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Front. Psychol., 07 May 2014 | http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401

The mystery of language evolution

Marc D. Hauser1*, Charles Yang2, Robert C. Berwick3, Ian Tattersall4, Michael J. Ryan5, Jeffrey Watumull6, Noam Chomsky7 and Richard C. Lewontin8
  • 1Risk-Eraser, LLC, West Falmouth, MA, USA
  • 2Department of Linguistics and Computer and Information Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
  • 3Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
  • 4Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, USA
  • 5Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA
  • 6Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK
  • 7Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
  • 8Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, (1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; (2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; (3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; (4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language's origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.

Keywords: language evolution, computation, animal behavior, genetics, paleoarcheology, modelling

Citation: Hauser MD, Yang C, Berwick RC, Tattersall I, Ryan MJ, Watumull J, Chomsky N and Lewontin RC (2014) The mystery of language evolution. Front. Psychol. 5:401. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401

Received: 03 March 2014; Accepted: 16 April 2014;
Published online: 07 May 2014.

Edited by:

Andrea Moro, Institute for Advanced Study IUSS Pavia, Italy

Reviewed by:

Valentina Bambini, Institute for Advanced Study (IUSS), Italy
Marcel Den Dikken, CUNY Graduate Center, USA

Copyright © 2014 Hauser, Yang, Berwick, Tattersall, Ryan, Watumull, Chomsky and Lewontin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Marc D. Hauser, Risk-Eraser, LLC, PO Box 376, 410 West Falmouth Hwy #376, MA 02574, USA e-mail: mdh102559@gmail.com