Document Type

Open Access Article


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 “generalpurpose” 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.