Selection for Simplicity
Yet Another Parallel between Linguistic and Biological Evolution
In Evolution myths: Natural selection leads to ever greater complexity, Michael Le Page (2008) at New Scientist tackles the popular misconception that natural selection tends to favor more complex organisms. Contrary to common belief, the reverse is often true. As the first sentence of Le Page’s article reads, “In fact, natural selection often leads to ever greater simplicity. And, in many cases, complexity may initially arise when selection is weak or absent.”
This actually makes a good deal of sense. Viruses, the simplest biological entities on the planet, outnumber all cellular organisms put together. Among cellular organisms, the archaea and the bacteria far outnumber the eukaryotes. Among eukaryotes, single-celled creatures like protozoa, algae, yeasts, and phytoplankton far outnumber obligately multicellular eukaryotes. While it may be argued that the “simpler” organisms were established first and this is why their numbers are higher, the fact that the simpler organisms manage to retain such clear-cut dominance over their more morphologically complex counterparts in spite of the intervening millions (for obligately multicellular eukaryotes) or billions (for everything else) of years while the “more complex” organisms show no signs of supplanting their more Spartan cousins demonstrates that any trends toward increasing complexity have been an incidental side-effect of a larger evolutionary tendency for lineages to remain static with regard to complexity (Carroll, 2001) or to take the reductionist strategy and become simpler (Ochman, 2005).
What does this have to do with language?
The English language has reduced itself over evolutionary time as well. Not only did we dispense with the complex Anglo-Saxon declension system and its various case-denoting suffixes in the transition from Old English to Middle English, but later, in the transition from Early Modern (Jacobean) English to Modern English we completely disposed of our singular second-person pronouns.
According to Analytics of Literature by L. A. Sherman (1893), the length of the average sentence had gradually decreased from as high as 62 words per sentence in the period from 1516 to 1559 (Fabyan, in Sherman, 1893), down to just 20 words per sentence in 1838 (Emerson, in Sherman, 1893). In the 19th century, it was still common to see long, flowing sentences with numerous twists and subclauses and parenthetical asides. A sentence was supposed to represent a single thought, whereas today it seems a sentence is supposed to represent a single breath (which used to be what commas were for!). Paragraphs could go on for several pages, whereas today they’re ideally a sentence or two long.
Issues related to the linguistic evolutionary reduction of English today would be the disappearance of the singular third-person pronouns and the evaporation of the subjunctive verb mood.
So what’s the reason for this reduction? Increasing selective pressure.
Before the Europeans invented their own version of the printing press around the year 1440 C.E., just being able to read and write made you a valued commodity in Europe, and every book was a hand-written piece of art. Authors could be as fancy and as flowery with their prose as they wished. They could indulge themselves in pushing grammar to its limits by nesting phrases and subclauses and asides within one another like Matryoshka dolls, and regard the ability to do so as a kind of high art. They could do this because not many things were being written, which meant that each word was ideally layered with alternate meanings and every sentence pored over and practiced and refined for maximum re-read value. Long, twisting sentences that took a bit of mental work to unpack and revealed new secrets each new time they were read were perfect in an age when new books to read were few and far between. In a low-pressure environment without much to compete with, linguistic complexity had plenty of room to flourish.
Then came the printing press. Mass-produced books. A steady rise in literacy began. More letters were being written. Soon it would behoove writers not to endlessly perfect great masterpieces of language, but to try and output as many new works to feed the hungry masses as possible. Writing became more about quantity than about quality. By the late 20th century, the ideal book was a “page-turner” that one could speed through rather quickly and without even noticing the prose (for prose that called attention to itself was by then viewed very negatively).
In the late 1990s, messaging systems like ICQ and Yahoo! Instant Messenger began proliferating on people’s personal computers, and this too began to change the language. Famously, abbreviations like “LOL” and “BRB” entered the common vernacular. This effect was greatly exaggerated when messenger services began to make their way to cellular phones.
When I took English 101 with Thaddeus Rice at Centralia Community College, we were informed that even over the last couple of decades there’s been a trend toward shorter, choppier sentences and paragraphs, with the trend picking up pace after the year 2000. As we were informed, this mainly had to do with the spread of “infotainment” on the internet; “click-baity” articles with a paragraph-ad-paragraph-ad-paragraph-ad structure that had to be accommodated. More paragraph breaks meant more places to insert ads.
In paragraph eight of The Greatest Migration in Human History, Nicholas Carr concludes that as our society evolves, our brains will adapt to the distractions and demands of the modern world, with our proclivity for “meditative thinking” obsolescing as a result toward nihility. This is reflected in our language, which has become far simpler to suit the needs of the modern world. Just as modern people have lost the ability to think complex thoughts, so too has the ability to follow any but the simplest of sentences disappeared from culture. (There could also be something of a feedback loop at work here: According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, all of this should have had an effect on the way people think. Simpler language broken up into smaller, more digestible units should result in simpler thinking and shorter attention spans. And the common perception does seem to be that attention spans have been getting progressively shorter for the last several generations.)
The English language used to be a linguistic Tyrannosaurus: big, complex, and awe-inspiring. Today, the English language is more like a bacterium: sleek, simplified, streamlined, optimized for highest efficiency. Today’s English is doubtless far more advanced and evolved. But, does that make it “better”? There may be no objective answer to that. I, for one, still like the T. rex.
Carr, N. “The Greatest Migration in Human History” Adbuster (February 17, 2014)https://www.adbusters.org/article/rural-city-cyberspace/
Carroll, SB. (2001) Chance and necessity: the evolution of morphological complexity and diversity. Nature 409. https://www.nature.com/articles/35059227
Le Page, M. (2008) Evolution myths: Natural selection leads to ever greater complexity. New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13617-evolution-myths-natural-selection-leads-to-ever-greater-complexity/
Ochman, H. (2005) Genomes on the shrink. PNAS-USA 102(34) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1189353/
Sherman, LA. (1893) Analytics of Literature: A Manual for the Objective Study of English Prose and Poetry. Ginn & Company https://books.google.com/