The mystery of language evolution

  • May 9, 2014
The mystery of language evolution

The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of humans' linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, despite many hypotheses, according to a new study.

The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of humans’ linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, despite many hypotheses, according to a new study.

The article, The mystery of language evolution, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, has been co-authored by Gates Cambridge Scholar Jeffrey Watumull [2010] and other linguistics experts including Professor Noam Chomsky.

The researchers say that understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that have led to change. It says that 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. However, the researchers argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by “a poverty of evidence” and that there is “essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved”.

They show that, to date, studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity. They also argue that the fossil and archaeological evidence does not support academic understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved. It criticises too an “impoverished” understanding of the genetics of language and says there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon. Furthermore, it states that all modeling attempts have made “unfounded assumptions” and have provided no empirical tests. “This leaves any insights into language’s origins unverifiable,” say the researchers.

They conclude: “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.”

They suggest some ways forward through advances in comparative animal behavior, paleontology, neurobiology and archaeology as well as a more in-depth understanding of gene-phenotype mapping. They say: “This would open the door to more relevant genomics and modeling. These are all big IFs about the nature and possibility of future evidence. Until such evidence is brought forward, understanding of language evolution will remain one of the great mysteries of our species.”

Picture credit: franky242 and www.freedigitalphotos.net

Latest News

Knowledge gap on zoonotic disease transmission highlighted

The impact of climate change on migration patterns, particularly in areas which depend on agriculture and livestock, could affect zoonotic disease transmission yet little research has been done to date. A new study, led by Gates Cambridge Scholar and Veterinary Science PhD student Dorien Braam [2018], looks at the research that currently exists, but calls […]

Addressing climate change in words and action

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has called for the US federal government to establish a national, robust and legally binding net-zero target that emphasises comprehensiveness, equity and clarity on the role of offsets.  In an opinion piece in Arizona Republic, Stephen Lezak and his co-authors, including Kate Gallego, the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona, which has done […]

Gates Cambridge mentors: forging bonds and giving back

The Gates Cambridge Scholars Council has been running a mentoring programme since 2018 as part of an effort to bring alumni and scholars closer together, build a stronger sense of community and to give mentors a chance to give back. This year has seen a big increase in the number of mentors coming forward, with […]

Scholar joins COP26 net-zero initiative

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been appointed as a climate change consultant on a new consortium working on a net-zero vision for the world ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference [COP26] in November. Ramit Debnath will be working on designing the India net-zero profile chapter of the vision along with in-country experts. The international […]