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

Towards a dictionary of the human genome

Marie Brunet’s research focuses on the secrets still hidden in our genomes. She says that despite the fact that we live in an era where getting our genome sequenced is possible, we still don’t know the origin of two fifths of inherited diseases. That is because, as she says, the genome only currently maps the […]

Scholar recognised for research into misinformation

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been shortlisted for a Women of the Future Award for her research into countering misinformation. Melisa Basol [2018] was shortlisted for the science category of the UK Awards which recognises “truly remarkable female scientists, forging new ground in research and scientific achievement”. There are 11 other categories and three special […]

Scholars join forces on anti-cancer drug

Two Gates Cambridge Scholars have joined forces to work on a drug candidate that has the potential to replace one of the most widely used cancer drugs around the world. Dr Anand Jeyasekharan [2004], who did his PhD in Oncology, and Dr Chandler Robinson [2009] who did an MBA at Cambridge, will collaborate on a […]

Making the experiences of imprisoned women activists visible

Growing up in a small town in Bengal, Jigisha Bhattacharya [2022] developed a particular sensitivity to marginalised groups and conflicts between different communities and identities from an early age.  It is this interest and her experience of political protests at university, combined with a longstanding curiosity about the links between politics and the arts, that […]