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The papers in this special issue of Human Biology address recent research in the field of language evolution, both the genetic evolution of the language faculty and the cultural evolution of specific languages. While both of these areas have received increasing interest in recent years, there is also a need to integrate these somewhat separate efforts and explore the relevant gene-culture revolutionary interactions. Here we summarize the individual contributions, set them in the context of the wider literature, and identify outstanding future research questions. The first set of papers concerns the comparative study of nonhuman communication in primates and birds from both a behavioral and neurobiological perspective, revealing evidence for several common language-related traits in various nonhuman species and providing clues as to the evolutionary origin and function of the human language faculty. The second set of papers discusses the consequences of viewing language as a culturally evolving system in its own right, including claims that this removes the need for strong genetic biases for language acquisition, and that phylogenetic evolutionary methods can be used to reconstruct language histories. We conclude by highlighting outstanding areas for future research, including identifying the precise selection pressures that gave rise to the language faculty in ancestral hominin species, and determining the strength, domain specificity, and origin of the cultural transmission biases that shape languages as they pass along successive generations of language learners.
Language is a uniquely human trait, and questions of how and why it evolved have been intriguing scientists for years. Nonhuman primates (primates) are our closest living relatives, and their behavior can be used to estimate the capacities of our extinct ancestors. As humans and many primate species rely on vocalizations as their primary mode of communication, the vocal behavior of primates has been an obvious target for studies investigating the evolutionary roots of human speech and language. By studying the similarities and differences between human and primate vocalizations, comparative research has the potential to clarify the evolutionary processes that shaped human speech and language. This review examines some of the seminal and recent studies that contribute to our knowledge regarding the link between primate calls and human language and speech. We focus on three main aspects of primate vocal behavior: functional reference, call combinations, and vocal learning. Studies in these areas indicate that despite important differences, primate vocal communication exhibits some key features characterizing human language. They also indicate, however, that some critical aspects of speech, such as vocal plasticity, are not shared with our primate cousins. We conclude that comparative research on primate vocal behavior is a very promising tool for deepening our understanding of the evolution of human speech and language, but much is still to be done as many aspects of monkey and ape vocalizations remain largely unexplored.
Considerable knowledge is available on the neural substrates for speech and language from brain-imaging studies in humans, but until recently there was a lack of data for comparison from other animal species on the evolutionarily conserved brain regions that process species-specific communication signals. To obtain new insights into the relationship of the substrates for communication in primates, we compared the results from several neuroimaging studies in humans with those that have recently been obtained from macaque monkeys and chimpanzees. The recent work in humans challenges the longstanding notion of highly localized speech areas. As a result, the brain regions that have been identified in humans for speech and nonlinguistic voice processing show a sulking general correspondence to how the brains of oilier primates analyze species-specific vocalizations or information in the voice, such as voice identity. The comparative neuroimaging work has begun to clarify evolutionary relationships in brain function, supporting the notion that the brain regions that process communication signals in the human brain arose from a precursor network of regions that is present in nonhuman primates and is used for processing species-specific vocalizations. We conclude by considering how the stage now seems to te set for comparative neurobiology to characterize the ancestral state of the network that evolved in humans to support language.
Research into speech perception by nonhuman animals can be crucially informative in assessing whether specific perceptual phenomena in humans have evolved to decode speech, or reflect more general traits. Birds share with humans not only the capacity to use complex vocalizations for communication but also many characteristics of its underlying developmental and mechanistic processes; thus, birds are a particularly interesting group for comparative study. This review first discusses commonalities between birds and humans in perception of speech sounds. Several psychoacoustic studies have shown striking parallels in seemingly speech-specific perceptual phenomena, such as categorical perception of voice-onset-time variation, categorization of consonants that lack phonetic invariance, and compensation for coarticulation. Such findings are often regarded as evidence for the idea mat the objects of human speech perception are auditory or acoustic events rather than articulations. Next, I highlight recent research on the production side of avian communication that has revealed the existence of vocal tract filtering and articulation in bird species-specific vocalization, which has traditionally been considered a hallmark of human speech production. Together, findings in birds show that many of characteristics of human speech perception are not uniquely human but also that a comparative approach to the question of what are the objects of perception—articulatory or auditory events—requires careful consideration of species-specific vocal production mechanisms.
Language as with most communication systems likely evolved by means of natural selection. Accounts for the genetieal selection of language can usually be divided into two scenarios, either of which used in isolation of the other appear insufficient to explain the phenomena: (1) there are group benefits from communicating, and (2) there are individual benefits from being a better communicator. In contrast, it is hypothesized that language phenotypes emerged during a coevolutionary struggle between parental genomes via genomic imprinting, which is differential gene expression depending on parental origin of the genetic element. It is hypothesized mat relaiedness asymmetries differentially selected for patrigene-caused language phenotypes to extract resources from mother (early in development) and matrigene-caused language phenotypes to influence degree of cooperativeness among asymmetric kin (later in development), This paper reports that imprinted genes have a high frequency of involvement in language phenotypes (∼36%), considering their presumed rarity in the human genome (∼2%). For example, two well-studied genes associated with language impairments (FOXP2 and UBE3A) exhibit parent-of-origin effects. Specifically, FOXP2 is putatively paternally expressed, whereas UBE3A is a maternally expressed d imprinted gene, it is also hypothesized that the more unique and cooperative aspects of human language emerged to the benefit of matrilineal inclusive fitness. Consistent with this perspective, it is reported here that the X-chromosome has higher involvement in loci that have associations with language than would be expected by chance. It is also reported, for the first time, that human and chimpanzee maternally expressed overlapping imprinted genes exhibit greater evolutionary divergence (in terms of the degree of overlapping transcripts) than paternally expressed overlapping imprinted genes. Finally, an analysis of global language patterns reveals that paternally but not maternally silenced Alu elements are positively correlated with language diversity. Furthermore, there is a much higher than expected frequency of Alu elements inserted into the protein-coding machinery of imprinted and X-chromosomal language loci compared with nonimprinted language loci. Taken together these findings provide some support for parental antagonism theory. Unlike previous theories for language evolution, parental antagonism theory generates testable predictions at the proximate (e.g., neurocognitive areas important for social transmission and language capacities), ontogenetic (e.g., the function of language at different points of development), ultimate (e.g., inclusive fitness), and phylogenetic levels (e.g., the spread of maternally derived brain components in mammals, particularly in the hominin lineage), thus making human capacities for culture more tractable than previously thought.
Although there may be no true language universals, it is nonetheless possible to discern several family resemblance patterns across the languages of the world. Recent work on the cultural evolution of language indicates the source of these patterns is unlikely to be an innate universal grammar evolved through biological adaptations for arbitrary linguistic features. Instead, it has been suggested that the patterns of resemblance emerge because language has teen shaped by the brain, with individual languages representing different but partially overlapping solutions to the same set of nonlinguistic constraints. Here, we use computational simulations to investigate whether biological adaptation for functional features of language, deriving from cognitive and communicative constraints, may nonetheless te possible alongside rapid cultural evolution. Specifically, we focus on the Baldwin effect as an evolutionary mechanism by which previously learned linguistic features might become innate through natural selection across many generations of language users. The results indicate that cultural evolution of language does not necessarily prevent functional features of language from becoming genetically fixed, thus potentially providing a particularly informative source of constraints on cross-linguistic resemblance patterns.
The biases of individual language learners act to determine the learnability and cultural stability of languages: learners come to the language learning task with biases which make certain linguistic systems easier to acquire than others. These biases are repeatedly applied during the process of language transmission, and consequently should effect the types of languages we see in human populations. Understanding the cultural evolutionary consequences of particular learning biases is therefore central to understanding the link between language learning in individuals and language universals, common structural properties shared by all the world's languages. This paper reviews a range of models and experimental studies which show mat weak biases in individual learners can have strong effects on the structure of sociallylearned systems such as language, suggesting that strong universal tendencies in language structure do not require us to postulate strong underlying biases or constraints on language learning. Furthermore, understanding the relationship between learner biases and language design has implications for theories of the evolution of those learning biases: models of gene-culture coevolution suggest that, in situations where a cultural dynamic mediates between properties of individual learners and properties of language in this way, biological evolution is unlikely to lead to the emergence of strong constraints on learning.
It is generally accepted that the relationship between human genes and language is very complex and multifaceted. This has its roots in the “regular” complexity governing the interplay among genes and between genes and environment for most phenotypes, but with the added layer of supraontogenetic and supra-individual processes defining culture. At the coarsest level, focusing on the species, it is clear that human-specific—but not necessarily faculty-specific—genetic factors subtend our capacity for language and a currently very productive research program is aiming at uncovering them. At the other end of the spectrum, it is uncontroversial that individual-level variations in different aspects related to speech, and language have an important genetic component and their discovery and detailed characterization have already started to revolutionize the way we think about human nature. However, at the intermediate, glossogenetic/population level, the relationship becomes controversial, partly due to deeply ingrained beliefs about language acquisition and universality and partly because of confusions with a different type of genelanguages correlation due to shared history. Nevertheless, conceptual, mathematical and computational models—and, recently, experimental evidence from artificial languages and songbirds—have repeatedly shown that genetic teases affecting the acquisition or processing of aspects of language and speech can be amplified by population-level intergenerational cultural processes and made manifest either as fixed “universal” properties of language or as structured linguistic diversity. Here, I review several such models as well as the recently proposed case of a causal relationship between the distribution of lone languages and two genes related to brain growth and development, ASPM and Microcephalin, and I discuss the relevance of such genetic biasing for language evolution, change, and diversity.
Social structure in human societies is underpinned by the variable expression of ideas about relatedness between different types of kin. We express these ideas through language in our kin terminology: to delineate who is kin and who is not, and to attach meanings to the types of kin labels associated with different individuals. Cross-culturally, there is a regular and restricted range of patterned variation in kin terminologies, and to date, our understanding of this diversity has teen hampered by inadequate techniques for dealing with the hierarchical relatedness of languages (Galton's Problem). Here I use maximum-likelihood and Bayesian phylogenetic comparative methods to begin to tease apart the processes underlying the evolution of kin terminologies in the Austronesian language family, focusing on terms for siblings. I infer (1) the probable ancestral states and (2) evolutionary models of change for the semantic distinctions of relative age (older/younger sibling) and relative sex isarne-sex/opposite-sex). Analyses show that early Austronesian languages contained the relative-age, but not the relative-sex distinction; the latter was reconstructed firmly only for the ancestor of Eastern Malayo-Polynesian languages. Both distinctions were best characterized by evolutionary models where the gains and losses of the semantic distinctions were equally likely. A multi-state model of change examined how the relative-sex distinction could be elaborated and found that some transitions in kin terms were not possible: jumps from absence to heavily elaborated were very unlikely, as was piece-wise dismantling of elaborate distinctions. Cultural ideas about what types of kin distinctions are important can be embedded in the semantics of language; using a phylogenetic evolutionary framework we can understand how those distinctions in meaning change through time.
The Queen Mary conference on “Integrating Genetic and Cultural Evolutionary Approaches to Language,” and the papers in this special issue, clearly illustrate the excitement and potential of trans-disciplinary approaches to language as an evolved biological capacity (phylogeny) and an evolving cultural entity (glossogeny). Excepting the present author, the presenters/authors are mostly young rising stars in their respective fields, and include scientists with backgrounds in linguistics, animal communication, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and computer science. On display was a clear willingness to engage with different approaches and terminology and a commitment to shared standards of scientific rigor, empirically driven theory, and logical argument. Because the papers assembled here, together with the introduction, speak for themselves, I will focus in this “extro-duction” on some of the terminological and conceptual difficulties which threaten to block this exciting wave of scientific progress in understanding language evolution, in both senses of that term, in particular I will first argue against the regrettably widespread practice of opposing cultural and genetic explanations of human cognition as if they were dichotomous. Second, I will unpack the debate concerning “general-purpose” and “domain-specific” mechanisms, which masquerades as a debate about nativism but is nothing of the sort. I believe that framing discussions of language in these terms has generated more heat than light, and that a modern molecular understanding of genes, development, behavior, and evolution renders many of the assumptions underlying this debate invalid.