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Natural language and natural selection

  • Steven Pinker (a1) and Paul Bloom (a2)
Abstract
Abstract

Many people have argued that the evolution of the human language faculty cannot be explained by Darwinian natural selection. Chomsky and Gould have suggested that language may have evolved as the by-product of selection for other abilities or as a consequence of as-yet unknown laws of growth and form. Others have argued that a biological specialization for grammar is incompatible with every tenet of Darwinian theory – that it shows no genetic variation, could not exist in any intermediate forms, confers no selective advantage, and would require more evolutionary time and genomic space than is available. We examine these arguments and show that they depend on inaccurate assumptions about biology or language or both. Evolutionary theory offers clear criteria for when a trait should be attributed to natural selection: complex design for some function, and the absence of alternative processes capable of explaining such complexity. Human language meets these criteria: Grammar is a complex mechanism tailored to the transmission of propositional structures through a serial interface. Autonomous and arbitrary grammatical phenomena have been offered as counterexamples to the position that language is an adaptation, but this reasoning is unsound: Communication protocols depend on arbitrary conventions that are adaptive as long as they are shared. Consequently, language acquisition in the child should systematically differ from language evolution in the species, and attempts to analogize them are misleading. Reviewing other arguments and data, we conclude that there is every reason to believe that a specialization for grammar evolved by a conventional neo-Darwinian process.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

J. M. Baldwin (1902) Development and evolution, including psychophysical evolution, evolution by orthoplasy, and the theory of genetic modes. Macmillan. [JL]

J. Bybee (1985) Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form. Benjamins. [aSP]

(1990) The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabification. In: Papers in laboratory phonology I: Between the grammar and physics of speech, ed. J. Kingston & M. Beckman . Cambridge University Press. [JK]

R. A. Fisher (1930) The genetical theory of natural selection. Clarendon Press. [aSP]

(1989a) Some remarks on the origin of the phonetic code In: Brain and Reading, ed. C. von Euler , I. Lundberg & G. Lennerstrand . Stockton Press. [BL]

I. Maddieson (1984) Patterns of sound. Cambridge University Press. [BL]

K. L. Pike (1943) Phonetics. University of Michigan Press. [BL]

M. L. Samuels (1972) Linguistic evolution. Cambridge University Press. [aSP]

B. F. Skinner (1957) Verbal behavior. Appleton. [aSP]

R. S. Tomlin , ed. (1987) Coherence and grounding in discourse. John Benjamins.

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
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