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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005 Final Web Papers On Serendip

From ABC to DNA: The Evolution of the Word-Species and the Modern Story-teller

Ghazal Zekavat

In her essay, "The Usefulness of Stories" the biographer, Ghazal Zekavat, asserts that "the "fitness" of [a] story is not something determined by Darwinian evolution or Mendelian genetics, but it is something completely subjective which follows its own rules of survival all together (1)." What are these rules of survival? How do they differ from Darwinian evolution? As the scientist, I would like to challenge Zekavat's claim that stories possess their own rules of survival, by employing a Darwinian motif in my exploration of the evolution of stories.

Supposing that stories compose different classes on the Linnaean hierarchy, then perhaps the words that derive them may each be addressed as species. Further, can the evolution of these species control, or perhaps even predict the general direction of story-telling in years to come? To answer this question, let us take a closer look at these word-species.

Darwinian evolution dispelled any belief that species arose spontaneously, as all species have common ancestors. Much in the same way that evolutionary trees are able to link different species back to one ancestor, word species may be linked through common lineages. A study published in the Physical Review E, "Topology of the Conceptual Network of Language" describes language as a network, where the words correspond to nodes of the network, and a link exists between two words if they express similar concepts. In the study, investigators Motter et al analyzed 30,000 words in an English thesaurus dictionary. Using an algorithm, they were able to conclude that there are only three degrees of separation between almost every root word in the English language (although they speculate that this holds for other languages, as well.) For example, the word actor and universe can be linked by just two intermediaries. An actor can be thought of as a character. One's character correlates to one's nature. Finally, the universe is nature on a grand scale (2).

This study makes another important implication. The researchers assert that if two words can be connected to the same third word, then there is a great probability that the two words are directly related. Therefore, nodes must be highly clustered. In a review of Motter's study, Phillip Ball asserts that this notion makes sense, for if you and I share a mutual friend, he argues, we probably know each other as well. What is so important about the idea of clustering is that it allowed the investigators to apply concepts of cognitive science. Since we remember things by association, Ball notes, it is not surprising that language is so highly clustered. From this concept, the researchers make the claim that language has evolved its current structure because it is easy to use. Therefore, words have acquired multiple meanings in order to make the network they construct highly interconnected, creating a short average path length between two words (3).

Before going any further, three interesting points arise from the discussion of word connectedness. First, one may find it helpful to apply the Hardy-Weinberg theory to word-species. The Hardy-Weinberg theory suggests that a given population will not change (that is, its gene frequencies and genotype ratios will remain constant) if there is no mutation, no gene flow, no genetic drift, no nonrandom mating, and no natural selection. (4) Since words in the English Language exhibit a high level of connectedness, that is, most words, if not brother and sister are at least second or third cousins, they fail to comply with one Hardy-Weinberg essential—nonrandom mating. Thus, the high rate of change in the English language is at least partially explained.

Second, inbreeding among animal-species often leads to mutations. Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, Middlesex portrays how an act of incest led to a mutation in the 5-Alpha-reductase gene, resulting in a hermaphroditic protagonist. Here, our word-species differ from animal-species in that "incest" among words is the rule, not the exception. The study conducted by Motter et al viewed language as a network of words moving toward a distinct pattern—simplicity—beneficial to our usage of language.

Third, it will prove helpful to attempt to classify the interconnectedness of words. Were the 30,000 words studied by Motter and colleagues connected metaphorically? That is, are they connected based on a "similarity despite a difference" or are they connected metonymically, that is, through "direct association" (5). Does it make sense to connect words metonymically? Let us try our own metonymic example with dog and book. Dog --> Bark --> Trees --> Paper --> Book. Hey, it works! Can this method be counted upon? Short of testing out 30,000 word combinations, Motter and colleagues used a thesaurus dictionary, further confirming that words were connected by their meanings, not other associations. Let us now try to connect dog and book the way Motter would have, by their meanings. Dog --> Canine --> A type of tooth --> Wisdom teeth --? Intelligence --> Books. While this is in no way a perfect linkage, it does help to illustrate an interesting point. It was relatively easy to link words through association, however, someone else may associate dog with "claw" and where may they go from there? Let us try again: Dog --> Claw --> Scratch --> Blackboard --> Study --> Book. This network took one extra intermediate step, and is perhaps less "fit" than the initial metonymic network I presented. Finding the most "fit" lineages, that is, the shortest lineages may also illuminate the directionality of word-species. Furthermore, connecting words based on meaning as opposed to definition appears to be a safer route, since it is based on a set meaning, as opposed to an association, which may change not only with time, but between person and person.

While the discussion of the nature of language to tend toward simplicity sheds interesting light, one is left wondering where the newest additions to our vocabulary fit in, if they fit in at all. Technology has certainly had a helping hand in the shaping of language. A surge of new words arises with the advancement of any field. Modern physics, for example, has introduced to us the terms: pulsar, positron, gluon and lepton, to name a few. Other fields, although once equally esoteric, now generate terminology that has become imbedded into our daily lives. There is no doubt that the reader has "surfed the net," "googled" a phrase and "emailed" a friend. Further, the terms "hard drive," "megabyte," "URL" and "HTTP" have become commonplace.

One thing that can be said for certain is that the more advancements are made, the more vocabulary we will be faced with. How would Motter and colleagues conduct their experiment on word linkage 10 years from now? Perhaps it is best to group technology words under one category, internet jargon under another, and so on, so that connections will be more obvious. Over time, associations are also bound to change, and thus new words are bound to garner new associations as well. Although associations are so variable, they possess one trait that does not change. People naturally associate words that share similar meanings, or sound and look alike. As long as new words are being created, new associations will be drawn to familiarize them.

With the advancement of technology at record speed, the modern-story teller is not only presented with a new vocabulary, but new modes of communication, altogether. These new modes of communication (text messaging, instant messaging, email etc) have an enormous effect on what shape language is currently taking. The ability to communicate through typing messages has popularized a new, nonverbal, written language. Acronyms are often used to either shorten frequently used phrases (i.e. "ttyl" for "talk to you later") or to explain unseen actions (i.e. "lol' for "laughing out loud"). A new arrangement of letters is not the only way communication is evolving. Symbols found on keyboards, initially meant for specific grammatical usage such as colons and parentheses are now being employed in new ways to communicate nonverbally, in the form of "smileys," for example ": )". It is not difficult to picture how a new juxtaposition of the colon and parenthesis came to symbolize a smiley face, since the two symbols together resemble two eyes and a mouth, albeit on their sides. The evolution of other symbols, such as the "@" sign are less obvious, but may shed new light on the evolution of the elusive, non-verbal word-species.

In 1971, a computer engineer named Roy Tomlinson sent the first ever electronic message—to himself. Tomlinson chose to incorporate the @ sign into the structure of the email so as to not cause any confusion, since the @ sign does not appear in anyone's name. The @ sign is also commonly used in shorthand to replace the word "at." Perhaps surprisingly, however, the symbol has a much richer history than this. In July of 2000, an Italian researcher discovered some 14th Century Venetian commercial documents clearly showing the @ sign. The sign was used to represent a measurement of quantity, the "anfora," or jar. Thus, the @ sign began (to the best of our knowledge) as a symbol used for commercial purposes, and has been used to represent many different things throughout its history, according to linguists. The @ sign appeared on the first model of the Underwood typewriter in 1885 as the "commercial a" and has been a part of modern computing ever since (6).

What we can gain from the history of the @ sign is that a symbol has staying power if it has the ability to adapt to changing environments over long periods in history. In evolutionary terms, the @ sign has proven its resilience in the survival of the fittest. Furthermore, we can attribute the simple, yet elastic nature of the @ sign to its success.

If simplicity and elasticity are important in the fitness of word-species, then can we identify word-species on the brink of extinction? William Safire explores this in his article, "On Language; Tmorras Nglsh" in the New York Times. Through the eyes of modern linguists and lexicographers, Safire speculates what language in the year 3000 will be like. According to Safire, one such prominent lexicographer, Sol Steinmetz, predicts that spellings and even pronunciations of words will lose their complexities, and that certain grammatical cases (i.e. whom) may disappear all together (7).

While Saffire believes that the English language is bound to lose some of its intricacies, Jared Diamond writes in Discover Magazine that the English language ought to lose some of its intricacies. In his article "Writing Right," Diamond advocates the reform of modern English Spelling. Diamond suggests that spellings should match consistently to their sounds. For example, the "superfluous letter c" should be replaced with either k or s, as needed, and new symbols should be created to replace "arbitrary letter combinations (such as sh and th) (8)." While it is difficult to predict the direction that words will take in the future, it appears that their "genetic" makeup, i.e. letters may take a more predictable route. In effect, ABCs are the DNA of word-species.

The evolution of words may have grave implications for at least one specific type of story-telling, the pun. Puns rely heavily on juxtaposition of words and double meanings. Therefore, it is conceivable that the progression of words, especially toward simplicity, will affect puns, rendering some obsolete, and creating others that previously could not have existed.

If words and, consequently, language, are moving toward fitness, if our brains are learning to more efficiently clump and categorize words, if we are constantly being barraged by a vastly proliferating population of words-species, then what are we becoming as story-tellers? The modern story-teller, now faced with new modes of communication and a new language with which to communicate has almost no choice but to oblige. In the academic setting, professors often relay information to their students through emails and course web pages. Entire classes may be taken at one's computer, eliminating the need for a classroom altogether.

Is the evolution of language bound to affect the evolution of the story-teller? If the story-teller thrives by sharing, receiving, and creating ideas with other story-tellers, then the modern story-teller must be thriving, because of the myriad ways to engage in story-telling. The thriving of the modern story-teller is perhaps somewhat of a paradox. The fitness of an animal species depends largely on its ability to pass on its genes, whereas the modern story-teller need primarily worry about passing on "memes" (9). As long as the story-telling faculties are in tact in the modern story-teller, the body is not so necessary. Would the fit story-teller simply be a brain with an over-grown frontal lobe? This is obviously absurd, as story-tellers must possess a faculty to experience events before they can relay stories about them.

What of Artificial Intelligence, then? Is the idea behind AI not to create a fit story-teller, one that would only need a central processing unit (like the human brain), and perhaps an algorithm for experience? If we take the progression of technology to mean the progression of words, to mean the evolution of stories, to mean the evolution of the story-teller, then are we only but destined toward artificial intelligence? What implications would the creating of AI have on us, modern story-tellers? If AI can, with time, create the perfectly fit story-teller, a story-teller who need not worry about passing on genes, then what direction would "Natural Intelligence" take? We can only speculate.

The ability to speculate, of course, is not a trifle thing. There is some comfort in knowing that it is I who is creating these ideas and writing these words, not my word processor. Or is it?


1) Zekavat, Ghazal. "The Usefulness of Stories." Available:

2) Motter, Adilson et al. "Topology of the conception network of language." Physical Review E, Volume 65 065102(R) 25 June 2002 ©The American Physical Society 2002: 1021-1024.

3) Ball, Phillip. "Small Word Network." Nature: Science Update. 2 July 2002. Nature News Service/ Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2003. Available:

4)Mayr, Ernst. 2001. What is Evolution. New York: Basic Books.

5) Chandler, Daniel. "Semiotics for Beginners" Available:

6) Giussani, Bruno. "A Brief History of (the @ sign.)" The Industry Standard, May 14, 2001 v4 i19: 77.

7) Saffire, William. "Language; Tmorras Nglish." The New York Times. 5 Dec., 1999, late ed.: Section 6: 29.

8) Diamond, Jared. "Writing right. (History and logic of written Languages." Discover, June 1994 v15 n6 p106(8).

9) Dennett, Daniel C. 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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