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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Darwin & Linguistics

Stephen Alter, an associate professor of history at Gordon College, spoke about "Charles Darwin, Family Trees of Language, and the Plausibility of Evolutionary Decent" last night at Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts. Alter, the author of Darwinism and the Linguistic Image, showed how Darwin used an analogy between a linguistic family tree and a biological family tree to get his nineteenth-century audience in the habit of thinking in terms of common decent. Darwin used linguistic family trees that showed increasing variations of the common ancestral language to help his readers imagine the plausibility of a common ancestor in a biological family tree—and to make the idea easier to understand. “Darwin knew he was going to be speaking to a broad audience, and he wrote that way," said Alter. Interestingly, Alter said that the analogy that Darwin used to reach readers' "scientific imagination" had a "biblical basis"; the idea of a common ancestor supports the idea of "monogenesis," or one creation, while also supporting the multiplication of species through evolution, which leads to increasing diversity over time. —Kaitlin Shimer