Language and Genes

One thing that always baffled me was when linguistics opine on biology or evolution in particular. We hear that language emerged more or less instantaneously (in evolutionary timescales), that maybe it was just a single mutation, that the core of the language faculty or what is unique to language is only one single thing (merge of course) etc… in different variations, some more hedging, some more blunt and simple.

I was always a little bit baffled by these statements. First you think `What do I, a lowly student, know about this, they will have their reasons if they say something like this, and it is published in a journal. There is probably a lot of evidence indicating in this direction’. Then you notice that these statements are (hopefully) rather understood as grand conjectures and wild guesses. You also notice that in these texts there never appear things that you don’t understand – which is a bad sign. You might expect that if you make claims about biology, evolution or the brain, then evidence/data/lines of reasoning from these disciplines should enter your discussion and since, as a linguist, you don’t have any idea whatsoever about these issues you should be hopelessly lost as soon as it gets down to the nitty-gritty. But this never happens. There is usually only circumstantial evidence (e.g. the archeological record, which is only relevant as long as it shows human superiority). But there never are any fancy biology/brain/evolution terms that you don’t understand.

So the fear creeps in that linguists are located on the below mountain when it comes to biology:

I always wondered how such statements would make most biologist feel if they read these articles.

What baffles me most, however, is this: to also participate in shouting from this particular mountain top, I always perceived biology as messy, often redundant and highly complex, so why should language be so exceptional in that it is so clean and simple? I just have a hard time believing that this is how it is – which runs contrary to my desires: if linguistics were like this, it’d be more like physics which I would love. Alas, it feels too good to be true.

If there is just one ‘gene’, ‘mutation’ or whatever fancy biology terminology you want to insert, why is it so robust against everything? Why aren’t there people with genetic defects or whatever who are cognitively completely normal (i.e. they possess the whole Faculty of Language Broad FLB) but just lack merge (FLN) and only merge? Or why can’t you locate merge in a specific brain area, and damage to that brain area shuts your language capacity down completely (in a ‘merge is in BA45’ style reasoning a la Friederici)? Or why didn’t this one mutation mutate further into hell knows what?

Why is language so robust against everything?

If you think that these questions are a much too simplistic way to think about that, that it isn’t just ‘one gene’ or whatever, that this is an amateurish view of these matters – that is precisely my point.

I’m not really sure whether it is really helpful to spread views like that; at least for me personally (that might be different for other people) that does not really provide an interesting research avenue and mixes up is with ought. It’s not ‘how do we solve this problem’ but more like ‘wouldn’t it be cool if language were this perfect, elegant, simple thing, totally unique in nature, setting us completely apart from any other animal; please marvel at us linguists’.

An interesting article that touches upon these matters is this:

I’d like to see what biologist that are unacquainted with linguistics say about this and how plausible they find this scenario.


Here is another short but nice interview about the same topic:

This entry was posted in Evolution, Linguistics, Sociology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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