Answering Wallace's challenge: Relaxed Selection and Language Evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgHow does natural selection account for language? Darwin wrestled with it, Chomsky sidestepped it, and Pinker claimed to solve it. Discerning the evolution of language is therefore a much sought endeavour, with a vast number of explanations emerging that offer a plethora of choice, but little in the way of consensus. This is hardly new, and at times has seemed completely frivolous and trivial. So much so that in the 19th Century, the Royal Linguistic Society in London actually went as far as to ban any discussion and debate on the origins of language. Put simply: we don’t really know that much. Often quoted in these debates is Alfred Russell Wallace, who, in a letter to Darwin, argued that: “natural selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape whereas he possesses one very little inferior to that of an average member of our learned society”.

This is obviously relevant for those of us studying language evolution. If, as Wallace challenged, natural selection (and more broadly, evolution) is unable to account for our mental capacities and behavioural capabilities, then what is the source behind our propensity for language? Well, I think we’ve come far enough to rule out the spiritual explanations of Wallace (although it still persists on some corners of the web), and whilst I agree that biological natural selection alone is not sufficient to explain language, we can certainly place it in an evolutionary framework.

Such is the position of Prof Terrence Deacon, who, in his current paper for PNAS, eloquently argues for a role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity. He’s been making these noises for a while now, as I previously mentioned here, with him also recognising evolutionary-similar processes in development. However, with the publication of this paper I think it’s about time I disseminated his current ideas in more detail, which, in my humble opinion, offers a more nuanced position than the strict modular adaptationism previously championed by Pinker et al (I say previously, because Pinker also has a paper in this issue, and I’m going to read it before making any claims about his current position on the matter).

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Olfactory communication and mate choice

ResearchBlogging.orgFrom the regulation and reproduction in bacteria colonies (Bassler, 2002) to complex smell and taste systems of humans (Van Toller & Dodd, 1988), the ability of sensing chemical stimuli, known as chemosensation, is believed to be the most basic and ubiquitous of senses (Bhutta, 2007). One strain of thought places chemosensation as merely an evolved ability to detect dangerous and volatile substances – such as putrefied food (see Bhutta, 2007). Still, the notion that this ability to detect chemical stimuli, particularly in the domain of smell, serves a purpose in communication is not necessarily a contemporary concept (Wyatt, 2009).

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ASPM, Microcephalin and Tone

ResearchBlogging.orgDisclaimer: I know this post is on a paper released over a year ago; however, I’m still going to write about it for three reasons: 1) I did a presentation about it earlier this week (20/01/08); 2) I think it relates to a recent buzz around gene-culture co-evolution; and, 3) It’s a bloody awesome paper.

So, what is the paper called? Okay, once you read this title, do not yawn, go to another website or… Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of the two brain size genes, ASPM and Mircocephalin. See, now we’ve got the hard part out of the way, I can begin to discuss exactly what the authors, Dan Dediu and Robert ‘Bob’ Ladd, found and why it’s important to our understanding of linguistics, genetics and evolution. It’s really interesting, honestly.
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