UCL News


Language is driven by culture, not biology

20 January 2009


Students talking ucl.ac.uk/media/library/humanlanguage" target="_self">UCL press release
  • PNAS research paper
  • Professor Nick Chater
  • Language in humans has evolved culturally rather than genetically, according to a study by Professor Nick Chater (UCL Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences) and US colleagues published today in the 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' (PNAS).

    By modelling the ways in which genes for language might have evolved alongside language itself, the study showed that genetic adaptation to language would be highly unlikely, as cultural conventions change much more rapidly than genes. Thus, the biological machinery upon which human language is built appears to predate the emergence of language.

    According to a phenomenon known as the Baldwin effect, characteristics that are learned or developed over a lifespan may become gradually encoded in the genome over many generations, because organisms with a stronger predisposition to acquire a trait have a selective advantage. Over generations, the amount of environmental exposure required to develop the trait decreases, and eventually no environmental exposure may be needed - the trait is genetically encoded.

    Professor Nick Chater, UCL Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, said: "Language is uniquely human. But does this uniqueness stem from biology or culture? This question is central to our understanding of what it is to be human, and has fundamental implications for the relationship between genes and culture. Our paper uncovers a paradox at the heart of theories about the evolutionary origin and genetic basis of human language - although we have appear to have a genetic predisposition towards language, human language has evolved far more quickly than our genes could keep up with, suggesting that language is shaped and driven by culture rather than biology."

    To read the full press release and for more information, follow the links at the top of this article.