Saturday, December 03, 2005

Language Evolution vs. Human Evolution

I posted a comment on a slashdot thread about Merriam-Webster launching Open Dictionary, inspired by a comment made by a poster that evolution produces "better" organisms and that humans are therefore "better" than bacteria.

One area I didn't get into (my post was wordy enough), is the notion of the unit of selection and the substrate upon which language evolution operates. I imagine that the forces of language evolution operate on individual words as well as phrases and other linguistic constructs, similar to how biological evolution can operate at the level of genes, biochemical pathways, individuals, and societies.

As for substrate, language cannot exist without minds that understand and speak it, so the evolution of language is played out on a mental substrate. Given that there is fairly strong evidence for innate neural language modules in our brains, language evolution thus likely has played a role in our biological evolution, physically shaping the development and structure of our brains.

And human language hasn't been around very long in evolutionary time, originating as recently as 40,000 years ago. So this language-based shaping of the human neurobiology and evolution is happening literaly as we speak (sorry, couldn't resist).

Language itself is a substrate for the evolution of memes. It's interesting to think about what sort of role language evolution might play in meme evolution, and the interplay in the evolution of memes, languages, minds, and societies.

  • Can we identify memes that are able to persist through long-term changes in a language?
  • How do memes influence language evolution and biological evolution of individuals/societies in which the meme persists?
  • What properties of memes allow them to span different languages?

This speculation is all well and good, but there is some genetic evidence emerging for a link between language evolution and biological evolution. The FOXP2 gene in humans may have played a key role in the emergence of language in human beings. See these links for more on this fascinating story: