Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Major Language Evolution Papers: #2

Towards a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution

Mesoudi et al 2004

Who’s it by? Alex Mesoudi, a psychologist with an interest in modelling cultural evolution. Andrew Whiten, a psychologist and primatologist, most famous for the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis, and Kevin Laland, a biologist with an interest in animal social learning, cultural evolution and niche construction.

What’s it about? Mesoudi et al neatly outline the relationship between cultural evolution and biological evolution, and explore the different methodologies for analysing and modelling cultural evolution.

Why should an evolutionary linguist care? Unless you are only obsessed with the biological basis for languag, then culture is likely to play an important role in any account of language evolution. It may account for many of the features of language that Chomskian accounts have presumed are innate. It also represents a parallel and fascinating area for evolutionary explorations to move into.

Anyway, here is Erin Brown’s excellent presentation on the paper.


Current Issues In Language Evolution: Presentations and Papers

I’m taking advantage of Simon Kirby‘s Current Issues in Language Evolution class to make a series of posts on some of the major papers on language evolution that have been released in the past ten years. I’ll blog about some of the papers as we cover them in class, and hopefully provide online copies of the presentations that people have produced with some basic information and commentary. The aim is to provide a set of blog posts that will provide newcomers with some of the key papers in the field, and some detailed analysis of their claims.

‘The Superorganism’ is Back in Fashion

A New E. O. Wilson Book About Group Selection


The great biologist E. O. Wilson is releasing a new book call The Superorganism in which he is develops the group selection argument to posit the existence of higher level evolutionary units. An idea that has already been eloquently proposed by the other great Wilson (David Sloane Wilson) in Unto Others. This is going to be very interesting for us on two completely different levels…

Continue reading ‘‘The Superorganism’ is Back in Fashion’

And now Washoe too…

Washoe Chimp

RIP Washoe the Chimpanzee. What a sad couple of months for the animal communication research programme. Unlike the death of Alex the Parrot, this one was reasonably expected, as Washoe was an quite elderly chimpanzee when she got ill. Despite the protestations of scientific detachment these research programmes inevitably lead to an incredibly close bond between between researchers and subjects. You have to feel for the researchers at the Central Washington University who must feel like they’ve lost a dear friend.

Whilst the general consensus may still be that what Washoe achieved was not language (but instead a conditioned code system), the whole Washoe research programme fired the debate about the definition of human language. People in the Pinker/Chomsky tradition will never be convinced of the value of the Chimpanzee language research programme, but I think the extraordinary results of enculturation have to at least be acknowledged. Washoe may not have used language, but she was exposed to human culture and experience in a way that changed her forever. She was loved because to some extent she shared the human journey, and got closer to us than any animal has before.  I’ll leave the philosophical musings for another time though, and for now mourn the passing of the first one of these remarkable animals. 

Results from Neanderthal Sequencing … and it’s FOXP2

Well it looks like those people who held our FOXP2 mutation as being recent and uniquely human have been proven wrong again. Evidence from the recent Neanderthal genone sequencing project has demonstrated that the two FOXP2 mutations, that until recently were considered uniquely human, were present in Neanderthals as well. This of course implies that they must also have been present in an earlier common ancestor as well. There is an excellent post on it here at For those of you with institutional access the paper is online here at Current Biology. The implications for this will take some dissection, but it would imply a more complex communicative ability for Neanderthals and a far more interesting evolutionary picture for evolutionary linguists.

*update* A fantastic discussion of the implications and problems with this discovery can be found over at John Hawks. Well worth a read when you get the time.

A guilty language geek pleasure…

…Watching the look on Steven Pinker‘s face as he had to deal with increasingly desperate and innane questions from an underprepared and clueless Adam Boulton on the Sky News Sunday breakfast programme.

A sample exchange paraphrased from memory:

Boulton – “So what does all this brain stuff tell us about what the government should be doing to improve teaching language in schools?”

Pinker – “There’s nothing in this book about learning foreign languages Adam”

Language evolution (or at least very long term langauge change) in Nature this week

These are from two different universities, and both seek to quantify the relationship between frequency of use and regularization. The most significant fact coming out of the  papers is that words have a strikingly slow rate of evolution which is modified by the frequency of use, just like genes. There is a neat summary here.