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  • The 8th International Conference in Evolutionary LinguisticsAugust 8-10, 2016, Bloomington, Indiana (USA)
  • P. Thomas Schoenemann, Peng Gang, and Robert Port

The International Conference in Evolutionary Linguistics held its 8th annual meeting (CIEL8) at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, August 8-10, 2016.1 It was the first meeting in this series to be held outside of China. The conference was sponsored by many units on campus, including the Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, The College of Arts and Sciences, the Indiana University Ostrom Workshop, the Cognitive Science Program, the Departments of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Linguistics, and Anthropology, the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, the East Asian Studies Center, the Australian National University-Indiana University Pan Asia Institute, and the Chinese Flagship Program. In addition, the Stone Age Institute ( hosted a beautiful dinner/reception, as well as the closing banquet on the last night. The organizing committee chair was Prof. Thomas Schoenemann, Department of Anthropology at Indiana. A total of 92 papers were submitted from researchers all over the world, including Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, Austria, France, the United Kingdom, [End Page 238] and the U.S.A, of which 53 were accepted for oral presentation and 1 for poster presentation. There were 7 Keynote talks. Papers were presented in both English (37 papers) and in Chinese (17 papers).

The introductory keynote address was presented by William Shi-Yuan Wang of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who was also the honorary chairman of the conference. His talk reviewed the challenging concept of exaptation. This neologism was invented by biologists Stephen J. Gould and Elizabeth Vrba (1982) and referred to the notion that many evolutionary innovations likely originated with altogether different evolutionary purposes than they now server, but were modified – sometimes substantially – to serve different purposes today. One example is the evolution of insect wings, whose ultimate purpose is obviously flight (which supports catching prey and evading predators) but whose earliest stages likely functioned instead primarily to control body temperature. Another example (suggested by Darwin himself) is the swim bladder in fish. Originally it functioned for flotation in fish but was later modified to provide a means of respiration, and ultimately became our lungs. Prof. Wang noted that this idea was applied to the question of language origins in man in 1921 by Edward Sapir (1921), who wrote: "Physiologically, speech is an overlaid function, or, to be more precise, a group of overlaid functions. It gets what service it can out of organs and functions, nervous and muscular, that have come into being and are maintained for very different ends than its own." Prof. Wang then connected the idea of exaptation to François Jacob's (1977) proposal of evolution as a tinkerer – making new features from pre-existing parts. Prof. Wang himself noted the importance of these ideas for language evolution as far back as 1979, in his Diamond Jubilee Lectures at Osmania University (Wang, 1982): "Explorations in Language Evolution," where he notes that language "… evolved in a mosaic fashion, with the emergence of semantics, phonology, morphology and syntax all at different times and according to different schedules … language is regarded as a kind of 'interface' among a variety of more basic abilities." Prof. Wang illustrated how these ideas have found their way into numerous recent discussions of language evolution, including discussions by Macneilage & Davis (2005), Dehaene & Cohen (2007), Mufwene (2013) (also a Keynote speaker at CIEL8), Lieberman (2013), Tomasello (2014), Bickerton (2014), and Levinson (2014), [End Page 239] to name just a few. There is also a connection with Alfred Russel Wallace's famous concerns about natural selection as an explanation for cognitive evolution, and language in particular. Wallace pointed out that humans seem have evolved brains much more powerful than necessary to survive: "It seems as if the organ had been prepared in anticipation of the future progress in man, since it contains latent capacities which are useless to him in his earlier condition." While Wallace thought this meant that natural selection could not explain the evolution of advanced human cognition like language, it seems instead that language simply made...


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