Language Evolution in the Lab: The Emergence of Design Features

Session Date: 
Feb 20, 2015

The emergence of language has been called the most recent major transition in the evolution of life on earth. It gives our species the remarkable ability to accurately communicate entirely novel meanings using sequences of behaviors that are themselves entirely novel. Language enables this feat by virtue of a small set of structural design features that are rare or absent elsewhere in nature. How can we study the evolution of these design features of human language, and hence understand our species-defining characteristic? In this talk, I will show how recent research in evolutionary linguistics has turned to the experiment lab to answer this question. By realizing that cultural as well as biological evolution has a central role to play in the origins of language, we have unlocked a method that allows us to observe the evolutionary emergence of language structure in miniature cultures that we create in the lab.

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