Evolution and Human Adaptation Program
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The Evolution of Language

EHAP Culture and Cognition Lecture Series for Winter Term, 2005

This lecture series was organized by Scott Atran.

Noam Chomsky's revolutionary analysis of syntactic structures as a universal and innate part of human cognition has spurred numerous evolutionary inquiries into the emergence of language. Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom (BBS, 1990) and Ray Jackendoff (BBS, 2004) furnish perhaps the most compelling "adaptationist" story for the idea that language emerged as a vehicle for "thoughts struggling to get out" by communicating propositional structures over a serial channel. Chomsky himself, in his fall 2004 lecture at UM, "Biolinguistics and Human Cognitive Capacities," proposes an alternative approach that assumes no direct natural selection (no task-specific adaptation to distinctive features of ancestral environments) for language's 'creative core,' that is, the computational faculty of syntactic recursion that allows potentially infinite production of words and well-formed word-combinations with relatively few and finite means. Putting aside the argument from design as too open-ended or nearly circular, this "minimalist program" operates on the (huge but bold) assumption that language's creative core is a recently evolved accommodation to more general physical or biological properties of the world.

Ray Jackendoff and Robert Berwick (Chomsky's colleague at MIT) will present adaptationist and minimalist rationales for the evolution of language. Dan Sperber and Gary Marcus will discuss possible evolutionary precursors to language and related aspects of cognition, and Leila Gleitman will present findings from child development on the relation between language and thought. Sam Epstein asks whether a proper science of language requires evolutionary explanations at all.


Robert Berwick, Linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Evolution and the Minimalist Program
Friday, February 18th, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Dan Sperber, Directeur de Recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
A Pragmatic Perspective on the Evolution of Language
Friday, March 11th, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Lila Gleitman Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
Does the language we speak affect the way we think?
Friday, March 18th, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Ray Jackendoff, Professor of Linguistics. Chair, Linguistics Program, Brandeis University
Alternative Minimalist Visions of Language
Friday, March 25th, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Gary Marcus, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science New York University
What is the Language Faculty Made Of? Evidence from Human Infants and Molecular Biology
Friday, April 1st, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Terry Deacon, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Boston University
De-Volving Toward Cognitive Complexity: On the Empty Space Where We Expected To Find a Language Template or How a Complex Cognitive Function Evolved by Off-Loading Epigentic Control
Friday, April 1st, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Partha Niyogi, Professor, Computational Science & Statistics, University of Chicago
The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution
Friday, April 8th, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

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