Integrating genetic and cultural evolutionary approaches to language


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.

Human Biology 83, 141–151.