PP-2012-13: Language in Nature: on the evolutionary roots of a cultural phenomenon

PP-2012-13: Zuidema, Willem (2012) Language in Nature: on the evolutionary roots of a cultural phenomenon. [Report]

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It is no overstatement to say that, from an evolutionary point of
view, language is the most striking aspect of the human phenotype and
cries out for an evolutionary explanation.

What could an evolutionary explanation for language look like?
It's worthwhile to step back a bit and first consider some of the
sources of information that could constrain the scenarios we might
want to propose. The relevant evidence for evaluating evolutionary
scenarios -- consisting of particular starting and end points, and a
mechanism that drives the steps in between -- comes from many
different fields. The end point, in our case, is the human capacity
for language, and the obvious field to provide data is linguistics
(although this field can offer less clear answers than we would
perhaps wish). The starting point is the set of abilities of the last
common ancestor that humans share with chimpanzees, our closest
relatives. Our best guesses on these abilities come from a comparison
of the abilities of other living great apes, i.e., from behavioural
biology. The steps in between are largely unknown, but we find some
hints in the fossil record. The mechanisms driving the evolution of
language are also largely unknown, but evolutionary theory offers at
least some constraints on the form of evolutionary scenarios. Finally,
evidence on the abilities of more distantly related animals, such as
songbirds, helps assessing the plausibility of these scenarios.

In this chapter I will survey some of these sources of information to
get an idea what form an evolutionary explanation for the
human-specific, and possibly language-specific, linguistic abilities
should take. But before we embark on a discussion of the anatomy and
abilities of humans and other animals, we must first consider how we
can apply the standard approach from evolutionary biology - the
comparative method - to a culturally evolved system like language, and
why we don't take one of the elaborate theories from linguistics as
our starting point.

Item Type: Report
Report Nr: PP-2012-13
Series Name: Prepublication (PP) Series
Year: 2012
Uncontrolled Keywords: language evolution, cognition
Subjects: Language
Depositing User: Jelle Zuidema
Date Deposited: 12 Oct 2016 14:37
Last Modified: 12 Oct 2016 14:37
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/455

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