A Conceptual Archeology

Above and below the Sign


Introduction

The Sign is the central concept of linguistics and therefore of human cognition, psychology. It is the combination of signifier and signified in one. It exemplifies representation itself. H. Writing about the Sign in the context of evolution, I found myself pulling back to assumptions, not to be taken for granted, layer after layer. A deep hierarchy of knowledge emerged.

So here is a conceptual zooming in, focussing my lens down from the very broadest of what we know to the most specific bits that make us most human, a sort of conceptual archeology of human language and cognition. I wrote this essay backwards, and it came out unintentionally and to my surprise. It challenges you, dear reader, to carry out the familiar task of reading in a slightly different way. The repetition of the word "first" may intrigue you into looking back and seeing the relationships, where one idea might break into others. You may find yourself becoming an conceptual archeologist. Fun!

It started at the end, saying "First" (as a linguist would, considering the fundamental concept of the linguistic Sign). Trying, I'd have one view of things and start writing, first X, then Y, then Z. Then I'd realize X didn't start with X but itself includes M, N, O. Then I'd realize M didn't actually start things either but itself started with A, B, C. Then, etc., you see how this goes. So "First" below means just that at one point I was thinking in a certain frame and in that frame this thing came first. But you'll notice that "First" isn't actually written first except at the very first, now not even then. So you might think about what you see and can read here, as a sort of archeology of the process of writing it, rather than as a digested process of reading it. Maybe that'll be more fun, to follow along with my actual process of thinking, than to consume something fully pre-digested. You of course, get to have your own process of thinking, and maybe putting it in this order will encourage you. So here I write at the first, what's actually the end of a certain path of thinking through what's below:

Strata of Knowledge

First, we have no idea.

First, we have the possible laws of physics.

First, we have our laws of quantum and relativistic physics.

First, we have the big bang and everything as plasma and quarks flying about.

First, we have hydrogen clouds, coagulating, and nuclear fusion.

First, we have our (first) sun, atomic physics, filling up of the periodic table of elements, and a collapsar supernova event.

First, we have chemistry with heavy elements in a planet around our (second, current) sun.

First, we have a hydrocarbonaceous watery environment with biochemistry and a cycling, available energy source.

First, we have a replication engine and materials.

First, we have accelerated metabolic biochemical pathways to get more done.

First, we have cell walls containing stuff doing stuff replicatably. (See On the Origin of Life, written 14 years ago, evidently in advance of, yet surprisingly consistent with, the latest thinking, with its RNA world preceding cell wall structure.)

Functors vs. Cues vs. Signals

First let's talk about information within biological systems, and conceptually evolving toward human language.

Functors

First, we have something that acts as a FUNCTOR which is REPEATABLE and USEFUL, which, let's say by definition, separates the doing from what makes the doing go: it initiates (and probably is the first part of) a specialized, available, and useful function, transmitting the information that that function (the rest of it) is to be carried out. So yes at this point the functor itself might also participate in carrying out the function but at least we have some separation between, first, the initiation which represents, by its association with the process, the information that the function is to be carried out, and second the actual carrying out and completion of the action function. So this includes bio-chemical stuff like protein signalling, gene expression controls, RNA machinery triggering and cascades, etc. Viruses already have functors in them, and the stuff inside cells and organelles are no doubt full of them. Already there is lots of information involved, there might be transmission of a trigger within or between cells, there might be some degree of abstraction across distinct but similar and equally effective triggers because the functor is distinct and once activated it cascades to a behavior which is distinct and both are suitable for a variety of related similar contexts therefore there is abstraction.

Cues

First conceptually is the CUE, which is a functor that is uptakeable, that is to say, it works across a greater separation between the source of relevant information and the distinct behavior which is influenced by it. Being more separate, for example having the source be outside the implementing cell or organ or organism, means that the relationship of trigger to effect is removed from and in a way abstracted from the behavior-implementing process.

Whereas when a functor carries out a biological function through a direct biochemical reaction pathway, we consider there to be information present at the initiation point in the sense that, as viewed from outside, one path is chosen to be taken instead of another, but in the implementing reality it's more that some particular chemical is present in some particular concentration, which makes the changed behavior occur, and only from the outside analyst's perspective acts like information in the abstract, although from the Darwinian perspective it is is the functionality of the response in perpetuating the species which is essential, and as extensively argued above this can also be considered logical or informational rather than merely chemical.

On the other hand in the case of a CUE, there is a greater separation between trigger and outcome along with some form of detection system comprising with specialized detector units, cells, organelles; perhaps there is optionality of the detection event based on organismal priming such as hunger or other prioritized need state; and in this separation we automatically acquire abstraction across stimuli, for if there is any process of detection, it will operate over a variety of stimuli and those might be more or less different yet still inducing the detector to respond, and thereby leading to the same triggered response/behavior/activity carried out by the recipient/responding organism. This pattern, where a variety of stimuli leads to a fixed response, amounts to categorization by the organism.

Given these characteristics of SEPARATION of organism-internal detector from the information source in the external environment, of OPTIONALITY, of ABSTRACTION, and of CATEGORIZATION, we can think of the process as being representational. Thus the existence of cues, or cuing, means the cue-responsive organism implements an abstract categorical representation of external reality.

Said organism might not, it surely does not, contain a motorola microcontroller with bits and actuators and serial ports and compiled code from a high-level language, sure, but what it does can be, and to get the logic right (that is, both, to be survivable evolutionarily and to be understandable by us) it must be understandable as an abstract, categorical, world-representing system. That's what "implements an abstract, categorical representation of external reality" means. Maybe you will wonder what a logic compiler might correspond to in biology.

In addition, with optionality we also can consider motivated framing. If the organism might or might not take up a particular cue in any given moment or circumstance based on its own reasons, we can think of it as operating as though it has a directed purpose, a motivated frame, an organized and effective hierarchy of goals, in short an emotional universe, because whether or not there are internal data structures with those labels in the software of the organism, the behavior of the organism will be as if it did. For example, it may chase food when it's hungry but instead will escape predators or toxins even if it's hungry when those are detected, etc.

The logical hierarchy of what we see in its behavior when confronted with different circumstances, that is, what we can infer about its decisionmaking, had better be functional in the Darwinian sense if the organism is to succeed evolutionarily; if it eats even while being eaten then that one might not survive another generation, but if it will postpone eating until it can escape from being eaten, then survival and propagation might be optimized. In this way we need have no idea how the prioritization is done by the organism, but certainly it must do it, for the logic of its universe demands it. Perhaps there is competitive mutual downregulation between alternative behavior-generating processes even within the cell or organelle. The logic of how that competition resolves in different circumstances shows the effective goals and priorities of the organism. That is, goal prioritization and operating within a motivational frame must exist very early in the hierarchy of organisms, so long as multiple outcomes are required for survival and reproduction.

To summarize on cues, they are not just detectable and distinguishable but also understandable within the motivational frame and representational or cognitive capacities of the recipient. A cue doesn't need a sender with an intention but only a recipient responding to a distinction. Cues may be, (N1) first, internal cues as in cell-internal biochemical conditions taken notice of by biochemical pathways which functionally respond thereto, and (N2) second external as in organism-external conditions detected by the organism and used to adjust behavior functionally. (N1 jumps to N2 by more than one step, thus there may be intermediate levels between them so that one could distinguish, for example, cell-external but organism-internal cues, e.g., some cells' characteristics or behavior somehow cuing responses to other cells in an organism, as in organs aiding the homeostasis of the body; or for example, digestive-processing cues that are sort-of-inside, sort-of-outside the organism.)

So to give an example, a male bullfrog being extra big is a cue that female bullfrogs may use to choose it as a mate; there is uptake of information without a sending event; the boy just IS, rather than specifically carrying out a bit of behavior which SAYS. (Labov distinguishes cues from signals in this sense in sociolinguistics, or for example dialect perception.)

Signs

First (we can stop the conceptual archeology here, this is where it started: was that a fun ride?), we have the SIGN which is repeatable and useful like a functor, which in the event of its optional uptake, abstracts and categorizes a separate external reality, like a cue, and further includes having a FORM which is PRODUCIBLE by senders and detectable and DISTINGUISHABLE by recipients, and also has a MEANING, which again is abstract, useful, understandable within the motivated frame and cognitive capabilities of the recipient. The chicken/egg question between the meaning and the form of the sign is hereby answered: the meaning comes first (in conceptual archeology), for meaning is established in cuing, whereas a producible, distinguishable form is added to cuing to develop, in general, the sign.

Second (finally there is a second, after a first), we have a relatively rich perceptual capacity, so that more signs could potentially exist and be distinguished, though for the moment that capacity may not be used. Here we need fairly detailed perceptual and behavioral systems for this to happen, but that's not too much to ask, since even flies have many eyeballs and bees can dance at many different angles up and down the beehive wall.

Third, the number of signs not just potentially but actually increasing above one so that now there is a vocabulary.

The bee dance might or might not be considered multiple vocabulary items, really it's an analog representation of food source distance and direction, with essentially continuous (down to the resolution level of bees as dancers and as audience). A hard-boiled discretist phonologist insisting on discrete analysis might divide all the horizontal directions from upwind to downwind on left and right into a discrete set, and declare that bees have discrete, phonology-like categorization in their communication system, and since the resolution is limited to what bees on their crowded dance walls can differentiate, the phonologist can never be wrong. On the other hand a continuous-parameter-friendly phonetician might remind everyone we're actually talking about continuous values here, but at a low resolution. You figure it out.

If we're talking about vocal signing, we presuppose in a parallel conceptual archeology of logical dependency, each required before the next:

Fourth, we have an analysis of potentially complex signs into parts such as hand position versus hand movements or parts in time a.k.a. sequences. Notice especially the consonant vowel sequence, which is itself inevitable given anatomy specialized to be a signal source, at the glottis, anatomically separate from the sound-shaping downstream anatomy that provides a long, enclosing, resonant chamber and zones of more or less closure along the vocal tract, such as the lips. As vocal tract movements go from more closure to more opening, the consonant vowel sequence arises automatically.

Let's have a evolutionary run-through with an eye on phonology, then. And after we'll come back to the CV sequence and the enablement of large vocabularies.

Evolution of Phonology

In the above conceptual archeology of increasingly human language like systems, there never appeared a moment in which the brain had suddenly evolved to incorporate a new silicon or other discrete-logic-based module comprised of a digital, binary, finite state, representational machine for the phonological system with established bits for labiality and velarity and nasality etc. Such models are scientific abstractions, however pretty to phonologists. No, on the contrary there has long been, before combinatory signing, a given, pre-existing, anatomical and functional production-and-perception system capable of making a variety of detectable, distinguishable, reliably producible sounds, repurposed from the mammalian aerodigestive, breathing/eating/puking orifice and passageway which obviously was already multi-purpose.

Let's take one phonological feature, the glottal state bit known in Chomsky's Sound Pattern of English as [Voice]. Where did the glottis come from, indeed, this sound source separate and deep in the vocal tract? It goes far back on the evolutionary tree to land animals with lungs. Does it go back to gilled fishes? Once you have lungs (or gills) and you double-use your food orifice for respiration, you will also need a larynx. So in the reptile aero-digestive tract, the larynx is a simple breathway tee-valve to keep the food out of the lungs, its structure being the larynx itself, and its closing elements being the ligaments of the glottis.

This weird buzzy widget develops and ramifies miraculously across species. Who knew?! In a variety of mammals, muscles can jam the larynx right up inside behind the nose, with the glottis open, so that nasal sniffing, smelling, and breathing can all go on continuously while the mouth is being used simultaneously to suckle, swill, or strangle, to catch, carry, or chew. It is freaky to imagine.

Kids, don't try these at home! Our human larynx of course won't allow it. We have to either breathe or swallow, not both at once, not safely. Because our larynx doesn't plug up inside the nasopharynx in humans, instead it hangs low, between a relatively lengthened oral cavity and a shortened esophagus, and the epiglottis and glottis redundantly cover and protect the airway tee branch to the trachea and lungs from drippings or food. Worse, the larynx is grossly enlarged, and even more lowly hung in the male of the species, but in either sex making a supra-glottal resonant chamber even better for loud vibrating sounds. We call them vowels. But it was long before humans that the glottal ligaments became evolutionarily useful in noisemaking, loud noisemaking, on behalf of their owners. For dogs bark, prairie dogs yip, rats squeal, all these providing noisemaking power antecedent to the ramifications of phonology. Not that the lowered and larger larynx didn't further develop with the same evolutionary benefit of more resonating power.

Yes, given that the inherited system could make some sounds is a good enough starting point.

But before that had to evolve the aero-digestive oral tract, with a digestive passageway, passageway for air, passageway separator (larynx etc.), tongue, teeth, and lips, along with sub-oral components like the digestive tract itself, or the lungs and the diaphragm to push on them. First a digestion capability to transform raw environmental findings to incorporateable nutrition. (First there was exterior digestion: octopi, spiders, placozoans, and fungi apparently all digest foods at least partly outside their bodies.) Then an enclosure for digestion, which being an enclosure had to comprise a cavity (to hold the work) and a mouth for controlled transit: letting in (eating), and letting out (excreting), keeping in (preventing escape of the doomed), and keeping out (preventing ingress of non-foods).

First, we might could benefit from a passageway through, to speed up and specialize processing steps for food, since a single sac with regurgitating of waste like jellyfishes means all the steps have to be available in the same space and they may interfere in time, space, or process, making the digestive process inefficient or weak. To the rescue, perhaps a single mutation could double the enclosure count from 1 to 2, with a connection between, with an initial efficiency advantage from the fact that now stuff can be ejected from one end while being ingested at the other, being faster than intermittent operation of swallow-then-spit. The passageway and other opening being advantageous from the start, specialization of digestive processing at different points along the passageway might evolve to make the system even more efficient, able to get more nutrition from worse food, thus expanding the reachable universe for life. And so we discover.

Among Tongue, Lips, Teeth, what evolved first? Was it the tongue first to position and move food inward? Then lips second to contain food and keep it from backing out -- which is logically second because you don't need to contain what you can't position and draw inward. Yet the body's orientation and approach could, perhaps less efficiently, do the work of positioning and drawing inward, without yet a tongue, so the reverse order seems sensible. Do jellyfish have lips? Either way, teeth seem to come third to improve the food capture and processing part: Sharp hard bits have their uses.

I am a bit confused about lungs and voluntary breathing through the aero-digestive tract. Perhaps evolution was, as we might say in personifying its actions, trying a wild variety of options as tetrapods moved from water to land. I suppose fish with gills already have mouth-to-gill ventilation of the organs; and I thought some fish have external gills: well, how could those move down into the abdomen? Evidently the creatures might be more able to be out of water by having air-oxygen incorporating tissues on their outside. Then cover these air-gills for keeping them suitably wet and uninjured so that it can bash about on land survivably. Then provide active yet non-distracting ventilation for them, for even more safety, perhaps back out the mouth rather than through gill outlets in the side of the neck. Not sure how that proceeded. It seems a pretty unlikely, even a sharp, mutation to move an organ from the outside of the neck to the inside of the ribs, but once there it might more gradually evolve a trachea, brachii, and lung sac alveoli, but by now you essentially have evolved lungs and you can climb onto the land.

Could the shutoff valve larynx have evolved after the aerodigestive tee shaped tract? Certainly it would be useful in such a context. To solve the chicken-egg problem, perhaps there were two passageways competing for the narrow neck transit space, say we'll call one opening a "nose" when it's the air passageway, and we'll call it a "mouth" when it goes to the food passageway, and then there needed to be some stiff, cartilaginous, membraneous structure just to keep their tubes apart and allow simultaneous use despite both sharing the tight spaces of a neck. Once it became a single organ, with two inputs and two outputs, it could simplify to become a tee valve, adding some evolutionary value at this step also. Because it is advantageous for air and food to be able to share a passageway, and then the fact we have both mouth and nose today would be an evolutionary holdover from when the mouth couldn't be used for air. Somewhat persuasive, but I don't know any physical archeology that bears on this. It would seem to be early, and maybe we're talking about when we were still fish.

Large vocabularies

Once the phonologically-relevant anatomy, energy sources and pressure chambers, controllable airflows and noise-making and noise-shaping capacities, and their muscular coordination and higher-level control systems are evolutionarily in place, sufficient to produce a variety of auditorily distinguishable opening- and closing- gestures along with tract-held-open, loudly resonant sounds, fixed or not-very-rapidly changing in perceived quality, we have a foundation for large vocabularies. Reflected in perception, imitation, practice, and thought, these conveniently loud and numerous, sub-reaction-time-duration, overlapping, gesture orchestrations are increasingly tightly orchestrated in time, and also eventually analyseable, if one cared to, in logic, as discrete, consonant + vowel sequences. With analysis, or at least consistent diffentiability, comes the intelligent miracle of combination, so that the different, analyzed, and now combinable, sound or sign forms can be combined as parts, together, in different sequences, or perhaps in combinations that are non-sequential, such as sign language signs, etc. It's not a miracle to be able to do more than one thing, but to do multiple things at once with an awareness of the combined effect, where the intention resides in the combination of effects not the individual effects combined, that is the miracle of linguistic intelligence. And yet such a natural next step, once the prerequisites are in place.

If a class of organism has evolved to this point, then it has the capability of larger, even extremely large vocabularies.

In a vocabulary of signs, logically each inherits the characteristics of being a sign, a cue, and a functor: being useful, uptakeable, repeatable, optional, abstract, expressible, detectable, distinguishable, etc.

Evolution of language above the Sign

Signs may exist in a one-word universe, perhaps prairie dogs have this. At some point in evolution, miracle of miracles, an increasing number of signs available for use can be expressed in sequential combination, producing the two word utterance (perhaps in unordered juxtaposition, perhaps not yet predicative in meaning). Because for example, if you have BLOOD to help in the business of eating you can use that for RED and since even rats have deixis to point in a direction now you can comment on the sunset, with RED+thataway and once you have a word for directions then you can say RED+UP. In this way already surprising things can be stated like RED+SKY if there is a forest fire outside the cave this morning, etc.

After a two-word phase the evolution of human language is pretty simple, you will start to have multi-word expressions, more than two, and you will have systematic relationships among the word types like for example you will distinguish nouns and verbs and adjectives and then you will use noticeable conventions like order or explicit marking, etc., to indicate some distinguishable relationships like predication or topic/comment structures perhaps in a clear case.

I should think that predicate-argument structures would evolve in the order first arguments, then predicates, since a predicate presupposes, only makes sense given the pre-existence of, arguments. Therefore one might consider that Noun evolved before Verb evolved, if nouns are arguments and verbs are predicates, but again, imperative verbs can have their arguments implicit in the context and thus could be linguistically independent and therefore evolutionarily unordered.

Similarly adverbs like Now in [Shoot the Mammoth] Now! can be understood as having the action and the participants all implicit in the living context and the mind of not just the speaker but the other participants as well.

In this way the evolution of a linguistic modifier like Now need not follow the evolution of its linguistic prerequisite, since that prerequisite may preexist cognitively rather than linguistically, in the mind rather than expressed explicitly in speech. In this way the cognitive system of the species predates and supports the lingistic system of the species, providing for implicit shared structures for reasoning, and into which communicated forms fit as aid for an orchestration of shared thought by participants in a shared community with shared experiences and shared goals and values. The primary system is the system of individual and shared thought, of mutual knowledge and cooperation, that the community members share, but an evolutionary ramification of this, enabling increasingly complex orchestration, is the explicit world of, now shall we call it, linguistic communication. We might assume that all linguistic structure pre-exists in the shared cognitive structure, since likely some of it certainly did, else how could communication even succeed.

But such caveats don't seem to me to apply to claims like these: subordinate clauses could only evolve after clauses; prepositions and postpositions only after the phrasal units that they include as required internal constituents.

Next, something might not quite fit with the usual interpretive schema for most cases, but with that schema or form or structural relationship regularly used and established its usual circumstances it might still usefully be re-used, the form which is anyway separate from its interpretation, can be imposed on the interpretively-ill-fitting case, and users may go ahead with it, and now the linguist will be able extract required structures that fail to have consistent semantic interpretation and that means phrasal syntax.

Finally you get Chomskyan Merge which gives recursion. You can't recurse on a category unless you already have that category. Thus we have ordered quite a lot of human language evolution into a sequence of developments, at each point there being a coherent useful and structured system benefiting its users by some higher degree of getting on the same page, social coordination, and thus better survival and reproduction for those capable of it. And by now you have human language, with vocabulary, syntax, and semantics.

Next, we will touch on pragmatics, and finally follow along again with the evolution of phonetics, which is very cool.

Pragmatics before the Sign

Pragmatics of course has to exist once sign interpretation is optional or you might say voluntary, and since optionality is present in cuing systems, it follows that pragmatics had to exist even during a cuing-only stage of species development. Does the cue imply cooperation with a con-specific? A receiver might calculate the reliability or unreliability of the sender's cue, might infer alternative conclusions from those normally inferred from the cue, might have an effective representation of 'self' and 'non-self' or even of 'other' and a world of other impinging abstractions with which to effectively reason about the cue and its meaning for the receiver. These are pragmatic possibilities before the linguistic sign ever arises.

Three of the four Gricean implicature rules in the field of pragmatics seem to fail to apply within the universe of cues. Consider (1) quantity, (2) quality, (3) relation, and (4) manner.

(1) FAIL: Does the cue, if it includes a QUANTITY, imply that the maximum, or perhaps the minimum, quantity involved is the one indicated by the cue, or just that the cued quantity is within some inferrable but unknown range? It seems that the quantity cued is exactly the actual quantity in the cue itself, so that implicature toward set maxima or minima are neither relevant nor reasonably, customarily, inferrable.

(2) SUCCEED: Does the cue imply the QUALITY of truthfulness? We do see species that try to fool each other, but cues wouldn't have value if there weren't useful, i.e., sufficiently true, information involved.

(3) FAIL: Does the cue have proper RELATION to the goals of the cue-detecting organism, or is it rather an irrelevance or distraction? Since a goal-directed organism may need to explore in the weeds until it finds what it needs to move forward, this Gricean issue of relatedness, relevance, or pertinence, seems to be in the eye of the beholder, and not packaged therefor by any cue-er. The maxim of relation applies only at or above the level of the sign, it appears.

(4) FAIL: Does the cue provide the needed information in a clear, brief, orderly, evident, and unambiguous way? Again this is in the eye of the beholder. It is the job of the perceiver to perceive what is useful in a world of noise, whether that is an easy job or a hard one. So the maxim of manner again seems to be useless in reasoning at the cue level, therefore applicable only at or above the level of the sign.

So much for pragmatics.

Summary

This conceptual archeology, excavated backwards while thinking about the evolution of signs, excavated forwards while thinking of the richness of current human language, has been a fun exercise. It is a scaffold built of logical dependency, itself built of tautology. Numbers are counted in order; language is built also, in order.
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Modified: January 30, 2022.