Bioscience Initiative

Bioscience Initiative
Leiden University

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The biology and evolution of language: A comparative approach

Van Leeuwenhoek Lecture on BioScience.

Thursday February 18 2016 at 16.00hrs.
Gorlaeus, Cell Observatory
From 15.45 onwards: tea/coffee/biscuits
Drinks after the lecture
Tecumseh Fitch

Tecumseh Fitch is an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist. He is professor of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna (from 2009 on).

After his study Biology (Brown University) and after obtaining his Ph.D (1994, Brown University; Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences), he was a postdoc and a Lecturer at Harvard; from 2003-2009 he was a Senior Lecturer and Reader at the School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews.  In 2002/2003 he was also a Fellow of the European Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin and in 2006 he was also a Leibniz Professor & Visiting Scholar at  the Max Planck Institute EVA in Leibniz.

His interests include: The evolution and neural basis of cognition and communication. Biolinguistics. Bioaccoustics: physiology and perception of vertebrate vocalization (including human speech). The evolution of animal communication systems, including speech, language and music. Biomusicology. Theoretical biology. Sonification (Auditory display of data). Biology and Aesthetics. 

Human language rests upon an evolved biological foundation, some components of which are unique to our species. Although language, as a whole, is unique to humans,, many components of language are nonetheless shared with other animals. The precise nature of the mechanisms underlying language remains debated, as does the degree to which they are or are not shared with other animals. I outline a solidly comparative approach to this current research problem.

I illustrate the value of a comparative approach with case studies on speech and syntax. In speech, recent data indicate that a long-standing focus on vocal anatomy, and particularly the descended human larynx, has deflected attention away from more fundamental changes in the neural pathway involved in speech control. A broad range of species, including monkeys, deer, songbirds, and seals, provide comparisons that are relevant to this conclusion. Regarding syntax, recent data examining pattern perception in both auditory and visual domains suggest that some aspects of linguistic syntax rest on a cognitive basis that also applies to other human cognitive domains including music and visual pattern perception. Specifically, the strong human propensity to attribute complex, hierarchically-embedded structures to visual or auditory inputs appears to be biologically unusual or perhaps unique to our species. 

I conclude that the broad comparative approach favored by cognitive biologists has much to teach us about the biology and evolution of language, and that future progress will require investigation of a much broader set of species than has typified past work. I end with a brief discussion of different models of “protolanguage” in this comparative context, including Darwin’s hypothesis od a “musical protolanguage” . I explain how molecular data, particularly fossil DNA, offer the potential to resolve debates about theorder in which particular components of language were acquired during phylogeny.