Abstract

The Queen Mary conference on "Integrating Genetic and Cultural Evolutionary Approaches to Language," and the papers in this special issue, clearly illustrate the excitement and potential of trans-disciplinary approaches to language as an evolved biological capacity (phylogeny) and an evolving cultural entity (glossogeny). Excepting the present author, the presenters/authors are mostly young rising stars in their respective fields, and include scientists with backgrounds in linguistics, animal communication, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and computer science. On display was a clear willingness to engage with different approaches and terminology and a commitment to shared standards of scientific rigor, empirically driven theory, and logical argument. Because the papers assembled here, together with the introduction, speak for themselves, I will focus in this "extro-duction" on some of the terminological and conceptual difficulties which threaten to block this exciting wave of scientific progress in understanding language evolution, in both senses of that term. In particular I will first argue against the regrettably widespread practice of opposing cultural and genetic explanations of human cognition as if they were dichotomous. Second, I will unpack the debate concerning "general-purpose" and "domain-specific" mechanisms, which masquerades as a debate about nativism but is nothing of the sort. I believe that framing discussions of language in these terms has generated more heat than light, and that a modern molecular understanding of genes, development, behavior, and evolution renders many of the assumptions underlying this debate invalid.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-6617
Print ISSN
0018-7143
Pages
pp. 323-329
Launched on MUSE
2011-06-05
Open Access
No
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