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

Tracing the origins of our political beliefs

What makes some people more vulnerable to extremism than others? How do we build cognitive resilience against extreme ideologies? And how does the brain react to misinformation on social media? These are some of the key political questions that political neuroscientist Leor Zmigrod [2016] is exploring, putting the science into our understanding of radicalisation.   Leor […]

A leading woman in STEAM

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been selected as one of the 75 leading women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics in India. Yama Dixit will feature in the second edition of the book She Is, published by the Red Dot Foundation in partnership with the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser, Government of India to mark 75 […]

Tackling the obesity epidemic in Africa

When she left school, Paula-Peace James-Okoro [2022] intended to become a medical doctor, but after starting a degree in Biochemistry she discovered a passion for the subject and for using it to address one of the major health challenges facing Africa – obesity. She says: “In Africa, the rates of metabolic diseases, like obesity and […]

Triple win for Bill Gates Sr. Prize

For the first time three Gates Cambridge Scholars are sharing this year’s Bill Gates Sr. Prize in recognition of their outstanding research and social leadership. Kim van Daalen, Reetika Subramanian and Cynthia Okoye have been selected for the prize which was established by the Gates Cambridge Trustees in June 2012 in recognition of the late […]