A pinboard by
this curator

PhD student in Biological Anthropology, specializing in the behavior and evolution of monkeys.


Language is the most unusual of all human behaviors. How did we, alone, develop this unique ability?

Most organisms can communicate. Even single-celled organisms have membrane proteins that allow them to transfer all sorts of information from one individual to another. But no other organism has language.

What makes language so unusual? And why did humans develop it while no other animal ever has?

Language differs from almost all other forms of animal vocalization in the way it interacts with the brain. Most animals communicate automatically, using innate calls that they never have to learn. These calls are controlled by emotional systems in the brain, not by voluntary systems - most animals can't "choose" whether or not to vocalize.

This ancient, emotional system is still present in humans, and it controls many of our other vocalizations: sobbing, laughing, screaming, etc. But language is controlled by totally different systems! That's why crying or laughing can prevent you from speaking: two different parts of your brain are competing for control over your mouth and throat muscles!

OK, so why do we have this strange system?

Obviously there are lots of good evolutionary reasons to have such an ability: it makes us better at coordinating hunting behaviors, for example. But lions are also adept hunters, and could certainly benefit from having language. And they've had just as long to evolve it as we have - so what's different? Why us and not them?

No one is exactly sure how to answer this question. In these articles, you'll see some of the top minds of the current generation debating the question of where language comes from and why it exists at all. It's one of the most hotly-debated questions in evolutionary anthropology today!


Conceptual and empirical problems with game theoretic approaches to language evolution.

Abstract: The importance of game theoretic models to evolutionary theory has been in formulating elegant equations that specify the strategies to be played and the conditions to be satisfied for particular traits to evolve. These models, in conjunction with experimental tests of their predictions, have successfully described and explained the costs and benefits of varying strategies and the dynamics for establishing equilibria in a number of evolutionary scenarios, including especially cooperation, mating, and aggression. Over the past decade or so, game theory has been applied to model the evolution of language. In contrast to the aforementioned scenarios, however, we argue that these models are problematic due to conceptual confusions and empirical difficiences. In particular, these models conflate the comptutations and representations of our language faculty (mechanism) with its utility in communication (function); model languages as having different fitness functions for which there is no evidence; depend on assumptions for the starting state of the system, thereby begging the question of how these systems evolved; and to date, have generated no empirical studies at all. Game theoretic models of language evolution have therefore failed to advance how or why language evolved, or why it has the particular representations and computations that it does. We conclude with some brief suggestions for how this situation might be ameliorated, enabling this important theoretical tool to make substantive empirical contributions.

Pub.: 29 Mar '14, Pinned: 25 Apr '17

The mystery of language evolution.

Abstract: Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, (1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; (2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; (3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; (4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language's origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.

Pub.: 23 May '14, Pinned: 25 Apr '17

The language capacity: architecture and evolution.

Abstract: There is substantial evidence that the human language capacity (LC) is a species-specific biological property, essentially unique to humans, invariant among human groups, and dissociated from other cognitive systems. Each language, an instantiation of LC, consists of a generative procedure that yields a discrete infinity of hierarchically structured expressions with semantic interpretations, hence a kind of "language of thought" (LOT), along with an operation of externalization (EXT) to some sensory-motor system, typically sound. There is mounting evidence that generation of LOT observes language-independent principles of computational efficiency and is based on the simplest computational operations, and that EXT is an ancillary process not entering into the core semantic properties of LOT and is the primary locus of the apparent complexity, diversity, and mutability of language. These conclusions are not surprising, since the internal system is acquired virtually without evidence in fundamental respects, and EXT relates it to sensory-motor systems that are unrelated to it. Even such properties as the linear order of words appear to be reflexes of the sensory motor system, not available to generation of LOT. The limited evidence from the evolutionary record lends support to these conclusions, suggesting that LC emerged with Homo sapiens or not long after, and has not evolved since human groups dispersed.

Pub.: 03 Jul '16, Pinned: 25 Apr '17

The evolution of the language faculty: clarifications and implications.

Abstract: In this response to Pinker and Jackendoff's critique, we extend our previous framework for discussion of language evolution, clarifying certain distinctions and elaborating on a number of points. In the first half of the paper, we reiterate that profitable research into the biology and evolution of language requires fractionation of "language" into component mechanisms and interfaces, a non-trivial endeavor whose results are unlikely to map onto traditional disciplinary boundaries. Our terminological distinction between FLN and FLB is intended to help clarify misunderstandings and aid interdisciplinary rapprochement. By blurring this distinction, Pinker and Jackendoff mischaracterize our hypothesis 3 which concerns only FLN, not "language" as a whole. Many of their arguments and examples are thus irrelevant to this hypothesis. Their critique of the minimalist program is for the most part equally irrelevant, because very few of the arguments in our original paper were tied to this program; in an online appendix we detail the deep inaccuracies in their characterization of this program. Concerning evolution, we believe that Pinker and Jackendoff's emphasis on the past adaptive history of the language faculty is misplaced. Such questions are unlikely to be resolved empirically due to a lack of relevant data, and invite speculation rather than research. Preoccupation with the issue has retarded progress in the field by diverting research away from empirical questions, many of which can be addressed with comparative data. Moreover, offering an adaptive hypothesis as an alternative to our hypothesis concerning mechanisms is a logical error, as questions of function are independent of those concerning mechanism. The second half of our paper consists of a detailed response to the specific data discussed by Pinker and Jackendoff. Although many of their examples are irrelevant to our original paper and arguments, we find several areas of substantive disagreement that could be resolved by future empirical research. We conclude that progress in understanding the evolution of language will require much more empirical research, grounded in modern comparative biology, more interdisciplinary collaboration, and much less of the adaptive storytelling and phylogenetic speculation that has traditionally characterized the field.

Pub.: 23 Aug '05, Pinned: 25 Apr '17