Simon Kirby: The Language Organism

Language is a method of sharing thoughts. It is uniquely human: Many species communicate using pre-specified techniques, such as markings on a flower to direct bees, or gestures between mammals – but only humans have the flexibility of language. Language is, perhaps, the key evolutionary advantage the human race has over everything else on planet earth.

So how have we come to develop this trait?

That’s the question Simon Kirby has spent the last 21 years trying to answer, now assisted by one of the world’s leading research groups on the topic. Their research suggests that Darwin’s model of natural selection is not a terribly good explanation. Indeed our culture actually shields us from natural selection, making our genes progressively less important to language as we develop. Simon goes on to speculate that domestification (being buffered from purely survival instincts) is a key condition of the emergence of language.

Kirby’s evidence is especially interesting because, unlike Chomsky, he does not propose an innate underlying structure for the development of language. Such a dominance of unbounded cultural transmission would be both liberating and terrifying: Liberating because it suggests unrealised flexibility in language, especially forms enabled by future technology. Terrifying because (certainly from a relativist perspective, but arguably more widely) shared thought through language is what defines our very being.

This article is based on Simon’s well-attended inaugural lecture to the University of Edinburgh, presented on 22 March 2011. Read More