17.12.2019: John W. Du Bois


Coupling for Life

Evolving Linguistic Complexity in the Dialogic Niche

John W. Du Bois

University of California, Santa Barbara


            Every living organism faces ultimately the same problem: how to avoid decay into thermodynamic equilibrium (death). According to Schrodinger (1943), the organism solves this by "continually sucking orderliness from its environment".  Evolution has discovered many different ways of life, each defined by a strategy for coupling with the environment to extract order and information from it. Yet the human way of life is unique in the variety, novelty, and rapidity of its coupling strategies, as reflected in the diversity of languages, cultures, and practices. Cultural accumulation has given us unprecedented power to shape our own adaptive niche, as we collaborate to solve the novel coupling problems posed by each new environment. To learn the "secret of our success" (Henrich, 2016), we must ask how human hypersociality (Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne & Moll, 2005) motivates us to couple our attention, emotions, thoughts, and actions with others, as we enact the "extended mind" that makes cultural accumulation possible (Clark, 2008). But an extended mind must have efficient and embodied ways of coupling its cognitive work across the minds and brains of collaborating individuals (Abney, Dale, Louwerse & Kello, 2018; Abney, Warlaumont, Oller, Wallot & Kello, 2017; Dikker, Wan, Davidesco, Kaggen, Oostrik, McClintock, Rowland, Michalareas, Van Bavel, Ding & Poeppel, 2017; Hasson, Ghazanfar, Galantucci, Garrod & Keysers, 2012; Hutchins & Johnson, 2009; Kolodny & Edelman, 2018; Silbert, Honey, Simony, Poeppel & Hasson, 2014). This leads to my central question: How does language help humans create new ways of coupling for life?

            In this talk I draw on evidence from naturally occurring conversation (Du Bois, Chafe, Meyer, Thompson, Englebretson & Martey, 2000-2005) to argue that what makes the human way of life possible is our unique capacity for rapid, reversible "soft" coupling through language. In human life, coupling operates on at least four levels. (1) Conversational collaborators couple their words, thoughts, emotions, bodies, and actions through a variety of Dialogue Engagement Strategies, grounded in dialogic resonance (Du Bois, 2014). (2) Out of the dynamic flux of discourse, strategies that work are abstracted, reified, and grammaticized as linguistic and sociocultural constructs. (3) These constructs are invoked by participants to mediate coupling with both the material environment and the social environment. (4) The evolving grammar supports discourse plasticity, which in turn allows the emergence of new forms of linguistic complexity within coupled structures, fostering the development of creativity in social and cultural life. In the end, human life and language are mediated, and evolve, through strategies for coupling in the dialogic niche.



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