Character displacement in biology is similar to language replacement in linguistics: languages compete, evolve, and even go extinct.
I am pre-publishing this sequence of essays here and in social media to elicit comments and other feedback. They will form the framework for my next book, Darwin, Dada, Dalí, Duke, & Devadevàya.
In the previous post, we looked at some ways in which the evolution of language parallels biological evolution. There are other ways, however, in which language seems to conform to biological concepts. For instance, when a new organism arrives in an area, either through immigration or evolution, it creates pressure for other organisms to either adjust and respond, or to disappear.
The basic concept for this is explained by Gause’s Law, or ‘the competitive exclusion principle’. A new animal or other organism which arrives in a locale can force evolutionary shifts in competing organisms. If a bird that eats berries arrives in a place where the local birds eat seeds and berries, it will often create competitive pressures, and the older local stock may shift to eating more seeds. As they do, their beaks may become a bit tougher, or shorter, to give them more power in cracking the seeds they find. The biological characters — in this case, both the foraging habits and the beak — can shift.
Language replacement seems to work in similar ways. Many ancient words and languages shift or disappear when confronted with the language of invading tribes or nations, particularly when the invaders succeed and grab power. As the Romans conquered Europe, the near East, and much of North Africa, many languages were gradually extinguished. Others, however, shifted and incorporated Latin into the local dialects to produce a variety of Romance languages.1)The modern word ‘romance’ comes from the time in which books were written in the local language, instead of Latin. These books often dealt with chivalry and courtly (and sometimes not-so-courtly) love. Here again, the word evolved.
Later, the influence of Latin dropped dramatically when the Goths brought down the Western Roman empire (the Byzantines in the East would fall to the Ottomans some centuries later). As the Romans declined in power, the language situation reversed: pure Latin underwent language replacement by the regional Romance languages it had influenced, creating an odd circularity. These local languages nevertheless expanded and evolved yet again to respond to the void. As the Romans flourished and dominated, so did Latin. As the Romans underwent domination by other cultures, Latin began disappearing. Today, pure Latin survives in only a single country, which also happens to be the smallest country in the world.
From a biological point of view, Latin is an endangered species. Of course, linguists consider Latin a dead language, because it is not spoken. But the Vatican’s official documents are still published in the language, and reportedly, a few dozen people at the Vatican still converse in Latin. And it’s a good thing, too: the Latin versions of the popular graphic novel series Asterix are translated by the Vatican. Which is an important point, because the reason that the Vatican helped with the books was to assist the many students around the world who still study Latin, most of them Roman Catholics. I am reminded of Billy Crystal’s character ‘Miracle Max’ in the movie The Princess Bride: “Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead.” It’s no moot point: Hebrew was considered a dead language for centuries.
But it was only mostly dead.
The point is that Latin (and even some Hebrew) still lives on in us, and in our daily speaking. With the emergence of English as the lingua franca2)This means ‘free language’, not ‘French language’. of the modern world, Latin has infiltrated all modern languages, of every linguistic family. This is particularly true with the dominance of the English-speaking countries in science and technology. For these modern applications, English is much more Latin & Greek than it is Germanic.
There are also biological changes and extinctions from indirect competition, when a new species impacts other organisms in the same ecosystem, or even the same ‘niche’. This can lead to shifts in niche partitioning. As we noted in the last post, a niche refers to where an organism lives, how it adapts to and survives in the local environment, its sources of nourishment, how it forages or otherwise collects that nourishment, and again, how it escapes becoming nourishment for yet other organisms.
In biology, we generally find that two organisms cannot occupy the same niche in the same locale. When they do, it creates a situation akin to character displacement: if one of them does not go extinct locally, then the two will differentiate, i.e., one or both will shift niches and evolve to avoid competition.
A classic example is from the Antipodes. After the volcanic collapse of a few small islands near New Guinea, two species of bee eater birds, which do not overlap elsewhere in the world, immigrated and took up shop. In the few centuries since their arrival, they have diverged in size, one becoming larger, and the other smaller. So they both underwent character displacement as a result of a shift in their niche partitioning.
Displacement also happens with closely-related animals, even those of the same species. Dung beetles each specialize on a single species. So do many parasites: wild pigeons carry fly lice, which cannot survive on humans.3)I know because I looked it up, and in a bit of a panic. I’ve had them land on me while feeding the pigeons with my daughter. They’re nasty-looking. And then there are the famous Galapagos finches: although they are classified into 15 different species, the different ‘species’ still interbreed. The finches have undergone within-species niche displacement.
Semantic Niche Displacement
In a similar way, if two words have different sounds but share the same meaning — a sort of semantic niche — one or both will often shift in meaning, and differentiate their connotations.4)My mother always told us that no two English words have exactly the same meaning, and I could never prove her wrong. Or at least I couldn’t until I went to medical school: epinephrine and adrenaline have exactly the same origin, ‘(a gland) on the kidney’, and have exactly the same meaning. This pattern even extends to the related compounds, norepinephrine (U.S.) and noradrenaline (U.K.). I know of no others; if you do, please post below. A couple of examples are beef vs cow, and pork vs pig. The Normans brought to England the French words boeuf and porc, which, like ‘chicken’ in English, refer to either the animal or the dish. But in English, a semantic displacement occurred. Pig and cow came to describe the animals, while pork and beef referred to the dishes.
Likewise, when one word shifts, others may shift with it. In earlier English culture, it was important to distinguish the two feudal classes. The commoners were given the name mobile vulgus, Latin for ‘the fickle crowd’. In response to the word nobility, however, mobile became mobility, from which we get the words mob and mobster. Again, these are hardly universal, but the parallel patterns are still intriguing.
Another change that a new organism may cause can be much larger, more varied, and more diffuse, and goes beyond character displacement. A new species often causes other organisms in the area to shift in response to new challenges, as well as opportunities. If the new prey is larger, the predator must become larger, either individually, or collectively through pack hunting. If a lineage creates a new species of animals descended from some ancestor, the ancestor must adapt to the parvenus, or go extinct.
The Europeans who arrived in Australia in 1788 introduced many new animals. Between the Europeans’ weapons (and greed), and the animals they imported, almost 60 Australian animals quickly became extinct, or began heading down the road to extinction. These include the Tasmanian wolf, the desert rat kangaroo, the white-footed rabbit-rat, and a number of species of wallabies and bandicoots. We can think of extinction as the most dramatic form of character displacement.
Many of the aforementioned Australian extinctions were from predation or combat, i.e., direct competition, in contrast to the indirect competition noted above. Languages can fall from either the direct competition of warfare, or the indirect competition of cultural spread.
Genotype & Phenotype
In the last post we noted the many descendants of the Proto-Indo-European root *gen-. But our modern gene has evolved and adapted in other ways, as it also caused problems and opportunities, not only affecting other words, but coming back around and forcing changes to its own meaning and usage. For instance, with the discovery of DNA the word began to change. Ultimately, we redefined the word to mean, not an inherited, observable aspect, but instead, the modern concept of gene is a string of genetic material which codes for a single protein.
But beyond that, we began to realize that our genes are not necessarily controlling. We may be born with the genes for a certain height, but through malnourishment or disease, we may end up shorter; or through any number of hormone problems, taller. We may be born with light skin and dark hair, but sun exposure can reverse those, and of course human artifice can change them. Genes are not always expressed faithfully.
As a result, the word gene shifted, and gave us a new descendant, genotype: What ‘type’ of characteristic does a gene attempt to express?
When the genotype is not faithfully expressed, however, we need a different word; enter phenotype. A phenotype refers to the actual characteristic that appears, independent of what the genes are attempting to express. His genotype may be brunette, but his phenotype could blonde or redhead, from dye, other chemicals, sun, medications, or disease.
These connections between biology and language might seem mildly interesting, even amusing. But it goes much deeper than this.
Some of the world’s greatest philosophers have struggled to parse out the relationship between language and thought. I won’t stray into the weeds over their discussions, but let me point out another parallel between language and biology. Words and languages can be thought of as a kind of phenotype, reflecting a deeper, directing genotype.
And that genotype is our ideas.
An important part of the evolution of our language is that it often reflects the evolution of our thinking. There is much debate about whether language controls our thinking (linguistic determinism), or simply influences our thinking (linguistic relativism). With all respect to my colleagues in lingustics, there is no one answer. There are fundamentalists who cannot think beyond the rules they have been given; and we all are influenced by the language we use, the idioms and phrases that are most common to it, and the words themselves.
But sometimes, our thinking influences language. There are times that we need new words and phrases, to reflect new ideas and perceptions. In this case, language serves as a kind of phenotype, the apparent aspect of our ‘hidden’ thoughts. In that case, our unobservable serve as something akin to a genotype.
With such a perspective, we can see that words and languages are the living specimens, and our etymologies are the ancient fossils which document how our ideas have evolved.
This, by the way, is why in the previous post I noted my doubts about linguists’ contention that language does not necessarily become more efficient or powerful. Our concepts and our ideas become more efficient, more nuanced, and more powerful. I cannot see how the concepts could progress, without language progressing with it.
We will take the connection between language and thought further in the next post.
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Picture of Printer’s Type courtesy of Free-Photos on Pixabay.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The modern word ‘romance’ comes from the time in which books were written in the local language, instead of Latin. These books often dealt with chivalry and courtly (and sometimes not-so-courtly) love. Here again, the word evolved.|
|2.||↑||This means ‘free language’, not ‘French language’.|
|3.||↑||I know because I looked it up, and in a bit of a panic. I’ve had them land on me while feeding the pigeons with my daughter. They’re nasty-looking.|
|4.||↑||My mother always told us that no two English words have exactly the same meaning, and I could never prove her wrong. Or at least I couldn’t until I went to medical school: epinephrine and adrenaline have exactly the same origin, ‘(a gland) on the kidney’, and have exactly the same meaning. This pattern even extends to the related compounds, norepinephrine (U.S.) and noradrenaline (U.K.). I know of no others; if you do, please post below.|