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

Provost wins top Royal Society award

Gates Cambridge Provost Professor Barry Everitt has been selected for the Royal Society’s premier award in the biological sciences. Professor Barry Everitt FMedSci FRS has been awarded the Croonian Medal and Lecture 2021 for his research on the application of his findings on brain mechanisms of motivation to important societal issues, such as drug addiction. […]

Addressing energy injustice in the Global South

A new framework which uses artificial intelligence to analyse textual data on energy use and behaviour could help policymakers develop a deeper understanding of energy injustices in the Global South. The study, Grounded reality meets machine learning: A deep-narrative analysis framework for energy policy research, was led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Ramit Debnath [2018] and is published in the journal Energy Research […]

Scholar wins top German prize for PhD thesis

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a prestigious international award for her PhD dissertation on the relationship between offshore finance and state power. Dr Andrea Binder was named winner of the Körber Foundation’s German Dissertation Award 2020 for social sciences. The prize, one of the most highly endowed for young researchers from Germany, honours excellent PhD research which […]

Developing a farm for impact model

Shadrack Frimpong has not yet started his PhD, but already his and his team’s work has earned him awards from the Queen, the Clinton Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Foundation. The awards are for their outstanding work in creating a potential new development model for rural crop-growing communities starting from Shadrack’s own village in Ghana. […]