An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

If you’ve heard of Dan Everett at all, most likely you’ve heard about his work among the Pirahã and his battle with Noam Chomsky and the generative grammarians. He went into the Amazon to live among the Pirahã in the mid-1970s with the intention of learning their language, translating the Bible into it, and converting them to Christianity. Things didn’t work out that way. Yes, he learned their language, and managed to translate a bit of the Bible into Pirahã. But, no, he didn’t convert them. They converted him, as it were, so he is now an atheist.

Not only did Everett learn Pirahã, but he compiled a grammar and reached the conclusion – a bit reluctantly at first – that it lacks recursion. Recursion is the property that Chomsky believes is irreducibly intrinsic to human language. And so Everett found himself in pitched battle with Chomsky, the man whose work revolutionized linguistics in the mid-1950s. If that interests you, well you can run a search on something like “Everett Chomsky recursion” (don’t type the quotes into the search box) and get more hits than you can shake a stick at.

I’ve never met Dan face-to-face, but I know him on Facebook where I’m one of 10 to 20 folks who chat with him on intellectual matters. Not so long ago I reviewed his most recent book, Dark Matter of the Mindover at 3 Quarks Daily. I thus know him, after a fashion.

And so I thought I’d address an open letter to him on my current hobbyhorse: What’s up with literary criticism?

* * * * *

Dear Dan,

I’ve been trying to make sense of literary criticism for a long time. In particular, I’ve been trying to figure out why literary critics give so little descriptive attention to the formal properties of literary texts. I don’t expect you to answer the question for me but, who knows, as an outsider to the discipline and with an interest in language and culture, perhaps you might have an idea or two.

I figured I’d start by quoting a fellow linguist, one moreover with an affection for Brazil, Haj Ross. Then I look at Shakespeare as a window into the practice of literary criticism. I introduce the emic/etic distinction in that discussion. After that we’ll take a look at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the course of which I introduce the question, What would I teach in a first level undergraduate class? I find that to be a very useful way of thinking about the discipline; I figure that might also appeal to you as a Dean and Acting Provost. I conclude by returning to the abstractosphere by distinguishing between naturalist and ethical criticism. Alas, it’s a long way through, so you might want to pour yourself a scotch.

Haj’s Problem: Interpretation and Poetics

Let’s start with the opening paragraphs from a letter that Haj Ross has posted to Of course you know who Haj is, but I think it’s useful to note that, back in the 1960s when he was getting a degree in linguistics under Chomsky at MIT, he was also studying poetics under Roman Jakobson at Harvard, and that, over the years, he has produced a significant body of descriptive work on poetry that, for the most part, exists ‘between the cracks’ in the world of academic publication. The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte [1]. He’s not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it with the title “Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures” and with a one-line abstract: “How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected”. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:

You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question – I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.

You’ll have to read the whole letter to find out what he meant by that one-line abstract, but I assure you that it’s both naïve and deep at one and the same time, mentioning, among other things, the “joy of babbling” and the role of the tamboura in Indian classical music. At the moment I’m interested in just those two opening paragraphs.

While I got my degree in literary criticism and understand the drive/will to meaning, I also understand Haj’s attraction to verifiable pattern/structures and his willingness to pursue that even though he cannot connect it to meaning. Yes, meaning is the primary objective of academic literary criticism and, yes, justifying proposed meanings is (deeply) problematic. I also know that the academic discipline of literary criticism was NOT founded on the activity of interpreting texts. It was founded in the late 19th century on philology, literary history, and editing – that is, editing the canonical literary works for study by students and scholars. Roughly speaking, the interest in interpretation dates back to the second quarter of the 20th century, but it didn’t become firmly institutionalized until the third quarter of the century. You can see that institutionalization in this Ngram search on the phrase “close reading”, which is a term of art for interpretive analysis:

close reading

Figure 1: “Close reading”

And that’s when things became interesting. As more and more critics came to focus on interpretation, the profession became acutely aware of a problem: different critics produced different interpretations, which is the correct interpretation? Some critics even began to wonder whether or not there was such a thing as the correct interpretation. We are now well within the scope of the problem that bothered Haj: How do you justify one interpretation over another?

That’s the issue that was in play when I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1965. Though I had declared an interest in psychology, once I’d been accepted I gravitated toward literature. Which means that, even as I was working as hard as I could to figure out how to interpret a literary text, I was also party to conversations about the problematic nature of interpretation. As I have written elsewhere about those years at Hopkins [2] there’s no need to recount them here. The important point is simply that literary critics were acutely aware of the problematic nature of interpretation and devoted considerable effort to resolving the problem.

In the course of that problematic thrashing about, literary critics turned to philosophy, mostly Continental (though not entirely), and linguistics, mostly structuralist linguistics. In 1975 Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics, which garnered him speaking invitations all over America and made his career. For Culler, and for American academia, structuralism was mostly French: Saussure, Jakobson (not French, obviously), Greimas, Barthes, and Lévi-Strauss, among others. But Culler also wrote of literary competence, clearly modeled on Chomsky’s notion of linguistic competence, and even deep structure. At this point literary critics, not just Culler, were interested in linguistics.

Here’s a paragraph from Culler’s preface (xiv-xv):

The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning. Granting new attention to the activity of reading, it would attempt to specify how we go about making sense of texts, what are the interpretive operations on which literature itself, as an institution, is based. Just as the speaker of a language has assimilated a complex grammar which enables him to read a series of sounds or letters as a sentence with a meaning, so the reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning. The study of literature, as opposed to the perusal and discussion of individual works, would become an attempt to understand the conventions which make literature possible. The major purpose of this book is to show how such a poetics emerges from structuralism, to indicate what it has already achieved, and to sketch what it might become.

However much critics may have been interested in this book, that interest did not produce a flourishing poetics. Even Culler himself abandoned poetics after this book. Interpretation had become firmly established as the profession’s focus.

As for the problem of justifying one interpretation over another, deconstructive critics argued that the meaning of texts was indeterminate and so, ultimately, there is no justification. Reader response critics produced a similar result by different means. The issue was debated into the 1990s and then more or less put on the shelf without having been resolved.

I have no quarrel with that. I think the basic problem is that literary texts of whatever kind – lyric or narrative poetry, drama, prose fiction – are different in kind from the discursive texts written to explicate them. There is no well-formed way of translating meaning from a literary to a discursive text. When you further consider that different critics may have different values, the problem becomes more intractable. Interpretation cannot, in principle, be strongly determined.

What, you might ask, what about the meaning that exists in a reader’s mind prior to any attempt at interpretation? Good question. But how do we get at THAT? It simply is not available for inspection.

What happens, though, when you give up the search for meaning? Or, if not give up, you at least bracket it and subordinate it to an interest in pattern and structure as intrinsic properties of texts? Is a poetics possible? Let’s set that aside for awhile and take a detour though the profession’s treatment of The Bard, William Shakespeare, son of a glover and London actor.

Continue reading “An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism”

You’re clever for your kids’ sake: A feedback loop between intelligence and early births

The gap between our cognitive skills and that of our closest evolutionary ancestors is quite astonishing. Within a relatively short evolutionary time frame humans developed a wide range of cognitive abilities and bodies that are very different to other primates and animals. Many of these differences appear to be related to each other. A recent paper by Piantadosi and Kidd argues that human intelligence originates in human infants’ restriction of their birth size, leading to premature births and long weaning times that require intensive and intelligent care. This is an interesting hypothesis that links the ontogeny of the body with cognition.

Human weaning times are extraordinarily long. Human infants spend their first few months being highly dependent on their caregivers, not just for food but for pretty much any interaction with the environment. Even by the time they are walking they still spend years being dependant on their caregivers. Hence, it would be a good for their parents to stick around and care for them – instead of catapulting them over the nearest mountain.  Piantadosi and Kidd argue that “[h]umans must be born unusually early to accommodate larger brains, but this gives rise to particularly helpless neonates. Caring for these children, in turn, requires more intelligence—thus even larger brains.” [p. 1] This creates a runaway feedback loop between intelligence and weaning times, similar to those observed in sexual selection.

Piantadosi and Kidd’s computational model takes into account infant mortality as a function of intelligence and head circumference, but also take into account the ooffspring’s likelihood to survive into adulthood, depending on parental care/intelligence. The predictions are based on the population level, and the model predicts a fitness landscape where two optima emerge: populations either drift towards long development and smaller head circumference (a proxy for intelligence in the model) or they drift towards the second optimum – larger heads but shorter weaning time. Once a certain threshold has been crossed, a feedback loop emerges and more intelligent adults are able to support less mature babies. However, more intelligent adults will have even bigger heads when they are born – and thus need to be born even more premature in order to avoid complications at birth.

To test their model’s predictions, the authors also correlated weaning times and intelligence measures within primates and found a high correlation within the primate species. For example, bonobos and chimpanzees have an average weaning time of approximately 1100 days, and score highly in standardised intelligence measures. Lemurs on the other hand only spend 100 days with their offspring, and score much lower in intelligence. Furthermore, Piantadosi and Kidd also look at the relationship between weaning age with various other physical measures of the body, such as the size of the neocortex, brain volume and body mass. However, weaning time remains the most reliable predictor in the model.

Piantadosi and Kidd’s model provides a very interesting perspective on how human intelligence could have been the product of a feedback loop between developmental maturity and neonatal head size, and infant care. Such a feedback component could explain the considerable evolutionary change humans have undergone. Yet between the two optima of long birth age and a small brain radius and a short birth age and a large brain, most populations do drift towards the longer birth/smaller brain (See graph 2.A in the paper). It appears that the model cannot explain the original evolutionary pressure for more intelligence that pushed humans over the edge: If early humans encountered an increased number of early births, why did those populations with early births not simply die out, instead of taking the relatively costly route of becoming more intelligent? Only once there is a pressure towards more intelligence, it is possible that humans were pushed into a location leading the self-enforcing cycle of low birth age and high parental intelligence, and this cycle drove humans towards much higher intelligence than they would have developed otherwise. Even if the account falls short of ultimate explanations (i.e. why a certain feature has evolved, the reason), Piantadosi and Kidd have described an interesting proximate explanation (i.e. how a feature evolved, the mechanism).

Because the data is correlative in its nature only, the reverse hypothesis might also hold – humans might be more intelligent because they spend more time interacting with their caregivers. In fact, a considerable amount of their experiences is modulated by their caregivers, and their unique experience might also create a strong embodied perspective on the emergence of social signals. For example, infants in their early years see a proportionately high number of faces (Fausey et al., 2016). Maybe infants’ long period of dependence makes them learn so well from other people around them, thereby allowing for the acquisition of cultural information and a more in-depth understanding of the world around them. Therefore, the longer weaning time makes them pay much more attention to caregivers, providing a stimulus rich environment that human infants are immersed in for much longer than other species. Whatever the connection might be, I think that this kind of research offers a fascinating view on how children develop and what makes us human.


Fausey, C. M., Jayaraman, S., & Smith, L. B. (2016, Jul). From faces to hands: Changing visual input in the first two years. Cognition, 152, 101–107. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.03.005
Piantadosi, S. T., & Kidd, C. (2016). Extraordinary intelligence and the care of infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1506752113
Thanks to Denis for finding the article.

Empirical approaches to the study of language evolution (PBR Special Issue)

There is no shortage of special issues on language evolution in the current landscape of academic journals. However, probably none of the three upcoming special issues I know of (or the many more I don’t know of) will match Tecumseh Fitch’s special issue on “Empirical approaches in the study of Language Evolution” in “Psychonomic Bulletin and Review”, at least in terms of sheer size – by my count, the issue contains no less than 36 contributions by 39 mostly very well-known researchers.

The volume starts out with an impressive overview – which also serves as a review paper on recent advances in language evolution research – by Fitch himself. Like some of the other contributions, it is freely available with open access. As all contributions are available as “online first” papers at the moment and have not been assigned to an issue of the journal yet, the references section of the overview is also a good starting point for retrieving the other papers in the special issue.

Some of the papers are response articles to other contributions in the volume, which nicely highlights some key debates and open questions in the field. For example, both David Adger and Dan Bowling react to Simon Kirby’s paper on “Culture and biology in the emergence of linguistic structure”. Reviewing a large number of (both computational and behavioral) experiments using the Iterated Learning paradigm, including recent work on Bayesian Iterated Learning, Kirby argues that linguistic structure emerges as sets of behaviors (utterances) are transmitted through an informational bottleneck (the limited data available to the language learner) and the behaviors adapt to better pass through the bottleneck. According to Kirby, “[a]n overarching universal arising from this cultural process is that compressible sets of behaviours pass through the bottleneck more easily. If behaviours also need to be expressive then rich systematic structure appears to be the inevitable result.” Adger, however, argues that expressivity and compressibility are not sufficient to explain the emergence of structure. He points out that the systematicity of human languages is restricted in particular ways and that in the case of some grammatical phenomena, the simplest and most expressive option is logically possible but unattested in the world’s languages. He therefore argues that the human language capacity imposes strong constraints on language development, while the structures of particular languages arise in the way envisaged by the Iterated Learning model.

Kirby also discusses the relation between biological and cultural factors in language evolution. Probably the most far-reaching conclusion he draws from Iterated Learning models (in particular, from work by Bill Thompson et al.) is that the language faculty can only contain weak domain-specific constraints, while any hard constraints on the acquisition of language will almost certainly be domain-general. Bowling’s response is targeted at this aspect of Kirby’s theory. While being sympathetic with the emphasis on cultural evolution, he argues that it “fails to leave the nature-nurture dichotomy behind”, as constraints are identified as either cultural or biological. Unfortunately, Bowling doesn’t really have enough space to unfold this argument in more detail in this very short response paper.

A second paper in the special issue that is accompanied by a short commentary is Mark Johnson‘s “Marr’s levels and the minimalist program” (preprint). He discusses the question “what kind of simplicity is likely to be most related to the plausibility of an evolutionary event introducing a change to a cognitive system?” Obviously, this question bears important implications for Chomsky’s minimalist theory of language evolution, according to which a single mutation gave rise to the operation Merge, “a simple formal operation that yields the kinds of hierarchical structures found in human languages”. Johnson points out that just because a cognitive system is easy to describe does not necessarily mean that it is evolutionarily plausible. In order to approach the question “What kind of simplicity?”, he takes up David Marr’s levels of analysis of cognitive systems: the implementational level (the “hardware”), the algorithmic level (the representations and data structures involved), and the computational level (the goal(s) of the system; the information it manipulates; the constraints it must satisfy). He suggests that complexity of genomic encoding might be most closely related to complexity at the implementational level. The introduction of Merge, however, is complex at the computational level, while the changes on the other two levels could be quite complex. To strengthen the minimalist account of language evolution, then, one would have to either show systematic connections between the three levels, or demonstrate that a simple change to neural architecture can give rise to human language.

In her response paper, Amy Perfors (preprint) basically seconds Johnson’s position. However, she also points out that, from the perspective of Occam’s razor, computational simplicity might nevertheless be an important factor in model selection: “Because the more computationally complex a model or a theory is, the more difficult it is, plausibly, to represent or learn. For those reasons the simplicity of Merge is a theoretical asset when evaluating its cognitive plausibility.”

Kirby’s and Johnson’s papers and the respective responses can of course only give a glimpse of the thematic breadth of the special issue and the diversity of theoretical frameworks represented in the volume. Other topics include, e.g., the architecture of the “language-ready brain”, advances and missed opportunities in comparative research, and the role of different modalities in the evolution of language.


Protolang 5 in Barcelona!

Plenary speakers:

Sonja Vernes
Olga Feher
Martin Kuhlwilm
João Zilhão

Animal cognition
Animal communication
Cognitive science
Cognitive semiotics
Computational modelling
General evolutionary theory
Genetics of language
Gesture studies
Neuroscience of language
Philosophy of biology
Philosophy of language
Pleistocene archaeology
Psychology (evolutionary, comparative, developmental)
Speech physiology

Talks and posters
Please submit an anonymous abstract of 400 words to the Easychair website, .
You will have the option of submitting an abstract to be considered for a presentation, poster or either. The file must be in .PDF format.

Talks should be suitable for 30 minutes (20 minutes for presentation/10 minutes for discussion).
Posters should be no larger than A0 size, vertical (841 x 1189 mm / 33.1 x 46.8 in).

Please submit a proposal to including: (a) Title of the mini-symposium, (b) name and affiliation of the organizers, (c) a general description (400 words), and (d) abstract of each contributed talk (100-150 words).

Submissions should be suitable for a two-hour session and include 3 to 5 presentations.
The organizers of accepted mini-symposia will also act as chairs of their session.

Extra Event – Workshop on Lenneberg
On September 29, there will be a workshop on the 50 years of Eric Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language, including also a talk by Tecumseh Fitch (University of Vienna). If you are already in town for Protolang 5, stick around one extra day and join us. There is no registration fee for this event.
Submissions of abstracts are welcome. Please submit the abstract of your talk (400 words) Talks should be suitable for 30 minutes (20 minutes presentation/10 minutes for discussion). Make sure to send both an identified and an anonymous version.

Important dates
Submission deadline: April 20, 2017
Notifications of acceptance: June 15, 2017
Early registration deadline: July 15, 2017
Late registration deadline: September 25, 2017
Conference: September 26—28, 2017
Extra event (Workshop on Lenneberg): September 29, 2017

More info here:

Polythetic Entitation & Cultural Coordinators

Timothy Taylor has an interesting entry in this year’s “Edqe Question” idea-fest. It has the ungainly title, Polythetic Entitation. He attributes the idea to the late David Clarke:

Clarke argued that the world of wine glasses was different to the world of biology, where a simple binary key could lead to the identification of a living creature (Does it have a backbone? If so, it is a vertebrate. Is it warm blooded? If so, it is a mammal or bird. Does it produce milk? … and so on). A wine glass is a polythetic entity, which means that none of its attributes, without exception, is simultaneously sufficient and necessary for group membership. Most wine glasses are made of clear glass, with a stem and no handle, but there are flower vases with all these, so they are not definitionally-sufficient attributes; and a wine glass may have none of these attributes—they are not absolutely necessary. It is necessary that the wine glass be able to hold liquid and be of a shape and size suitable for drinking from, but this is also true of a teacup. If someone offered me a glass of wine, and then filled me a fine ceramic goblet, I would not complain.

Taylor is an archaeologist as was Clarke. They face the problem of how to identify cultural objects without knowing how they are used. An object’s physical characteristics generally do not speak unequivocally, hence the term polythetic (vs. monothetic). Thus:

Asking at the outset whether an object is made of glass takes us down a different avenue from first asking if it has a stem, or if it is designed to hold liquid. The first lumps the majority of wine glasses with window panes; the second groups most of them with vases and table lamps; and the third puts them all into a super-category that includes breast implants and Lake Mead, the Hoover dam reservoir. None of the distinctions provides a useful classificatory starting point. So grouping artefacts according to a kind of biological taxonomy will not do.

As a prehistoric archaeologist David Clarke knew this, and he also knew that he was continually bundling classes of artefacts into groups and sub-groups without knowing whether his classification would have been recognized emically, that is, in terms understandable to the people who created and used the artefacts. Although the answer is that probably they did have different functions, how might one work back from the purely formal, etic, variance—the measurable features or attributes of an artefact—to securely assign it to its proper category?

What matters for proper classification are the attributes with “cultural salience” (Taylor’s term).

Now cultural salience is how I define the genetic elements of culture, which I have taken to calling coordinators. Coordinators are the culturally salient properties of objects or processes. In a terminology originally promulgated by Kenneth Pike, they are emics (notice that Taylor uses this terminology as well).

One thing that became clear to me in Dan Everett’s Dark Matter of the Mind (see my review in 3 Quarks Daily) is that a culture covers or paints (other terms of art I am considering) their natural environment with coordinators. Thus Everett talks about how, even after he’d been among the Pirahã for a couple years he simply could not see the jungle as well as they did. They were born and raised in it; he was not. Features of the jungle – creatures and events – that were obvious to the Pirahã because they had learned to identify them, that were culturally salient to the Pirahã, were invisible to Everett. They may have been right in front of his (lying) eyes, but he couldn’t discern them. They were not culturally salient to him, for his mind/brain had developed in a very different physical environment.

The polythetic nature of cultural artfacts is closely related to what I have called abundance elsewhere. The phenomena of the world have many properties; they are abundant. Only some of those properties will even be perceptually available; after all, our ears cannot hear all sounds, our eyes cannot see all electromagnetic radiation, etc. Of the perceptually available properties, only some will be culturally salient. This is as true for natural objects as for cultural artifacts and activities.

Dan Everett’s Dark Matter @ 3QD

Consider these three words: gavagai, gabagaí, gabagool. If you’ve been binge watching episodes in the Star Trek franchise you might suspect them to be the equivalent of veni, vidi, vici, in the language of a space-faring race from the Gamma Quadrant. The truth, however, is even stranger.

The first is a made-up word that is well-known in certain philosophical circles. The second is not quite a word, but is from Pirahã, the Amazonian language brought to our attention by ex-missionary turned linguist, Daniel Everett, and can be translated as “frustrated initiation,” which is how Everett characterized his first field trip among the Pirahã. The third names an Italian cold cut that is likely spelled “capicola” or “capocolla” when written out and has various pronunciations depending on the local language. In New York and New Jersey, Tony Soprano country, it’s “gabagool”.

Everett discusses first two in his wide-ranging new book, Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious (2016), which I review at 3 Quarks Daily. As for gabagool, good things come in threes, no?

Why gavagai? Willard van Orman Quine coined the word for a thought experiment that points up the problem of word meaning. He broaches the issue by considering the problem of radical translation, “translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people” (Word and Object 1960, 28). He asks us to consider a “linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out to penetrate and translate a language hitherto unknown. All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native’s surfaces and the observable behavior, focal and otherwise, of the native.” That is to say, he has no direct access to what is going on inside the native’s head, but utterances are available to him. Quine then asks us to imagine that “a rabbit scurries by, the native says ‘Gavagai’, and the linguist notes down the sentence ‘Rabbit’ (of ‘Lo, a rabbit’) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases” (p. 29).

Quine goes on to argue that, in thus proposing that initial translation, the linguist is making illegitimate assumptions. He begins his argument by nothing that the native might, in fact, mean “white” or “animal” and later on offers more exotic possibilities, the sort of things only a philosopher would think of. Quine also notes that whatever gestures and utterances the native offers as the linguist attempts to clarify and verify will be subject to the same problem.

As Everett notes, however, in his chapter on translation (266):

On the side of mistakes never made, however, Quine’s gavagai problem is one. In my field research on more than twenty languages—many of which involved monolingual situations …, whenever I pointed at an object or asked “What’s that?” I always got an answer for an entire object. Seeing me point at a bird, no one ever responded “feathers.” When asked about a manatee, no one ever answered “manatee soul.” On inquiring about a child, I always got “child,” “boy,” or “girl,” never “short hair.”


I believe that the absence of these Quinean answers results from the fact that when one person points toward a thing, all people (that I have worked with, at least) assume that what is being asked is the name of the entire object. In fact, over the years, as I have conducted many “monolingual demonstrations,” I have never encountered the gavagai problem. Objects have a relative salience… This is perhaps the result of evolved perception.

Frankly, I forget how I reacted to Quine’s thought experiment when I first read it as an undergraduate back in the 1960s. I probably found it a bit puzzling, and perhaps I even half-believed it. But that was a long time ago. When I read Everett’s comments on it I was not surprised to find that the gavagai problem doesn’t arise in the real world and find his suspected explanation, evolved perception, convincing.

As one might expect, Everett devotes quite a bit of attention to recursion, with fascinating examples from Pirahã concerning evidentials, but I deliberately did not bring that up in my review. Why, given that everyone and their Aunt Sally seem to be all a-twitter about the issue, didn’t I discuss it? That’s why, I’m tired of it and think that, at this point, it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. I understand well enough why it’s an important issue, but it’s time to move on.

The important issue is to shift the focus of linguistic theory away from disembodied and decontextualized sentences and toward conversational interaction. That’s been going on for some time now and Everett has played a role in that shift. While the generative grammarians use merge as a term for syntactic recursion it could just as well be used to characterize how partners assimilate what they’re hearing with what they’re thinking. Perhaps that’s what syntax is for and why it arose, to make conversation more efficient–and I seem to think that Everett has a suggestion to that effect in his discussion of the role of gestures in linguistic interaction.

Anyhow, if these and related matters interest you, read my review and read Everett’s book.

Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts

I’ve just checked in at and was alerted to this article:

Stephen G. Nichols, Mutable Stability, a Medieval Paradox: The Case of Le Roman de la Rose, Queste 23 (2016) 2, pp. 71-103.

I’ve not yet read it, but a quick skim makes it clear that it speaks to a current debate in cultural evolution concerning the high-fidelity transmission of “memes” (Dan Dennett) vs. the variable transmission of objects as guided by “factors of attraction” (Dan Sperber). I’ve not yet read it, but here’s some tell-tale passages. This is from the beginning (p. 71):

Yet even those who argue, to the contrary, that ‘transmission errors’ often represent creative ‘participation’ by a talented scribe, must recognize the attraction of a stable work.After all, despite an extraordinary record of innovation, invention, and discovery, the Middle Ages are an era that resisted change in and for itself. And yet this same veneration of conservative values underlies a fascinating paradox of medieval culture: its delicate and seemingly contradictory balance between stability, on the one hand, and transformation, on the other. It may be that only an era that saw no contradiction in promulgating an omnipotent, unchanging divinity, which was at the same time a dynamic principle of construction and transformation, could have managed the paradox of what I want to call ‘mutable stability’.

Here’s Dawkins in the 2nd chapter of The Selfish Gene:

Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms.


Back to Nichols, a bit later in the article (p. 77):

In this case, however, it’s one that allows us to understand the paradox of medieval narrative forms whose ‘stability’ over time – in some cases over several centuries – depends on what I call the generative – or regenerative – force of transmission. Why ‘regenerative’ if transmission involves reproducing the ‘same’ work from one representation to another? The answer to that question involves recognizing the complex forces at play in the transmission of me- dieval texts, beginning with concepts like ‘the same’ and ‘seeing’ or ‘perspective’. After all, in a culture where the technology of transmission depends on copying each text by hand, what the scribe sees, or thinks she or he sees, must be factored into our definition of ‘sameness’ when comparing original and copy.

In the event, ‘sameness’, for the medieval mind had a very different connotation from our modern senses of the term. Indeed, it even involves a different process of perception and imagination. Whereas in our age of mechanical and digital reproduction, we are used to standards of ‘exactness’ for things we recognize as identical, me- dieval people had neither the means nor the expectation to make ‘same’ and ‘exact imitation’ synonymous. Indeed, one may even question the existence at that time of such a concept as ‘exact imitation’, at least as we understand it. Continue reading “Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts”

Ontology and Cultural Evolution: “Spirit” or “Geist” and some of its measures

This post is about terminology, but also about things – in particular, an abstract thing – and measurements of those things. The things and measurements arise in the study of cultural evolution.

Let us start with a thing. What is this?


If you are a regular reader here at New Savanna you might reply: Oh, that’s the whatchamacallit from Jocker’s Macroanalysis. Well, yes, it’s an illustration from Macroanalysis. But that’s not quite the answer I was looking for. But let’s call that answer a citation and set it aside.

Let’s ask the same question, but of a different object: What’s this?


I can imagine two answers, both correct, each it its own way:

1. It’s a photo of the moon.

2. The moon.

Strictly speaking, the first is correct and the second is not. It IS a photograph, not the moon itself. But the second answer is well within standard usage.

Notice that the photo does not depict the moon in full (whatever that might mean), no photograph could. That doesn’t change the fact that it is the moon that is depicted, not the sun, or Jupiter, or Alpha Centauri, or, for that matter, Mickey Mouse. We do not generally expect that representations of things should exhaust those things.

Now let us return to the first image and once again ask: What is this? I want two answers, one to correspond with each of our answers about the moon photo. I’m looking for something of the form:

1. A representation of X.

2. X.

Let us start with X. Jockers was analyzing a corpus of roughly 3300 19th century Anglophone novels. To do that he evaluated each of them on each of 600 features. Since those evaluations can be expressed numerically Jockers was able to create a 600-dimensional space in which teach text occupies a single point. He then joined all those points representing texts that are relatively close to one another. Those texts are highly similar with respect to the 600 features that define the space.

The result is a directed graph having 3300 nodes in 600 dimensions. So, perhaps we can say that X is a corpus similarity graph. However, we cannot see in 600 dimensions so there is no way we can directly examine that graph. It exists only as an abstract object in a computer. What we can do, and what Jockers did, is project a 600D object into two dimensions. That’s what we see in the image.

Continue reading “Ontology and Cultural Evolution: “Spirit” or “Geist” and some of its measures”

Monkey vocal tracts are speech-ready

A new paper in Science Advances (Fitch, de Boer, Mathur & Ghazanfar, 2016) uses models informed by x-rays of macaque vocal tracts to claim that monkeys have the tools neccessary to make enough speech sounds to create a productive spoken language. This means that the evolution of speech is likely to be primarily dependent on cognitive adaptation, rather than adaptation of the vocal tract.

Abstract here:

For four decades, the inability of nonhuman primates to produce human speech sounds has been claimed to stem from limitations in their vocal tract anatomy, a conclusion based on plaster casts made from the vocal tract of a monkey cadaver. We used x-ray videos to quantify vocal tract dynamics in living macaques during vocalization, facial displays, and feeding. We demonstrate that the macaque vocal tract could easily produce an adequate range of speech sounds to support spoken language, showing that previous techniques based on postmortem samples drastically underestimated primate vocal capabilities. Our findings imply that the evolution of human speech capabilities required neural changes rather than modifications of vocal anatomy. Macaques have a speech-ready vocal tract but lack a speech-ready brain to control it.

Mint journal club over at ICCI

Since finishing my PhD I’ve been lucky enough to get a position at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Specifically, I’m working at the Minds and Traditions research group (the Mint), where we focus on one key aspect of cultural transmission: the evolution of graphic codes.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because the Mint is currently running a journal club over at the (recently revamped) International Cognition & Culture Institute (ICCI). This month we’re reading Franke & Jäger’s paper on Probabilistic pragmatics, or why Bayes’ rule is probably important for pragmatics (click here for open access version). The journal club is open to everyone, and not just Mint members, so feel free to pop over, read the paper, and leave a comment.