Brains, Genes and Language Evolution


Morten Christiansen, PhD


May 26, 2011, 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm


Harper Memorial Library
Rm: 130


CCSN-SM Brains, Genes and Language Evolution

Submitting Unit
Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience Seminar
Date of Event:
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Start Time: 4:00 PM
End Time: 5:30 PM
Harper Memorial Library Room
Room: 130

Name of Series, Lectureship, Ceremony:
CCSN Spring Speaker Series

Title of talk or presentation:
Brains, Genes and Language Evolution

Speaker’s Name and Degrees:
Morten Christiansen, PhD

Speaker’s Institutional Affiliation:
Cornell University and the Santa Fe Institute

Why is language the way it is, and how did it come to be that way? Answering these questions requires postulating genetic constraints on language. A key challenge for language evolution research is therefore to explain whether such genetic constraints are specific to language or whether they might be more general in nature. In this talk, Dr. Christiansen argues that traditional notions of universal grammar as a biological endowment of abstract linguistic constraints can be ruled out on evolutionary grounds. Instead, the fit between the mechanisms employed for language and the way in which language is acquired and used can be explained by processes of cultural evolution shaped by the human brain. On this account, language evolved by ‘piggy-backing’ on pre-existing neural mechanisms, constrained by socio-pragmatic considerations, the nature of our thought processes, perceptuo-motor factors, and cognitive limitations on learning, memory and processing. Using behavioral, computational and molecular genetics methods, he then explores how one of these constraints—the ability to learn and process sequentially presented information -— may have played an important role in shaping language through cultural evolution. He concludes by drawing out the implications of this viewpoint for understanding the problem of language acquisition, which is cast in a new, and much more tractable, form.

Contact Name
Anna Gomberg

Contact Email

Contact Phone

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