Curiously the same: swapping tools between linguistics and evolutionary biology

Abstract

One of the major benefits of interdisciplinary research is the chance to swap tools between fields, to save having to reinvent the wheel. The fields of language evolution and evolutionary biology have been swapping tools for centuries to the enrichment of both. Here I will discuss three categories of tool swapping: (1) conceptual tools, where analogies are drawn between hypotheses, patterns or processes, so that one field can take advantage of the path cut through the intellectual jungle by the other; (2) theoretical tools, where the machinery developed to process the data in one field is adapted to be applied to the data of the other; and (3) analytical tools, where common problems encountered in both fields can be solved using useful tricks developed by one or the other. I will argue that conceptual tools borrowed from linguistics contributed to the Darwinian revolution in biology; that theoretical tools of evolutionary change can in some cases be applied to both genetic and linguistic data without having to assume the underlying evolutionary processes are exactly the same; and that there are practical problems that have long been recognised in historical linguistics that may be solved by borrowing some useful analytical tools from evolutionary biology.

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Fig. 1

Modified from Turvey and Pettorelli (2014), and reproduced under Creative Commons license CC-BY version 4.0

Fig. 2

Reproduced from Nettle (1998) with permission from Elsevier (License number 4046981123147)

Fig. 3

Reproduced from Lupyan and Dale (2010) under Creative Commons Attribution (CCBY) license

Notes

  1. 1.

    Horne Tooke also used his philological work to provide a rather quirky legal defence in which he claims to have been made the victim in a court of law of two prepositions and a conjunction (Horne Tooke 1840).

  2. 2.

    Indeed evidence is growing for an effect of cocoa on cognitive functions (Sokolov et al. 2013), leading to calls for “cocoa interventions” for urban children to counter the mind-numbing effects of pollution (Calderon-Garciduenas et al. 2013). But these conclusions are based on empirical studies (such as the cutely named “Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study”: Mastroiacovo et al. 2015), rather than cross-cultural correlations.

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Acknowledgements

With gratitude to Kim Sterelny and Simon Greenhill for inviting me to contribute to their workshop on “Evolution of Language” held at the Australian National University in August 2016, and to two anonymous referees for their detailed and helpful comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Lindell Bromham.

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Bromham, L. Curiously the same: swapping tools between linguistics and evolutionary biology. Biol Philos 32, 855–886 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-017-9594-y

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Keywords

  • Language evolution
  • Historical linguistics
  • Biological evolution
  • Darwinism
  • Galton’s problem
  • Phylogenetic non-independence
  • Spatial autocorrelation
  • Interdisciplinary