Curiously the same: swapping tools between linguistics and evolutionary biology




Bromham, Lindell

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Kluwer Academic Publishers


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.



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



Biology and Philosophy


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