How culture and biology interact to shape language and the language faculty

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Recent work suggests that linguistic structure develops through cultural evolution, as a consequence of the repeated cycle of learning and use by which languages persist. This work has important implications for our understanding of the evolution of the cognitive basis for language: in particular,human language and the cognitive capacities underpinning it are likely to have been shaped by co-evolutionary processes, where the cultural evolution of linguistic systems is shaped by and in turn shapes the biological evolution of the capacities underpinning language learning. I review several models of this co-evolutionary process, which suggest that the precise relationship between evolved biases in individuals and the structure of linguistic systems depends on the extent to which cultural evolution masks or unmasks individual-level cognitive biases from selection. I finish by discussing how these co-evolutionary models might be extended to cases where the biases involved in learning are themselves shaped by experience, as is the case for language.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-23
JournalTopics in Cognitive Science
Early online date4 Sep 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Sep 2018


  • cultural evolution
  • gene-culture co-evolution
  • language
  • iterated learning

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