Evolutionary biological foundations of the origin of language: the co‐evolution of language and brain

Szabolcs Számadó and Eörs Szathmáry

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Evolutionary biological foundations of the origin of language: the co‐evolution of language and brain

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  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Cognitive Linguistics


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This article explains the evolution of human language and the brain. There are many ways organisms can adapt to moving targets. One of the ways is genetic evolution, when natural selection acts on variation in the population, selecting against those alleles that provide the least fit to the environment. The second way is by utilizing the phenotypic plasticity of a genotype. The third way is by means of systems and organs, which have evolved to cope with fast-changing environments and which have genetic underpinnings also. A set of genes can give rise to different phenotypes depending on the environment in which development takes place. The phenomenon, phenotypic plasticity, may be adaptive in species with variable environments. When natural selection acts to preserve adaptive phenotypes, it can lead to genetic change and to the fixation of specific phenotypes within a population by several evolutionary processes, including the Baldwin effect and genetic assimilation. The human brain is a very specific organ selected for the ability to track fast-changing parts of the relevant environment, which for hominins also included the linguistic environment. The human brain is highly efficient when it comes to language acquisition and production and is more efficient than any other known brain or artificial computing mechanisms.

Keywords: natural selection; linguistic environment; genetic evolution; phenotypic plasticity; adaptive phenotypes

Article.  4544 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Cognitive Linguistics

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