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VII. Our Earthuman Ascent: A Major Evolutionary Transition in Individuality

1. A Cultural (Geonome) Code : Systems Linguistics

Gong, Tao and Christophe Coupe. A Report on the Workshop on Complexity in Language: Developmental and Evolutionary Perspectives. Biolinguistics. 5/4, 2011. In this online journal, University of Hong Kong and CNRS, France, linguists give overall impressions and summarize each presentation. Organized by University of Chicago linguist Salikoko Mufwene, the event was held at the Universite de Lyon in May 2011. With leading theorists such as William Croft, Barbara Davis, Vittorio Loreto, Bart de Boer, Lucia Loureiro-Porto, and Ramon Ferrer-i-Cancho, the papers reflect and contribute to the growing appreciation of languages as dynamical complex adaptive systems. A comprehensive bibliography is also included.

Gong, Tao, et al. Coevolution of Lexicon and Syntax from a Simulation Perspective. Complexity. 10/6, 2005. In contrast to the Innatist paradigm of language arising from an endemic cerebral domain, an Emergentist option is proposed which views language evolution as a self-organizing complex adaptive system. Interactions between agents (speakers) is said to result in a shared vocabulary and its linguistic format. The paper complements the formulaic theories of Alison Wray in her 2002 book.

Hauser, Marc, et al. The Faculty of Language. Science. 298/1569, 2002. An article written with the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky calls for an expanded interdisciplinary study of language and its evolutionary roots with inputs from biology, psychology, anthropology and neuroscience.

…the human faculty of language appears to be organized like the genetic code – hierarchical, generative, recursive, and virtually limitless with respect to its scope of expression. (1569)

Heine, Bernd and Tania Kuteva. The Genesis of Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Noted here for its Chapter 6: On the Rise of Recursion whereby human language took off when it became able to nest phrases and sentences within prior statements - which might allude to a recursive cosmos trying to find its voice and self.

Hewlett, Barry, et al. Semes and Genes in Africa. Current Anthropology. 43/2, 2002. Following Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, the term “semes” is used instead of memes to represent units (schemas or practices) of cultural transmission. This approach often cited as “co-evolutionary” or “dual-inheritance” as it links genes and societies, is here known as “evolutionary cultural anthropology.” Three explanatory models are employed: demic diffusion, cultural diffusion, and local adaptation.

This report has two general aims: to explain the distribution of cultural practices and beliefs across the landscape in Africa and to demonstrate how genetic, linguistic, and geographic information can be used to understand the nature of culture. (313)

Hoffmeyer, Jesper. Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. An overview of this communicative essence by a main proponent which noted more in Life as Biosemiotics.

Hollis, Geoff, et al. Origins of Order in Cognitive Activity. Guastello, Stephen, et al, eds. Chaos and Complexity in Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. In this chapter, University of Cincinnati psychologists describe how our human intellect is poised as a self-organized criticality with regard to both literacy and speech. As a result, the same scale-invariant, power-law repetition found everywhere else – a “fractal pattern of nested variation” – becomes expressed in stories and conversation. Please compare with Jonathan Butner, et al, The Fractal Nature of Conversational Stories in The Book of Nature. So a natural textuality again accrues, similarly in our very discourse, in dynamic genomes, and unto a genesis universe made to be read, understood and co-created.

Howe, C., et al. Manuscript Evolution. Trends in Genetics. 17/3, 2001. The authors describe a correspondence between mutations in DNA and changes in a hand-copied text. Whereas linguistic analysis has been used to elucidate the molecular code, here genetic programs illuminate different versions of a medieval manuscript. A consequence is to appreciate the textual essence of natural DNA and the genetic character of human language.

Hurford, James. The Origins of Grammar: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. A pioneer of this retrospective project, the emeritus University of Edinburgh linguist follows up his 2007 The Origins of Meaning (Oxford) by tracing the spreading roots of syntax and structure. Chapters run from animal gesture and song to human speech and script, as if life’s singular expressive discourse. From bird calls to shared monkey “lexicons” to our social symbols, from Creole morphological complexity to Bedouin Sign Language, emergent creatures seem bent on learning to speak and communicate. A notable finding, as others aver, is in the case of language development, individual ontogeny does well recapitulate its primate to hominid phylogeny. Indeed, with animals seen as intent to form “proto-concepts and propositions,” might we imagine a uniVerse trying to gain its voice and vision presently through our human sapiens stage?

This is the second of the two closely linked but self-contained volumes that comprise James Hurford's acclaimed exploration of the biological evolution of language. In the first book the looked at the evolutionary origins of meaning, ending as our distant ancestors were about to step over the brink to modern language. He now considers how that step might have been taken and the consequences it undoubtedly had. The capacity for language lets human beings formulate and express an unlimited range of propositions about real or fictitious worlds. It allows them to communicate these propositions, often overlaid with layers of nuance and irony, to other humans who can then interpret and respond to them. These processes take place at breakneck speed. Using a language means learning a vast number of arbitrary connections between forms and meanings and rules on how to manipulate them, both of which a normal human child can do in its first few years of life. James Hurford looks at how this miracle came about. The book is divided into three parts. In the first the author surveys the syntactic structures evident in the communicative behaviour of animals, such as birds and whales, and discusses how vocabularies of learned symbols could have evolved and the effects this had on human thought. In the second he considers how far the evolution of grammar depended on biological or cultural factors. In the third and final part he describes the probable route by which the human language faculty and languages evolved from simple beginnings to their present complex state. (Publisher)

Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. A copious synthesis of generative linguistics by the now Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, at Tufts University. The first three chapters affirm the realms of Mentality – that language is instantiated in brains and minds, Combinatoriality – by the employ of general principles a vast array of sentence and speech is possible, and Nativism – that, per Noam Chomsky, a child brings innate resources for language learning. The treatise proceeds to discuss Generative Theory, Syntax, the Lexicon, Processing, Evolution, Reference, and so on.

Jenkins, Lyle, ed. Variation and Universals in Biolinguistics. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2004. A collection of particular and general papers which consider genetic, biological and evolutionary roots for human language from the generative viewpoint. Of especial interest is Partha Niyogi’s Phase Transitions in Language Evolution by way of dynamic systems theory and Unifications in Biolinguistics by Lyle Jenkins which finds the same patterns to recur from physical substrates to complex grammars. Isabelle Dupanloup goes on in Genetic Differences and Language Affinities to summarize the strong correlations between genes and dialects as peoples migrated across continents. A concise wrapup by Noam Chomsky is noted above.

Kirby, Simon. Culture and Biology in the Origins of Linguistic Structure. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 24/1, 2017. In a special issue on the Biology and Evolution of Language, the University of Edinburgh linguist reviews and updates his contributions, with many colleagues, to our late reconstruction of how a loquacious homo to anthropo sapiens became so distinguished by textual language and communicative expression. A main theme, as also per papers on his website, is a model whence by an interplay of genes and grunts simians and hominids came to achieve a growing, iterative learning ability from each other. This cumulative process is then denoted a “compositionality” as it forms a cultural record.

Amongst the issue’s 34 paper content, edited by W. Tecumseh Fitch, is, for example, Evolution of the Neural Language Network by Angela Friederici, The Human Infant Brain by Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz (search), Social Cognition and Pragmatic Inference in Primates by Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, and Toward the Language-Ready Brain by Michael Arbib. We also note The Origins of Language in Teaching by Kevin Laland, Evolution of Speech and Evolution of Language by Bart de Boer, Key Cognitive Preconditions for the Evolution of Language by Merlin Donald, and Evolution of Language: Lessons from the Genome by Simon Fisher. Altogether, an intricate meld of genes, anatomic, neural, and communal aspects are involved as they give rise to life’s distinctive, self-cognizant quality.

Language is systematically structured at all levels of description, arguably setting it apart from all other instances of communication in nature. In this article, I survey work over the last 20 years that emphasises the contributions of individual learning, cultural transmission, and biological evolution to explaining the structural design features of language. These 3 complex adaptive systems exist in a network of interactions: individual learning biases shape the dynamics of cultural evolution; universal features of linguistic structure arise from this cultural process and form the ultimate linguistic phenotype; the nature of this phenotype affects the fitness landscape for the biological evolution of the language faculty; and in turn this determines individuals’ learning bias. Using a combination of computational simulation, laboratory experiments, and comparison with real-world cases of language emergence, I show that linguistic structure emerges as a natural outcome of cultural evolution once certain minimal biological requirements are in place. (Kirby Abstract)

Speech is the physical signal used to convey spoken language. Because of its physical nature, speech is both easier to compare with other species’ behaviors and easier to study in the fossil record than other aspects of language. Here I argue that convergent fossil evidence indicates adaptations for complex vocalizations at least as early as the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans. Furthermore, I argue that it is unlikely that language evolved separately from speech, but rather that gesture, speech, and song coevolved to provide both a multimodal communication system and a musical system. Moreover, coevolution must also have played a role by allowing both cognitive and anatomical adaptations to language and speech to evolve in parallel. Although such a coevolutionary scenario is complex, it is entirely plausible from a biological point of view. (de Boer Abstract)

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