Talk by Nathalie Gontier: Explanation in evolutionary linguistic sciences: a review of epistemological frameworks

Date and time: May 14, Monday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Nathalie Gontier (Center for Philosophy of Sciences of the University of Lisbon)

Title: Explanation in evolutionary linguistic sciences: a review of epistemological frameworks


Rather than present a theory on the origin and evolution of language, I focus on the various epistemological frameworks that have been introduced to understand and study the origin and evolution of language. Evolutionary linguistics is a relatively young field of research that originated a mere 30 years ago as an outgrowth, on the one hand of the rise of computational linguistics (itself an outgrowth of cybernetics and information theory), and on the other evolutionary psychology. Pinker & Bloom’s 1990 article published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences is often considered a first seminal paper, and the introduction of the EVOLANG conference series a direct response. Nonetheless, research on the origin and evolution of language is very old and has roots in, on the one hand, moral social contract theory, and on the other, the rise of natural history research. Such research originally included both synchronic and diachronic research into the origin of language, but synchronic research became favored, first, because of the publication ban on diachronic research by the French linguistic society in 1866; later due to the favoring of synchronic, systems theoretical approaches by early linguists and anthropologists, and finally due to the rise of biolinguistics. Nonetheless, research on the biological origins of language associates, on the one hand, with the rise of behaviorism, ethology, evolutionary epistemology and comparative psychology; on the other, with the continuation of diachronic sociocultural research and the continuous development of taxonomic and phylogenetic tools to classify the world different languages and their diaspora. And though evolutionary linguistics is a field that originated partly by opposing itself to Chomskyan and biolinguistic programs, the role of neuro- and biolinguists in reviving evolutionary research is not to be underestimated. Today, the study of language evolution is becoming devided into research on the origins of communication in primates, the origin and evolution of protolanguage, and the study of macroevolutionary language dynamics. While originally working from within a universal selectionist approach, the biggest challenge for the field today is incorporating findings associated with the extended evolutionary synthesis.