Culture Magazine

The Evolution of Language and Thought

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
J Anthropol Sci. 2016 Mar 8. [Epub ahead of print]

The evolution of language and thought.

Lieberman P1.

Author information


Language primarily evolved as a vocal medium that transmits the attributes of human culture and the necessities of daily communication. Human language has a long, complex evolutionary history. Language also serves as an instrument of thought since it has become evident that in the course of this process neural circuits that initially evolved to regulate motor control, motor responses to external events, and ultimately talking were recycled to serve tasks such as working memory, cognitive flexibility linguistic tasks such as comprehending distinctions in meaning conveyed by syntax. This precludes the human brain possessing an organ devoted exclusively to language, such as the Faculty of Language proposed by Chomsky (1972, 2012). In essence like Fodor's (1983) modular model, a restatement of archaic phrenological theories (Spurzheim, 1815). The subcortical basal ganglia can be traced back to early anurans. Although our knowledge of the neural circuits of the human brain is at a very early stage and incomplete, the findings of independent studies over the past 40 years, discussed here, have identified circuits linking the basal ganglia with various areas of prefrontal cortex, posterior cortical regions and other subcortical structures. These circuits are active in linguistic tasks such as lexical access, comprehending distinctions in meaning conferred by syntax and the range of higher cognitive tasks involving executive control and play a critical role in conferring cognitive flexibility. The cingulate cortex which appeared in Therapsids, transitional mammal-like reptiles who lived in age of the dinosaurs, most likely enhanced mother-infant interaction, contributing to success in the Darwinian (1859) "Struggle for Existence" - the survival of progeny. They continue to fill that role in present-day mammals as well as being involved in controlling laryngeal phonation during speech and directing attention (Newman & MacLean, 1983; Cummings, 1993". The cerebellum and hippocampus, archaic structures, play role in cognition. Natural selection acting on genetic and epigenetic events in the last 500,000 years enhanced human cognitive and linguistic capabilities. It is clear that human language did not suddenly come into being 70,000 to 100,000 years as Noam Chomsky (Bolhuis et al., 2014) and others claim. The archeological record and analyses of fossil and genetic evidence shows that Neanderthals, who diverged from the human line at least 500,000 years ago possessed some form of language. Nor did the human population suddenly acquire the capability to relate two seemingly unrelated concepts by means of associative learning 100,000 years ago, re-coined "Merge" by Chomsky and his adherents, Merge supposedly is the key to syntax but associative learning, one of the cognitive processes by which children learn languages and the myriad complexities of their cultures, is a capability present in dogs and virtually all animals.
[PubMed - as supplied by publisher]

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