Languages, Genes and Folktales: the Plot Thickens
Wednesday, June 6, 10.15-11.15
Folktales, like genes and languages, are products of "descent with modification": stories get passed on from generation to generation, mutate, and eventually diversify into distinct but related lineages. But how far are the descent histories of folk traditions linked to the descent histories of genes and languages? In this talk I will discuss how my collaborators and I have addressed this question using data on the international folktale record, language phylogenies and whole-genome sequences. I will also reflect on some of the wider implications of these findings for understanding the cultural success and stability of traditional stories, what they can tell us about the past, and the complex relationships between the different inheritance systems that shape human worlds.
Sociocultural and linguistic evolution has mostly been researched from within a universalized Neo-Darwinian framework. Theories associated with the extended evolutionary synthesis have now identified new mechanisms and processes of evolution that in turn broaden our notions of what information is and how it becomes transmitted between organisms and populations. When taken on their own, each and every one of these approaches is insufficient to explain all aspects of evolution, but none of the approaches have been falsified either. Instead, different theories demonstrate different aspects of how evolution can proceed. The challenge of our generation is therefore to build theoretical frameworks that are able to incorporate these different findings into metatheories and to come to terms with epistemic and explanatory pluralism. One aspect of such a metatheory is the need to develop a theory-neutral definition of evolution. From within the applied evolutionary epistemological approach, I define evolution as the process whereby units evolve at levels of ontological hierarchies by mechanisms. I explain how this definition also generates a neutral methodology to study evolution, and how it enables new views on causality that can advance theory formation in the sociocultural and linguistic sciences.
The cumulative cultural evolution of prehistoric symbolic behavior
Thursday, June 7, 14.00-15.00
Recently, there has been great interest in connecting archeological findings to knowledge and hypotheses about human cognitive evolution including the evolution of language. Dating back as far as 100 ka, the Blombos ochre and the Diepkloof ostrich egg engravings from South Africa are considered among the earliest fossilized evidence of human symbolic behavior. Of special interest is the temporal trajectory spanning more than 40 thousand years from earlier simpler parallel line patterns to later complex cross-hatchings suggesting an adaptive, compositional development. There are several suggestions in the literature concerning the potential symbolic function of the line engravings spanning from simple aesthetic displays to full-blown denotational symbols. In a series of cognitive science experiments, we investigate whether the development of the artefacts is an expression of an adaptive process of functional optimization for human perception and cognition, that is, if line carvings evolve over time to become more salient, reproducible, intentionally expressive and memorizable. The experimental approach allows us to test concrete hypotheses concerning suggested symbolic functions of the artifacts.