Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Invisible Hand of Regulation in the Evolution of Language

In a blog post at The Huffington Post, David Sloan Wilson has argued that Adam Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand is dead. In a second post, he has repeated his claim in response to objections from me and from Massimo Pigliucci.

In contrast to Wilson, I think the invisible hand is very much alive. In fact, it is the fundamental idea behind the Darwinian theory of evolution to which Wilson has contributed so much. A good illustration of how the invisible hand works is the evolution of language.

To refute the idea of the invisible hand, Wilson makes two assumptions. First, he assumes that the invisible hand presupposes that all human behavior is motivated by a narrow pursuit of self-interest. Second, he assumes that the invisible hand denies the need for any regulation. He then goes on to argue that scientific research has shown that human beings are motivated not just by narrowly selfish interests but also by a moral regard for others. He also argues that we should reject the idea of "no regulation," because social cooperation requires regulation. So he concludes: "The invisible hand is morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead."

I disagree with his conclusion, because I disagree with his two assumptions. Both in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith recognizes the complex mixture in human nature of selfish and social motives. And far from denying the need for regulation, the whole point of Smith's writing is to show how the invisible hand regulates morality and economics. If "regulation" means "rule-governed," then both morality and economics are regulated, because they are rule-governed. But the point here is to explain how those moral and economic rules are originated and revised. Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand explains this as an evolutionary process.

Smith speaks of how a man might be "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention." Thus, the idea of an invisible hand is the idea of an unintended order. Smith's general argument is that all human institutions arise and change as systems of unintended order. It was this idea that Darwin picked up from Smith and the other Scottish philosophers as the basis for his insight into evolution as an unintended order in which apparent design could arise in the living world without the need for an intelligent designer.

Consider the case of language. In fact, Smith's idea of the invisible hand as an unintended order was first stated in his essay on language--"Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages." Language is an unintended order. Language is a highly regulated instrument for communication that has emerged from the verbal activity of millions of people over thousands of years without anyone having intended the outcome by deliberate design. So, for instance, those of us who speak English have inherited our language as a customary legacy of a long history of linguistic practices, and each of us contributes to the evolution of the English language by every utterance we make, without being able to predict or to intend the outcome. Our language has been enriched by a few great minds like William Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible and by the many small minds of ordinary people in ordinary speech.

Some people might think that our English language would be better if we had a committee of English linguists who could reform our language from the top down. But those that see the importance of unintended order doubt that this is either possible or desirable. People who compile dictionaries, people who write textbooks of English grammar, and people like William Saphire who criticize contemporary English usage can have some influence on the future of English. But their influence will be only a small part of a complex cultural evolution in which every speaker of the language contributes something. I don't think "dis" is an English verb. But lots of other people disagree with me, and they seem to be prevailing in the common English usage in my neighborhood of the world.

Language is regulated in the sense of rule-governed, but the rules arise through the unintended order of the invisible hand.

Language is motivated by a complex mixture of selfish and social desires. I need to reach some mutual understanding with others to satisfy my needs, and language is a powerful tool to do that.

Darwin saw fundamental links between the evolution of species and the evolution of languages. The evolution of language was especially important for Darwin's account of human evolution, because language seemed to be a crucial trait for the uniqueness of the human mind.

In The Origin of Species, Darwin argued that "all classification is genealogical," and he thought this was true both for species and for languages. "It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, were to be included, such an arrangement would be the only possible one."

The evolution of new species from varieties is just as fuzzy as the evolution of new languages from dialects. But if we can explain the evolution of languages genealogically without supposing some miraculous intervention by an intelligent designer, we can do the same for the evolution of species. And in both cases, it's evolution by the invisible hand of unintended order.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote: "The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel."

Darwin's ideas about the evolution of language have been largely confirmed by contemporary genetic, archaeological, and linguistic studies--as surveyed, for example, by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. There are remarkable similarities in the historical patterns of genetic evolution and linguistic evolution that apparently reflect the history of human migrations. So, for example, the isolation of the Basques in Spain and France is reflected both in their genetics and their language.

So when we look at this history of genetic and linguistic evolution, we should cheer: Long live the invisible hand!

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