Innateness and culture in the evolution of language

Simon Kirby*, Mike Dowman, Thomas L. Griffiths

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Human language arises from biological evolution, individual learning, and cultural transmission, but the interaction of these three processes has not been widely studied. We set out a formal framework for analyzing cultural transmission, which allows us to investigate how innate learning biases are related to universal properties of language. We show that cultural transmission can magnify weak biases into strong linguistic universals, undermining one of the arguments for strong innate constraints on language learning. As a consequence, the strength of innate biases can be shielded from natural selection, allowing these genes to drift. Furthermore, even when there is no natural selection, cultural transmission can produce apparent adaptations. Cultural transmission thus provides an alternative to traditional nativist and adaptationist explanations for the properties of human languages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5241-5245
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 20 Mar 2007


  • cultural transmission
  • iterated learning
  • Bayesian learning
  • nativism

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