unlimited and almost entirely free of cost. Can that be bad? Perhaps.

Ira Glickstein

PS: I agree all religion is merely "wishful thinking". A positive attitude does not guarantee survivability, but the opposite almost guarantees failure.

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, you assert that we should, “at least tentatively, assume they [genes for language] are adaptive!” The evidence is against this assumption. Most mutations are either neutral or maladaptive, and consequently something like 99% of known species has become extinct.

So I wouldn’t join your bet, “If we guessed right, that will be great. If wrong, we won't be around to accept the blame for our error.” If you believe that, you should play Russian Roulette; your odds would be much better.

There is always the problem of too much of a good thing, as Haldane explains in his famous book “On Being the Right Size.” A giraffe’s neck is adaptive. If it were twice as long it would be maladaptive. A little language is adaptive, but at some point too much talk must become maladaptive.

In my opinion, the media especially appear to be beyond that point.


Ira Glickstein said...

I just read Dennett's paper recommended by Howard. It was interesting but a bit verbose, indirect, and lacking in any clear conclusions.

Dennett recounts three general classes of "hitchhikers or symbionts":

parasites, whose presence lowers the fitness of their host;

commensals, whose presence is neutral; and

mutualists, whose presence enhances the fitness of both host and guest.

Is the language meme, as Howard posits, a parasite on individual humans (or the human species?) or it it a mutualist, which is what I would suggest?

Well, since the invention, some 6000 years ago, of metaphoric language and the technology and science it made possible, the human species has survived and reproduced and garnered the energy and biomass resources of the Earth far more successfully than any other species I can think of. If Darwinian "fitness" is measured by reproductive success, I think it is quite clear language has increased human fitness and it is therefore a mutualist. At the individual level, humans who lack language skills are, on average, less successful at survival and reproduction. (One might argue that the current welfare state is undermining the situation by supporting indiscriminant breeding by those with the lowest intellectual abilities while the smartest among us have fewer children than necessary for replacement. But that is a fault of the welfare state meme, not of language per se.)

Howard takes issue with my tentative assumption that language is adaptive, writing "Most mutations are either neutral or maladaptive, and consequently something like 99% of known species has become extinct." Well, most maladaptive mutations do not survive many generations. Those that are still with us after hundreds of generations are either neutral or adaptive.

As for 99% of known species going extinct, I expect all will eventually go extinct as evolution progresses. The history of natural selection is the evolution of new species that replace the old ones. With genetic engineering, there will be no shortage of new species that will surely speed the extinction of most of the old ones, including my favorite, Homo sapiens (at least as we know it today)!

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Obviously, language has been adaptive for thousands of years. My topic for discussion was what language is BECOMING in today’s TV, Internet, cell phone culture.

Does anyone believe that it is adaptive for children to watch TV four hours a day, or high school and college students to text message in class? Do the continuous stream of talking heads on CNN or Fox say anything substantive? The Internet is a great potential source of knowledge, but students are using it to download term papers.

Watching, talking, gaming, and downloading are replacing what we used to call thinking. It is in that sense of “too much of a good thing” that I think language is becoming parasitic.


joel said...

I've enjoyed Howard's and Ira's thoughts about the survival value of language. I agree with Howard when he says, "Many teachers are convinced that their students’ learning is being subverted by communication overload. Clearly, the most primitive uses of communication for hunting and fighting has survival value, but Ira has not convinced me that religion is more than wishful thinking."

The more general question is how one decides whether one is looking at a trait that has evolved because of survival value. Because of linked genes and the interaction between genetic characteristics, the presence of a positively adaptive gene may be accompanied by a negative genetic side effect. For example, red hair, freckles and a fair complexion are on separate genes that are next to one another and are linked. Hence, no matter how valuable red hair might be from a survival point of view, you are stuck with freckles (or light skin) which might have a negative survival potential. You and Nature sometimes have to go with the net good. This means that it is faulty to argue that the very existence of a trait in today's population is automatically a survival adaptation.

The capacity to communicate with one's fellows is a highly successful adaptation as demonstrated in wolf packs and man. That doesn't mean that the side effect of Plato holding forth about the death of Socrates is automatically a valuable survival adaptation. The evolved ability to distinguish light patterns that separate an amanita mushroom from a cepe mushroom has survival value. The cultivated ability to use that same genetic capacity to distinguish a Renoir from a Picasso, has nothing to do with the survival of our species. For better or worse, the ability to pass knowledge and culture onward has made genetic evolution obsolete except for a few modern extinction situations like wars and flu plagues. (For example, it's been postulated that the stereotypical short Frenchman came out of the negative survivability of tall targets during WWII.) Being fairly inarticulate myself, and seeing the success of those who are glib, I can appreciate the fact that glibness of speech may win out over powerfulness of ideas in our modern world. Genetic communication gone wild was perhaps the motivation behind the ancient story concerning Moses. Moses asked God to take the task of freeing the people of Israel away from him, because he was slow of speech, and to give the task to his brother Aaron. God was savvy enough to know that being articulate is not everything.
With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

OK: Howard says "Obviously, language has been adaptive for thousands of years...."

BUT, the advent of our "TV, Internet, cell phone culture ..." is making it parasitic.

I can imagine a similar reaction by the oral history gurus to the advent of written language. "What will become of the prodigious power of our memory if everything gets written down?"

Or of the scribes who copied books manually to the advent of moveable type printing. Or the businessmen who refused to talk on the newly introduced telephone ... or use email ...

In the early 1980's, when IBM PCs were first introduced, one of the senior managers at the IBM(!) facility where I worked tried to prohibit engineers from having them on their desks. He wanted them confined to terminal rooms and used by appointment because engineers would misuse them and play games all the time.

Howard says "The Internet is a great potential source of knowledge, but students are using it to download term papers."

So what else is new? In the late 1950's, when I was in college, students in my lab team copied our lab reports and the fraternities had files of previous exams and records of which professors used the same exams each semester! Some students copied encyclopedia materials verbatim in their technical papers or paid others to write for them, etc.

Howard is correct that with the advent of the Internet and Google is it much easier to plagiarize.

But, as students of mine at Binghamton University and the University of Maryland learned to their chagrin, it is also much, much, much easier to detect and prove palgiarism!

I require all papers to be be submitted in soft copy. I am very sensitive to individual student's speaking and writing styles and, when I think I see something abnormal, I pick out a phrase and Google it! I have learned to pick words and sequences unlikely to be used by students, or a section with a typo or grammar error. If Google finds that phrase, and if it is included in a published sentence or paragraph that is repeated verbatim in the students paper, that is absolute proof of plagiarism.

In one case a block diagram was copied and the second student changed some words to throw me off. However, the boxes were exactly the same size and some typos were identical. BINGO!

The University of Maryland provides professors with access to turnITin where what they call "unoriginal" writing is automatically detected. I have not used that service, but the threat seems to be enough to discourage plagiarism.

As for children watching TV for four hours a day, our three daughters, in the 1980's, did their homework with MTV blaring. It drove me crazy but we allowed it and they got good grades and graduated from college (one earned a Masters and two got PhDs). Our granddaughters watch lots of TV and play videogames, but they also read books and are doing well in school.

Is TV and the Internet and videogaming and texting replacing "thinking"? For some children, it is. But, that was always the case. Some children will never learn to think! They will be our future service workers.

However, I believe these digital age wonders are actually aiding the thinking of most children and expanding their worlds and experiences and knowledge far more than we ever dreamed of when we were children.

On our last visit to our grandchildren we saw their Nintendo Wii videogame and bought one for ourselves. Wii lets you play tennis or golf or baseball and so on and makes you stand up and move as you do so. It is real exercise that makes you break a sweat -- senior centers have installed Wii units to get older folks up and out of their rocking chairs!

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

I think it's easy to fall into the trap of arguing about alternate futures or alternate pasts. I don't think it's possible to say what would have happened if such and such an event takes place. All circumstances cannot be taken into account. We don't know if the human race would be better off if some gene or meme or teme had or had not come into being. I can say that I hate rap music, but I can't say what might have happened if it didn't come into being. I can regret that young people walk around with earbuds that disconnect them from the world around them. I cannot say what the alternative future would be. As Ira said, the ancients might have regretted the invention of the written word that obviated the need for the troubadour's or bard's memory. We may regret that loss of memory capacity, but we don't know if a world without writing would be better or worse than this one. In fact, from a philosophical point of view, we don't even have criteria for judging.
With respect -Joel

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, you have assuaged my fears somewhat. Also, you imagine a similar skeptical reaction by the oral history gurus to the advent of written language. Your imagination is historically correct.

Plato's commentary in the Phaedrus on the myth of Theuth relates a dialog with Socrates that tells of evils that might result from over reliance on "mechanized" thinking, using “alphabet technology”.

As late as the 1820’s in Russia the opportunity to just read Holy Books was considered questionable. A Vicar worried that, “If The Bible, this treasure of Heaven, were passed into the hands of common people, it would loose its considerable value; beware that its content, particularly the content of the Old Testament, would be tempting for inexperienced people.”

What would Plato and the Vicar think of the Internet?!


Howard Pattee said...

I agree with Joel that prediction of alternative futures is usually futile, but like writing fiction, it can be entertaining. My wife and I sometimes imagine how our lives would have developed if a particular event or decision had been different. What if we had married an old boy or girlfriend?

On the other hand, life consists of making choices. All we have are our imaginative models on which to base our choices. So which view is closer to the truth, “My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth,”?(Deuteronomy 8:17)

Or, “. . .the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong . . . but time and chance happeneth to them all.”?(Ecclesiastes 9:11)


Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Joel and Howard for your excellent comments! It seems we all agree with Yogi Berra and Robert Burns observations that "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." and "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley".

Indeed, as the cynic Ecclesiastes observes, sometimes the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong ..." Time and chance always affect the outcome, but, on average, it is better to bet on the swift and the strong.

At golf this morning I joked that I count a ball that lands in a sand trap as a "hole in one". My partner answered that a real hole in one is pure chance. Well it is, but someone like me who almost never drives the green is far, far, far less likely to get one than someone who practices and plays every day and almost always lands his or her ball on the green.

Though sometimes the high school dropout wins the million dollar lottery, on average, it is better to invest your time and money getting educated and working hard and smart, being careful who you marry, and so on. Each of our decisions in life is a prediction of sorts.

The last common ancestor of chimps and humans lived 5 million years ago. Though they were probably the most intelligent animals of their time, they had no idea they would go extinct nor what their successors would be like. We humans know we will go extinct, though we don't know when. But we can make educated predictions. For example, that our successors will be cyborgs, amalgams of protoplasm, copper, and silicon; brains and computer; consuming and producing food, electricity and information.

Perhaps they will preserve some humans as a kind of zoo exhibit in a replica 21st century compound. "Hey di'ja catch the Discovery Channel last night?" one cyborg says to another, "Funny what they posted on their Blog. Bunch of looney monkeys!"

Ira Glickstein