Here are some papers I’ve come across lately that you might also find interesting.
1. “Is evolvability evolvable” (here) is by Massimo Pigliucci. Pigliucci has a background in biology (he was a practicing professional evolutionary biologist for many years) but is currently in the phil dept at CUNY (see here). He currently also manages a web blog called Scientia Salon that is often quite amusing (I subscribe) that deals with larger philo questions of interest to the general public. At any rate, the paper above is an interesting run down of the current state of the Modern Synthesis (MS) (the standard theory in evolution) and, in particular, how biologists are trying to supplement it with what is effectively a theory of variation; where does variation come from? Is it actually random? How’s it link to development? The discussion makes all sorts of nice distinctions, like the one between variation and variability. The former depends on “the standing genetic variation,” the latter the potential variation that is as yet unrealized in the population (a distinction that those familiar with the G vs UG distinction should find congenial). This extension of MS is all the rage now, and it will transform how we conceive of evolution, if Pigliucci is right. As he puts it
The heritability end of the spectrum sits squarely within the Modern Synthesis. However, the end of the continuum that deals with major transitions is squarely in the territory that should be covered by the EES (Extended Evolutionary Synthesis-NH). This is not because the new ideas are incompatible with the Modern Synthesis (arguably, nothing in the EES is), but because they introduce new processes that enlarge the scope of the original synthesis and cannot be reasonably subsumed by it without resorting to anachronistic post facto reinterpretations of what that effort was historically about.
In other words, the EES provides new mechanisms to account for evolutionary change. The MS’s main mechanism was natural selection. EES wants to expand the range of explanatory processes. How? Well by constricting the range of possible variation. In other words, natural selection operates over a restricted space of options that the theory of variation aims to explicate. This should all sound very familiar.
Let me add one point: I suspect that to the degree that the theory of variability constrains evolutionary options, to that degree natural selection qua mechanism will seem less and less important. It won’t go away as the options are never unique. But, as in the debate over acquisition, the interesting action may begin to shift from Natural Selection to Variability (learning in a UG context). These are points that people like Chomsky and Fodor have been making for a long time (and have been ridiculed for making it). It is interesting to see that sometimes logic suffices to see which way things ought to go.
2. It seems that the Gallistel-King conjecture is getting traction in the popular science press. We discussed this paper before (here). Chris Dyer sent me this link to a SciAm piece on the topic. It seems that intra-neuron computations are capturing the popular science imagination (see here). The discussion in this article is not that informative, but I think it indicates that the Gallistel conjecture has legs. If so, we might be witnessing a truly magnificent intellectual event: an understanding of how things are from considerations of how they must be. This is theoretical speculation at its best. Very exciting.
3. Here is more on my hobby-rodent: mouse songs. Bill Idsardi sent me this little article (along with sound files). It seems that male mice are real crooners with at least two types of songs at their paw-tips. Interestingly, it seems that the female doesn’t do much singing, though it appears that she can. She just doesn’t. Were female mice Piraha we would conclude form their reluctance to sing that they couldn’t. In other words, we could conclude that mice can’t sing qua mice. We would be wrong, but hey, no reason to ever go beyond the data, right? At least these mice biologists have not confused capacity and behavior.
4. This paper is relevant to our discussion of the receptivity of the general (scientific) public to our kinds of results. This work got big play, including on NPR apparently. What it shows is that kids know a ton and that knowing a ton is what makes it possible for them to know anything else. I don’t recall any papers getting big play where it is argued that kids know nothing and learn it all. That is the default assumption, perhaps, which is why it is not “news.” So these kinds of results are not only news, they are eagerly taken up. I am told that it even got featured on NPR. I would add that child development is not, so far as I know, a general high school subject. Yet this doesn’t prevent the GP from lapping this stuff up. So, though I agree that getting linguistics into high schools would be a fine thing (and a pretty cheap and efficient way to teach the scientific method as Wayne O’Neil has argued for quite a while) there is plenty of room for improvement publicity wise in getting our views out there in the public domain.
5. As many may know, Dennis Ott and Angel Gallego are editing a 50th anniversary of Aspects volume. I’ve just read Paul Pietroski’s contribution and I cannot recommend it highly enough (here). It concentrates on elucidating Chomsky’s related conceptions of descriptive and explanatory adequacy and outlines how these notions are related to questions of language acquisition. The position he comes down on is quite closely related to the one discussed in an early paper by Fodor (discussed here).
To me the most interesting feature of the paper was the way Paul relates these discussions to Goodman’s problem of induction. He notes that Chomsky noted that the central issue is finding the right “vocabulary that makes it possible to construct a certain range of grammars.” Note, the focus is not on the weak or even the strong generative capacity of Gs, but the vocabulary that they are written in. The conclusion: “linguists who want a descriptively adequate theory presumably need to aim for the “higher goal” of characterizing the vocabulary that children use to formulate grammars” (p. 7). Why the emphasis on basic vocabulary? Because the basic vocabulary determines the natural projectable predicates. This is what Goodman showed in 1954 and it is what makes the basic vocabulary the main event. Indeed, absent a specification of the main predicates induction just cannot work as we think it should. Paul rehearses these points in a very accessible manner and shows how central they are to the explanatory enterprise. As he puts it “kids project gruesomely” (read the paper to understand this Goodmanism) and the linguist’s problem is to find the predicates that support such projections. Terrific little paper. Bodes well for the whole volume.
 Indeed, Pigliucci (here) wrote a very critical review of Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini’s book indicating that their main criticism, which to my mind amounted to observing that the MS needed a theory of variation. It is not clear whether he disagreed with their point or whether he thought that the field had already internalized it. If the latter, then whether or not this is “news” or not seems less relevant than whether or not this is true. In this piece Pigliucci seems to agree that it would be a very important addition to MS.