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Language is a product of culture. Or is it? Which came first — language or culture? That’s like asking if the chicken or the egg came first. But cultural behavior has been documented in animals who do not have language systems, like gorillas who have intricate systems of processing plants. Richard Byrne summarized this behavior,

“Gorillas do not make tools in the wild… but several of their food-processing skills consist of highly structured, multi-stage sequences of bimanual action, hierarchically organized and flexibly adjusted to plants of highly specific local distribution and these abilities are near-ubiquitous among the local population. In terms of intricate complexity, gorilla plant-processing actually exceeds anything yet described in chimpanzees, unless tool-use per se is taken to be intrinsically more complex than non-tool-use. Gorilla, like Pan and Pongo, apparently sometimes relies for its survival on elaborate, deft and intricate feeding skills that are highly unlikely ever to be discovered by a solitary individual.”

This example is just one of many. It documents that culture can be created, persist and change without language. It does so through mimicking and augmentation. So it is generally assumed that culture came first, and language emerged as a system of formalized symbols, sounds, gestures used a means of communicating culture.

Why am I mentioning this at all? Well, we’ve seen, read and reviewed a couple of recent studies investigating cultural evolution and patterns in linguistic diversity. Most notably is the paper by Atkinson et al., where Simon and team showed that language evolves in bursts. Additionally, Deborah Rogers and Paul Ehrlich showed that cultural things have functional and symbolic elements, the former of which is under naturally selective pressures.

Despite these advances, there are some who still think that culture and everything related with culture is nothing but noise. I don’t know where they get this idea from. Even John Herschel and Charles Darwin understood that extant ‘languages descended from a common ancestor,’ and, ‘the formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel.’ This observation was made before the publication of The Voyage of the Beagle and without a doubt helped lay the framework for the theory of evolution. The irony is that these vocal objections come from someone who specializes in studying material culture.

Anyways, I digress. John Whitfield, a science writer and blogger behind El Gentraso, has published a feature in the latest issue of the open access journal PLoS Biology where he summarizes “… the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution.” As anthropologists, we should appreciate the remarkable tangents between the dynamics of linguistic change and biological evolution. Because of these similarities, it is possible to use tools and frameworks used in studying biological evolution to study how language changes… even how cultures evolve. Furthermore, it is very possible that we may soon see a synthesis of theories, one that folds in both both biological and cultural evolution.

Whitfield summarizes research by Simon Kirby, which I didn’t know about but find fascinating.

“Kirby has asked subjects to learn a nonsense language and then teach it to new subjects, and so on. He found that the randomness quickly became regularized, as people unconsciously shaped words into something easier to remember and use, and devised rules to come up with words for things they hadn’t seen. Such a process may be at work in the spontaneous emergence over the past few decades of two sign languages—Nicaraguan Sign Language and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. Each of these has moved rapidly from a system of gestures to a fully fledged language with conventions for grammar and sentence structure. Kirby plans to use them as a test bed for his ideas about how structure in language can rapidly emerge.”

In the piece, Whitfield also got to ask Mark Pagel‘s what his thoughts are with synthesizing ‘the two’. Pagel is an evolutionary biologist. He was one of the coauthors of the paper with Simon Greenhill and Atkinson. He’s also published an earlier paper with Atkinson titled, “Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history.” Pagel responded saying,

“Languages are extraordinarily like genomes. We think there could be very general laws of lexical evolution to rival those of genetic evolution.”

Alex Mesoudi agrees. He told Whitfield,

“If there’s a model system for cultural evolution, then probably the people working on language have got it, because there’s so much data… Cultural change and biological change share the same fundamental properties of variation, selection and inheritance.”

William Croft is a bit more cautious but also understands that,

“these are two different instantiations of a general theory of evolutionary change. These are early days, but such a theory will give us insights that you can’t get just by looking at one domain.”

So what do you think — is it possible to synthesize the two? Or do they exist as two inherently different entities that change under different conditions?

Oh, you may also be interested in this related video discussion between Paul Ehrlich and Carl Zimmer — where Ehrlich advocates that cultural evolution needs its own theoretical framework aside from evolutionary biology. Strange proposition, especially because he used a natural selection framework in his latest PNAS paper.

    Pagel, M., Atkinson, Q.D., Meade, A. (2007). Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Nature, 449(7163), 717-720. DOI: 10.1038/nature06176
    Byrne, R.W. (2007). Culture in great apes: using intricate complexity in feeding skills to trace the evolutionary origin of human technical prowess. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362(1480), 577-585. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1996
    Whitfield, J. (2008). Across the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution. PLoS Biology, 6(7), e186. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060186