daniel cloud book

"A superbly original book on an important topic"

The Domestication of Language 
By Daniel Cloud

Columbia University Press
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Columbia University Press, December 2014
Cloth, 288 pages, ISBN: 978-0-231-16792-5
$35.00 / £24.00

Language did not evolve only in the distant past. Our shared understanding of the meanings of words is ever-changing, and we make conscious, rational decisions about which words to use and what to mean by them every day.

Applying Darwin’s theory of “unconscious artificial selection” to the evolution of linguistic conventions, Daniel Cloud suggests a new, evolutionary explanation for the rich, complex, and continually reinvented meanings of our words.

The choice of which words to use and in which sense to use them is both a “selection event” and an intentional decision, making Darwin’s account of artificial selection a particularly compelling model of the evolution of words. After drawing an analogy between the theory of domestication offered by Darwin and the evolution of human languages and cultures, Cloud applies his analytical framework to the question of what makes humans unique, and how they became that way. He incorporates insights from David Lewis’s Convention, Brian Skyrms’s Signals, and Kim Sterelny’s Evolved Apprentice, all while emphasizing the role of deliberate human choice in the crafting of language over time. His clever and intuitive model casts humans’ cultural and linguistic evolution as an integrated, dynamic process, with results that reach into all corners of our private lives and public character.

The Domestication of Language is a philosophical inquiry into the origin and evolution of human languages.

We tend to speak about “the evolution of language” as if it’s some event that happened in the distant past. This may be true of our innate ability to handle complex grammar, but our shared understandings of the meanings of words still seem to be evolving now. At the same time, in the present, we experience ourselves making conscious, rational decisions about which words to use, and what to say we mean by them.

We’d like to be able to explain the evolution of these things, in the distant past, and in the observable present, in more or less the same way. The only way to reconcile the imperative of explanatory continuity with the evidence of everyday experience is to come up with a story about linguistic and cultural evolution that at least partly depends on a mechanism of selection that involves deliberate human choices.

The conscious or unconscious artificial selection of domesticated organisms is a mechanism of precisely that kind, one Darwin gave us a particularly clear account of. The choice of which word to use, and which sense to use it in, is tautologically a “selection event”, and yet it’s also, just as tautologically, an intentional choice, so some part of the evolution of the entrenched conventions of our language simply has to be thought of in this way.

The Domestication of Language explores the analogy between Darwin’s model of domestication and the evolution of human languages and cultures, and shows how it can be used to address some puzzling questions about what it is that makes humans unique, and how we got that way. An attempt is made to integrate the insights of other recent books by philosophers on the same or closely related topics, including Brian Skyrms’ Signals and Kim Sterelny’s Evolved Apprentice, but the book also owes a large debt to David Lewis’s Convention. What distinguishes this work from others in its field is its emphasis on the role of deliberate human choices in the evolution of meanings.

"A superbly original book on an important topic and the most exciting piece of philosophy I’ve read in a long time. Cloud builds on major philosophical work by David Lewis and Brian Skyrms to provide a serious account of the evolution of language that both recognizes the long and complex process that links the prior state (nothing like language at all) to the end state (language of the kinds now in existence) and that responds to the points of greatest difficulty in that process." — Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

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