Kevin Laland, cultural evolution and magical thinking

Why do good, respectable scientists escape into teleology and magical thinking as soon as they get on to the subject of the evolution of human culture?

Kevin Laland is an excellent scientist. Extended spider cognition, Hilton F. Japyassú and Kevin N. Laland, is worth half an hour of anybody’s time.  But as soon as Laland gets on to human culture he enters a realm of teleology, of magical thinking.

I have just listened to Nicola Davis interviewing him on “What role might culture play in intelligence?” Guardian  Science Weekly, 07 February 2018 .

Towards the end, Laland  is trawling through “A good theory of the evolution of language would be…” statements, and comes up with what he says is the most robust: “Language originally evolved to teach; to teach knowledge to close relatives.”

Teleology: basically it’s in the grammar.

A purpose is the intention of doing something in the future.

An intention can be expressed in the form “X did y [in order to] do (or be, or achieve) z”, where X is the subject of the sentence.

Here language is X.  Language [did something] [in order] to teach.

So, language had an intention of doing something in the future.  The intention is represented by “[in order] to”.

Language is a distributed system.  Its existence extends into many domains, acoustic, alphabetic, semantic.  If language has an intention, some very precise argument is needed to demonstrate this and to show where in language such an intention is located.  In the absence of any such argument we can assume that language is totally devoid of intention.

From the sentence “language evolved [in order] to teach” we  must therefore remove “[in order] to”.

The sentence is now:

Language evolved                 teach.

The part before the lacuna is true.  It has no grammatical or any other relation to “teach.”

The insertion into the statement of “[in order] to” creates a short, teleological, Just So Story.

Just So Stories are not science.


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