Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Taylor and Darwin

Tonight I am reading volume 2 of The Alphabet by Isaac Taylor, 1883. Although I do not regard Taylor as the beginning of writing system theory, his work does occupy a pivotal position in the canon of literature about scripts. Is Isaac Taylor to the science of scripts what Darwin is to biology? A good question. Here is what Taylor wrote about Darwin in his epilogue.

"The scientific revolution, of which Darwin has been the great apostle, is rapidly extending itself to all departments of human knowledge. Discarding the obsolete notion of arbitrary invention or creation, we seek for self-acting causes adequate to produce the results which are detected by minute research. We ask, not only what a thing is, but how it came to be what it is." p. 363. Taylor follows this up with a discussion of continuity with both slow differentiation and assimilation. His epilogue makes for an interesting short essay.

I wonder if it is entirely fair of Taylor to imply that it was only in his day that theorists abandoned the "obsolete notion of arbitrary invention" of writing. After all Vico and Diderot wrote about scripts in the 18th century and one could hardly imagine that they thought of scripts as "arbitrarily created". However, they may have catalogued and attempted to categorize scripts without any reference to how they evolved. More about these authors another day.

It took me a while to identify the author of The Alphabet as there are quite a few Isaac Taylor's and these are mainly differentiated by their birthdates. I am reading from Isaac Taylor, 1829 to 1901. The library I am using only has volume 2.

Later in his discussion of the principle of evolution and how it applies to scripts, Taylor says, "The law of least effort brings about the attrition and degradation of the forms of words as well as letters. Thus they become gradually less and less itelligible, the object for which they exist is defeated, till at last the law of efficiency comes into play, and regeneration ensues by means of minute differentiation, and by the survival of the fittest forms, and the disappearance of the less fit. " p. 364

I want to sort this out right here and now, yes Darwin did say "survival of the fittest" but he was quoting Spencer. So it was Spencer's phrase but Darwin did say it. From John Barlett's Quotations: Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882: "The expression used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient." "Origin of the Species" (1859). Taylor quoting Darwin quoting Spencer.


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