Evolutionary game theory

Some thoughts on evolutionary game theory and its applicability in diachronic linguistics, originally prepared for Postgridiots in 2014.


I review some basic concepts from Evolutionary Game Theory (EGT), a general mathematical framework for thinking about the competition and propagation of features or traits in arbitrary populations. While the origins of EGT lie in evolutionary biology, particularly in modelling individual contests in environments with limited resources, the framework has potential applications in fields as diverse as sociology, economics and linguistics, and adoption of the framework need not imply any sort of “biologism”, as I will argue. The framework does, however, hinge crucially on the notion of fitness or utility, which may be cause for some worry. I illustrate its workings with the replicator–mutator equation, a simpl(e|istic) way of modelling the dynamics of something like competing parameterizations of UG in syntax, and note that interesting things are happening in semantics and pragmatics as well, though not many people are aware of them and a resistance to exploring idealized mathematical models exists within the linguistic community.