The Language Evolution Tree: Yet more evidence

The Speculative Grammarian has published startling new findings that the Acacia Tree is central to Language Evolution.  This ground-breaking work was based on my post here.

Happy EvoLang deadline day!

Sean Geraint (2011). Language Evolution and the Acacia Tree Speculative Grammarian, Vol CLXII (4)

The Bilingual paradox in Language Evolution: Top down versus bottom up approaches

When thinking about bilingualism and language evolution, there appears to be a paradox:  Children are adept at learning more than one language at a time  and there are many bilingual societies in the world.  However, pressures on memory and redundancy makes it unclear what the adaptive advantage of a cognitive capacity for learning multiple languages at an early stage of language evolution would be.  For instance, Hagen (2008) has argued that a bilingual ability would not have been adaptive in early societies and so could not have been selected for.  Furthermore, many models have suggested that bilingualism is an unstable trait in a society (e.g. Castello et al., 2008).  How can we account for the evolution of this ability?  Would an early population of language users most likely be monolingual or bilingual?  Here, I take a top down and a bottom up approach and show that they tends to lead to two different conclusions.

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Chris Knight Arrested

Sorry, this isn’t really Language Evolution related besides Chris Knight’s obvious connection to the subject but thought it would be of interest to readers of the blog.

Last night Chris Knight and Camilla Power were arrested after planning to execute effigies of Prince William at Westminster Abbey. They were arrested ahead of the royal wedding today.

A professor of anthropology at the University of East London, Chris Knight along with his partner, Camilla Power, also a anthropology lecturer at UEL, were arrested outside their home in southeast London at around 6.15pm.

They were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance and breach of the peace.

Dr Knight was seen laid down on the pavement during the arrest in an attempt to stop officers moving him into a police van. But the police prevailed and they were held in a police station overnight.

This is not the first time Dr Knight has caused trouble. He was sacked from his position in 2009, following claims that he incited violence at the G20 protests.

THE add that the camera man who was at the scene of the arrest asked Dr Knight: “Can I get your house keys so I can feed the rabbit?”

I do hope that the rabbit is OK.


Language as a board game

I’ve just finished reading The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks.  Yes, I’m a little behind the times for a geek.  Anyway, I was struck by the concept of Azad in the book.  The protagonist visits an Imperial civilisation whose whole society revolves around the playing of a board game called Azad.  Except this is a vastly complicated board game, played on multiple, football-field-sized boards with semi-conscious pieces and developed over thousands of years.  In fact, the game is so complicated that you can’t play it well unless your cognitive structures have been shaped by the game from a very young age.  Here’s a little extract:

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Bipedalism: New Fossil Evidence and Language Evolution

Published in Science today, 11.02.2011 (yey! palidromic date!) is a report on the find of a Complete Fourth Metatarsal and Arches in the Foot of Australopithecus afarensis.

New fossil evidence from Hadar, Ethiopia suggests that our ancestors from 3.2 million years ago (Australopithecus afarensis (better known as Lucy)) had arches in their feet.

Arched feet are an essential part of the bipedal way that modern humans walk.

Although the skeleton of Lucy was found in 1974, until now important foot bones in all of the specimens uncovered to date have made it difficult for researchers to understand precisely how well adapted for bipedalism a. afarensis were.

Why should people interested in Language Evolution care about bipedalism? Well, here’s some food for thought:

1) Bipedalism likely had an impact on our cognitive abilities. As climbing as a form of locomotion became less common, different ways to cognitively represent space and distance probably had to be found. These new systems could have involved imitation (mirror neuron alarm bells start ringing). By adding imitative abilities to already existing spacial awareness that are seen in modern, non-human primates, this may have created mechanisms which allowed hominins to visualise themselves walking across plains (McWhinney 2005). This may have been the original selective pressure for imitative ability and therefore could have some implications for the imitative abilities which exist within language.

2) Upright posture would free up forelimbs which may have had communicative advantages as it would free the hands up for gesture. This theory has been somewhat rubished in that  the first apes to adapt a bipedal posture were probably cognitively not much different from today’s apes (assumed from evidence of skull size). However even if this was not the selective pressure FOR bipedalism it doesn’t stop it being relevant to the discussion.

3) Free hand movement would also lead to making tools. Stone tools getting more complex and language developing as evolution took place may show a close relationship between enhanced motor movement and language. Deficits in motor control are also often linked to aphasia so there is a strong connection between manual activity and speech communication.

4) When Chimpanzees and Gorillas are socializing in groups they go from a ‘knuckle walk’ to sitting in circles, this allows apes to keep eye contact with each other in social situations,  bipedalism would also allow one to keep eye contact at all times, even when in motion, and so the this may have been a selective pressure. Stanford (2003)

5) Evolution of the cortico-striatal neural circuits (basal ganglia) that regulate human language may have been shaped by the demands of upright bipedal locomotion. (Lieberman, 2001)

A lot of this debate is quite controversial but I thought I’d put some thoughts/theories out there in celebration of exciting new finds!


Lieberman, P. (2001) On the subcortical bases of the evolution of language. In Jurgan Trabant and Sean Ward, editors, New Essays on the Origins of Language, pages 21–40. Berlin-New York:Mouton de Gruyter.

McWhinney, B. (2005) Language Evolution and Human Development. In Bjorklund, D. and Pellegrini, A. (Eds.). Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development (pp 383-410). New York: Guilford Press.

Stanford, C. B. (2003). Upright: The evolutionary key to becoming human. New York: Houghton Mifflin

Ward, C. V., W. H. Kimbel & D. C. Johanson (2011) Complete Fourth Metatarsal and Arches in the Foot of Australopithecus afarensis. Science: 331 (6018), 750-753.

Domain-General Regions and Domain-Specific Networks

The notion of a domain-specific, language acquisition device is something that still divides linguists. Yet, in an ongoing debate spanning at least several decades, there is still no evidence, at least to my knowledge, for the existence of a Universal Grammar. Although, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the problem was solved many years ago, especially if you were to believe the now  sixteen-year old words of Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (1994):

The extreme specificity of the language system, indeed, is a fact, not just a working hypothesis, even less a heuristically convenient postulation. Doubting that there are language-specific, innate computational capacities today is a bit like being still dubious about the very existence of molecules, in spite of the awesome progress of molecular biology.

Suffice to say, the analogy between applying scepticism of molecules and scepticism of Universal Grammar is a dud, even if it does turn out that the latter does exist. Why? Well, as stated above: we still don’t know if humans have, or for that matter, even require, an innate ability to process certain grammatical principles. The rationale for thinking that we have some innate capacity for acquiring language can be delineated into a twofold argument: first, children seem adept at rapidly learning a language, even though they aren’t exposed to all of the data; and second, cognitive science told us that our brains are massively modular, or at the very least, should entail some aspect that is domain specific to language (see FLB/FLN distinction in Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch, 2002). I think the first point has been done to death on this blog: cultural evolution can provide an alternative explanation as to how children successfully learn language (see here and here and Smith & Kirby, 2008). What I haven’t really spoken about is the mechanism behind our ability to process language, or to put it differently: how are our brains organised to process language?

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Specific Language Impairment, Autism and Language Evolution

My last post speculated about what some conditions which manifest impaired theory of mind could tell us about the evolution of ToM. Of these conditions autism was one which could be the most informative when it comes to looking at the genetics of how ToM evolved, in this post I will look at what autism could tell us, not only about theory of mind, but also about other aspects of the language faculty.

Dorothy Bishop has recently written a paper exploring the above average co-occurrence of Specific Language Impariment (SLI) and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

SLI is a condition where a child fails to develop spoken language on the normal schedule, for no observable or obvious reason (Bishop and Norbury 2008). Whilst ASD and SLI are regarded as distinct conditions, these disorders co-occur at above chance levels.

Bishop (2010) explores why this might be. Bishop begins her paper by painting a textbook example of a child with SLI. This example is of a child with normal social interaction and nonverbal communication, but with specific difficulties in mastering structural aspects of language, especially syntax and phonological skills. So this typical picture is not one of an autistic child in that one of the defining features of autism is a limited capacity for normal social interaction and a child is much more likely to be deficient in pragmatic skills than syntactic or phonological skills.

Bishop states that despite the fact that according to conventional diagnostic frameworks, SLI andASD are mutually exclusive diagnoses, similarities exist between the two conditions and these include:

  • They are both highly heritable
  • Identical, monozygotic twins are significantly more concordant than fraternal, dizygotic twins for autism and SLI
  • In both conditions rates of impairment in first degree relatives are higher than in the general population
  • First degree relatives of affected individuals of both conditions often manifest sub-threshold symptoms
  • These conditions correspond to points on a continuum of impairment, rather than all-or-none diseases

So any model of causation for either condition must take into account the following considerations:

  • Above chance levels of comorbidity between SLI and ASD
  • Rates of language impairment in relatives of probands with SLI and ASD
  • Molecular genetic findings of shared genetic risk factors for ASD and SLI

Now the article goes on to explore etiological models which explain these considerations with varying degrees of success. I’m not going to pretend to understand these models as I have only ever been formally taught in linguistics and so I’m a bit stumped by genetic psychology. If you’re much smarter than me you can read the article yourself here:

So what I got from this article was that the genetic factors involved in autism can not only cause the characteristics typical of a person with autism (pragmatic impairments) but also other language impairments which are typical of a person with a Specific Language Impairment. Specifically the CNTNAP2 gene has been found in independent samples to be associated with both ASD and SLI. This is interesting because it could show that gene mutations which cause improved social abilities could have also caused changes in our linguistic ability on a syntactic or phonological level.

Disclaimer: Sorry if I’ve made too many assumptions in the conclusion I’ve just drawn. As I said above I know next to nothing about genetic psychology but I just felt this research would have interesting consequences in the field of language evolution. I’d love to hear the thoughts of people who know better than I do.


Bishop, DVM. (2010) Overlaps Between Autism and Language Impairment:
Phenomimicry or Shared Etiology? Behavior Genetics 40:5, 618-629

Bishop DVM, Norbury CF (2008) Speech and language disorders. In: Rutter M, Bishop DVM, Pine D, Scott S, Stevenson J, Taylor E, Thapar A (eds) Rutter’s child

Marc Hauser investigated for scientific misconduct

The Boston Globe reported today that Marc Hauser is on leave due to scientific misconduct . The Great Beyond summarises the article as follows:

The trouble centers on a 2002 paper published in the journal Cognition (subscription required). Hauser was the first author on the paper, which found that cotton-top tamarins are able to learn patterns – previously thought to be an important step in language acquisition. The paper has been retracted, for reasons which are reportedly unclear even to the journal’s editor, Gerry Altmann.

Two other papers, a 2007 article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B and a 2007 Science paper, were also flagged for investigation. A correction has been published on the first, and Science is now looking into concerns about the second. And the Globe article highlights other controversies, including a 2001 paper in the American Journal of Primatology, which has not been retracted although Hauser himself later said he was unable to replicate the results. Findings in a 1995 PNAS paper were also questioned by an outside researcher, Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany, who reviewed the original data and said he found “not a thread of compelling evidence” to support the paper’s conclusions.

Hauser has taken a year-long leave from the university.

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Language evolution in the laboratory

When talking about language evolution there’s always a resistance from people exclaiming;  ‘but how do we know?’, ‘surely all of this is conjecture!’ and, because of this, ‘what’s the point?’

Thomas Scott-Phillips and Simon Kirby have written a new article (in press) in ‘Trends in Cognitive Science’ which addresses some of the techniques currently used to address language evolution using experiments in the laboratory.

The Problem of language evolution

The problem of language evolution is one which encompasses not only the need to explain biologically how language came about but also how language came to be how it is today through processes of cultural evolution. Because of this potential ambiguity arises when using the term ‘language evolution’. To sort this ambiguity the authors put forward the following:

Language evolution researchers are interested in the processes that led to a qualitative change from a non-linguistic state to a linguistic one. In other words, language evolution is concerned with the emergence of language

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Language – An Embarrassing Conundrum for the Evolutionist?

Hello! This is my first post on the blog and whilst I didn’t want it to be an angry rant after I found this youtube video there seemed little could have been done to avoid it.

This is a video by a creationist named “ppsimmons” who writes on the front page of his youtube channel that he “apologizes for not knowing enough to scientifically refute the evidence for creation nor for being clever enough to “scientifically” support the theory of evolution.” And yet he feels to be enough of an authority to make videos refuting evolution using ‘science’.

I know I shouldn’t let this annoy me as much as it obviously has, I know that there will always be creationists out there and I know that these creationists will never listen to anything I have to say. However, in this case, I’ve decided to respond mostly to set straight the interpretation of Robert Berwick’s words used in this video.

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