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Linguistics Research Informs Evolution and Vice Versa

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Science is dead without the philosophical wherewithal to decide that exploration and understanding are worth pursuing. The motivation for scientific study is, first and foremost, metaphysical, and bio-philosophy has historically aimed to answer a set of certain repeat questions more than others. One such question pertains to the origins of phenomena of the human mind like logic, language, and creativity. Where do they fall on the evolutionary timeline and why? A new book attempts to dive into that question and provide as thorough an answer as possible. Harvard University’s godfather of bio-philosophy, Edward Wilson, is 88 years old, and he’s just penned, The Origins of Creativity.

The text is bubbling over with meandering pontifications as Wilson waxes on the subject, but all his ideas remain anchored to the theory of evolution and are centralized around genetics. He threads these things together with the belief that creativity and culture can both be traced back to genetics. He takes creativity itself back to the prehistoric, African savannah. It is widely accepted that prehistoric hominids were initially vapid, asocial herbivores, and Wilson makes the argument that the transition to eating meat was critical to man’s development. It led human beings having to hunt animals, which they eventually did in groups upon realizing the need to help one another, and that necessitated the development of social behaviors for the sake of sound cooperation.



Wilson goes further to suggest that this may not have necessarily occurred prior to the development of linguistic faculties but did make communication and social intelligence paramount. As such, natural selection debatably began to favor symbolic language, and suddenly, what we call the humanities was born. These were the building blocks of storytelling and, as Wilson describes it, the “nocturnal firelight of the earliest human encampments.”

Back in October 2017, Uppsala University linguistics and philology professor, Michael Dunn, published an article with colleagues that borrowed principles from evolutionary biology to study how large groups of languages have evolved over the course of multiple millennia. They focused more on the Austronesian language family than any other, which is a group of languages primarily spoken in places scattered from Taiwan (next to China) to Easter Island, the southernmost island in the Polynesian Triangle southeast of Australia. There’s already plenty of documentation about how this language family spread, which is why Dunn’s team elected to focus such a large part of their project on it.


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Linguists have models and methods that they use to suss out the evolutionary timeline, so to speak, of a language or language family. It’s why a good dictionary can tell you how the English word you looked up was derived from some Greek, Latin or German word, English being a member of a Germanic language family. It’s similar to how Gregor Mendel figured out the rudiments of heredity just by analyzing how variation patterns emerged in plant forms in relation to their ancestry.

“Languages are a lot more than just a bundle of words,” Dunn wrote. “They also include all the principles for combining those words into meaningful utterances: grammar. And, like words, grammar also changes over time. We wanted to discover whether grammar evolves in the same way as words.” Dunn and his colleagues, therefore, used evolutionary biology tools to construct a computational model for figuring out the rate at which (and the manner in which) disparate languages within the Austronesian family evolved. The results of this portion of their study illustrated that new languages diverged from existing ones either due to or concurrently with major lexical shifts in grammar, which is a lot more convoluted than just sprouting new words.



This led them to have to inquire as to what caused these shifts. The data from the study suggests that the aspects of a language’s syntax of which speakers are consciously aware generally change faster. Conversely, aspects of that language’s syntax of which speakers are less aware change more slowly. Awareness appears to be key, therefore. More languages can be studied this way, piggybacking off biological evolutionary studies as well as anthropological ones, but in order to reap the insights intended from this line of research, it behooves human beings to keep as many active languages going as possible to make them easier to study and easier to trace.

As such, Max Farrell and Nicolas Perrault launched a case study in which they borrow approaches from conservation biology to collect data on 350 Austronesian languages. Language Magazine covered there work on Jan. 2. Farrell’s a Ph.D. student in the lab of Jonathan Davies, a biology professor at McGill University in Canada. His co-author, Perrault, is a graduate student at Oxford University in the UK. Farrell says, “The rapid rate of language loss, coupled with limited resources for preservation, means that we must choose carefully where to focus our efforts.”

“The more isolated a language in its family tree,” Farrell adds, “the more unique information it contains and ultimately contributes to linguistic diversity.” He and Perrault partly relied on data that experts from the University of Auckland collected in 2009 on several hundred languages in that family, but they also supplemented that with Ethnologue, which is an online database of more than 7,000 running languages.



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