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On the evolution of language

Towards Day 11 of Evolving Systems course


I. coursekeeping

* conferences this week: Erin, Paige, Sarah, Meredith in a.m.:
Karina, Summer, Olivia, Aimee and Prianna in the p.m.

* handouts for Thursday's reading
: Chapters 5&6 of Colin
Renfrew's 2009 book, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind

* by tomorrow evening, write a paper in which you explore some possible causes underlying the particular cultural evolution you described in this week's paper (interesting that some of them were not geographically located--on-line chat rooms, protest music); some of you may need to alter (enlarge or reduce or shift) the focus of your paper; all should be sure to use three outside sources, to have a motivating question and make a claim

* on Thursday, we will be welcoming a visitor, Emily Artz French, who did the sequence of images illustrating "an evolution" on our course home page; she's coming (a little ahead of schedule!) to talk about the evolution of her art, her sense of where creativity "comes from" and what facilitates it. I'll try to frame the discussion w/ some of Refrew's ideas, but the real focus should be on a conversation among us all about her art, and what it/she can teach us about art-making, being (evolutionarily) creative, so explore her web page, think about what you'd like to know about how it came to be

II. we stopped, last week, before you got a chance to answer the question I had, arising from the special issue of Science Magazine on "The Evolution of Language":....advise on a method of communicating the whereabouts of dangerous repositories of radioactive waste to generations 10,000 years hence...?

there was no secure means of transmitting such knowledge over 300 generations. Instead... put in place a relay system which ensured that "as the information begins to decay, it should be updated"...any message written in English should be designed for only three generations ahead--that is, 100 years."

what does this exercise suggest to us,
about the necessary conditions for language?

III. from your postings about the evolution of language,
and cornets, and culture more generally....

Lemon Koala: As we gradually zoom in human society ... this topic will bring more personal feelings ... the less chance that we will agree ... people will process differently the same information ...

[are those differences to be avoided? reduced? sought out? exacerbated?]

This is probably the first agreement between eastern and western culture ... we value the winner. We always pay much attention to the rank. The human nature of beating each other overcome any cultural barriers and become the common human characteristics among the races. I think one reason could be the natural selection. In the ancient times, you had to run faster to survive the crucial environment. Later, you had to work harder to survive the agricultural society. Today, you need you be smarter to succeed or just survive this fast-changing society. Our human nature of beating each other maybe is the way we protect ourselves .... We valorized the success because we all want to be the winner.

[do you believe in "human nature"?
do you think that we all share fixed and unchangeable characteristics?]

SoundsLikeBanana: Something that really resonated with me after thursday's class was paige's idea that we valorize winners .... it seemed to be a common idea among the cultures I've seen in my life .... always psuhing to be the best at EVERYTHING and there is no exception .... All throughout my schooling i've seen parents pushing their kids to always win ... with little to no down time .... especially in my generation of students who are pushing themselves to exhaustion ... because they want to be the best.

[thinking about cooperative/"everyone wins" games?
could school be restructured along these lines/according to these principles?

The Prisoner's Dilemma, a "non-zero-sum"game in which the best strategy for a given player the one that increases the payoff to one's partner

cf. "Quaker tennis": you lose a point if your opponent can't return the ball
(i.e. higher score for keeping the game going, not for winning=ending it!)

Lemon Koala: The future of Languages is to be more and more simple and easy to learn and communicate. Let’s take Chinese as an example ....  The initial goal of introducing simplified Chinese is to lower the requirement to receive education and easy to read and write. The evolution also resulted in the loss of traditional Chinese culture. Many people today have difficulties to comprehend the old literature from ancient times. The evolution of language not only makes the communication easier but also creates the barrier of the communications with and comprehension in the cultural heritages.

FluteSound4: My mom is fluent in Hungarian ... when she speaks to my grandmother, a lot of her thinking and speaking is like that of when she was in her twenties because that was the time when she spoke Hungarian the most.

... an English speaker is lucky because no matter what country he or she goes to, there will always be someone whom they could communicate with in English if needed. Why should English speakers rely on the abilities of others though? We should at least try and meet them half way...

[can and should we try and control the evolution of languages? preserve the cultural diversity of those that are dying out? reduce the spread of English? of Arabic? of Chinese? Simplify Chinese?]

Bingqing: Geographic structure plays a significant role in the formation of cultural difference ... perfect evidence —- difference between my Nepalese roommate and me....The essential cause is Himalaya Mountains .... the barrier for Nepalese and Chinese to intermarry, result in the divergent genes and lifestyles of the two neighboring countries ...  two countries with few communications gradually developed different language and architecture style .... In contrast, the connection between Japan and China has never been disrupted during the history of human civilization.
Based on the “geographic cause” argument, in the cosmopolitan age when the transportations are developed and intercultural communications are frequent, will the initially diverse cultures become convergent?

MC: Okay, so diversity is because of genes, the differences in which are caused by change but also cause change. So cultures change the same way alleles in a population fluctuate: breeding. One aspect of a culture that is popular is selected for, and so is passed on to the next generation, but something may happen and it becomes less favorable, or the next generation may just decide to hell with it, or it may carry on.

Olivia: I feel that the evolution of culture is the result of a collection of randomness .... Randomness is the end of science evolution, and it is the start of the culture evolution.

It seems that thinking is requisite for the desire of an “I”... But I don’t know if we need an “I” because we think.

CParra: One person cannot change the culture.

Paige: cultural change doesn’t happen unless people accept change and make it their own .... I really think there is real active agency involved in culture in conjunction with plain ol’ exposure and diffusion ....By the way, I think “culture” deserves a Making Sense of Ourselves definition.  What is your definition of “culture”? .... Wow, overuse of  " ". Why is everything always in such flux that I can't even write "culture" without " "?

Summer:  I would rather buy the concept of the gene decides the cultural evolution. The concept of culture in my mind was always what people think, how people behave and the values of a society. It just seems superfluous to give a geological reason to the diversity of cultures. What we would like to believe is in our blood. Can you give a reason to the religious believes? Is it also a geological difference?... The determinant of cultures is not a simple factor. Maybe it's just randomness. People thousands of years ago just thought, behaved and believed in certain ways. Maybe it's just another turtle story. I'd rather count and track down the turtles than settle for a simple reason.

schu: We can see the determination of the government to destroy all traditions in China. The result of it is that we have lost so many memories, records, good qualities and traditions, but still a lot of the culture has been passed on ... by records and actions .... features of a culture are buried in people’s character, and it is very hard to eliminate them .... Chinese people are careful, modest and laborious. This feature is still there. But as Chinese economy boosts, there are also many new changes occur over time .... Better economic conditions allow people to think more about mental desires ....
JulieG: conscious actions ALWAYS result in unconscious change every conscious action ... necessarily creates unexpected change .... "You can never step in the same river twice" .... you necessarily change the river ... whether you intended it to or not .... some changes are necessarily coincidental. I'm not sure that I'm willing to accept them as random (...without reason), but I am willing to see how small accidents or by-products create huge changes in cultures. Like penicillin and cornflakes.

Kirsten: French people tend to stand closer to others when they are speaking with them ... invading the “personal bubble” that many Americans have made for themselves.

Sarah Ann: I love love loved the story about the three generations of treasure boxes. It was a beautiful story, and so well told. I was constantly drawn in, waiting to see what was in each box. So kudos to the writer of the treasure box story! It also really made me think about the definition of the word "treasure" ... different from generation to generation .... I really liked the thought path that your paper set me upon!

[and yet: cf. this Douglas Adams' quote about generational change!]:
"There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."