Genes, brains and language: would someone please pull the brakes?

Nathalie Gontier

Onderzoeksoutput: Meeting abstract (Book)


Abstract regarding the proposed theme: How has recent research in evolutionary biology and psychology affected our perceptions of cultural productions?

The scientific study of the origin of language has recently been the subject of some major paradigm shifts. To begin with, instructionist accounts were overthrown by selectionist ones (Pinker & Bloom, 1990). Secondly, recent genetic discoveries such as, on the one hand, the FOXP2 gene (Lai et al. 2001, Enard et al., 2002), presumably correlated with speech, and on the other hand, MICROCEPHALIN (MCPH1) (Evans et al., 2005; Woods et al. 2005) and ASPM (MCPH5) (Mekel Bobrov et al. 2005), both responsible for brain growth, are for the first time in history hinting at the varying ways in which cultural and cognitive behaviour can be traced back to our evolutionary past (Balter et al, 2005). Not only did the discovery of these genes immediately put some of the long standing theories about language and the brain to rest. It also got obvious, that although all these genes are the target of positive selection, a mere selectionist approach will not suffice to deal with the complex issue of how genes, gene products and brain growth relate to cultural behaviour such as language or social cognition.
Things even get more complicated because of disciplinary boundaries that need to get crossed by the scholars involved. The different jargon used by neurologists, linguists, geneticists and evolutionary biologists, leads to confusions and dangerous misinterpretations, and whats even worse, reflexivity on this matter, in general, is lacking.
Philosophy of biology and evolutionary epistemology could play an important role here. If anything, philosophy of science is about introducing reflexivity on the one hand and on the other, it aims at synthesizing different points of view. Traditionally, culture and its most studied product, language, have been studied from within anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychology, neurology and philosophy. Evolutionary biology and genetics have only recently taken language as a topic of scientific investigation as well. The most pertinent question that awaits a philosophical, reflexive answer is therefore the following: How exactly is it that a gene can be related to a certain (cultural) behaviour, and how does this affect other classic domains that explain that behaviour?
Answering this question is bringing evolutionary epistemology (Gontier, 2006a,b,c,d) to bear on these different fields, by investigating how the units and levels of selection debate can be introduced to allow not only the study of different levels of language evolution but also the scientific domains that best capture these levels.


Balter M: Evolution. Are human brains still evolving? Brain genes show signs of selection. Science 2005; 309: 1662/1663.
Enard W, Przeworski M, Fisher SE et al: Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language. Nature 2002; 418: 869/872.
Evans PD, Gilbert SL, MekelBobrov N et al: Microcephalin, a gene regulating brain size, continues to evolve adaptively in humans science. Science 2005; 309: 1717/1720.
Gontier, N. 2006a. An Epistemological Inquiry into the What is Language Question and the What Did Language Evolve For Question. In Cangelosi, A., Smith, A.D.M., & Smith, K. (eds.). 2006. The evolution of language. Proceedings of the 6th International Conference (Evolang 6), 107115. London: World Scientific.
Gontier, N. 2006b. Introduction to evolutionary epistemology, language and culture. In N. Gontier, J.P. Van Bendegem & D. Aerts (Eds), Evolutionary epistemology, language and culture. Dordrecht: Springer. 129. [Theory and decision library, Series A vol. 39, Series editor: Julian NIDARUMELIN.]
Gontier, N. 2006c. Evolutionary Epistemology. The internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Gontier, N. 2006d. Language and pathologies: An epistemological reflection. Cognitive Systems 7 (1): 3360.
Lai CS, Fisher SE, Hurst JA, VarghaKhadem F, Monaco AP: A forkheaddomain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature 2001; 413: 519/523.
MekelBobrov N, Gilbert SL, Evans PD et al: Ongoing adaptive evolution of ASPM, a brain size determinant in Homo sapiens. Science 2005; 309: 1720/1722.
Pinker, S., & Bloom, P. 1990 Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Bran Sciences, 13 (4): 70784.
Woods CG, Bond J, Enard W: Autosomal recessive primary microcephaly (MCPH): a review of clinical, molecular, and evolutionary findings. Am J Hum Genet 2005; 76: 717/728.
Originele taal-2English
TitelFrom the Brain to Human Culture: intersections between the humanities and neuroscience
RedacteurenJohn Hunter
UitgeverijBucknell University, PA
Aantal pagina's1
StatusPublished - 20 apr 2007
EvenementUnknown - Stockholm, Sweden
Duur: 21 sep 200925 sep 2009

Publicatie series

NaamFrom the Brain to Human Culture: intersections between the humanities and neuroscience



Bibliografische nota

John Hunter


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