Centre for Philosophy of Science Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab

Daniel Dor


Course description

In this course, I will to try to introduce the students to the vast and highly-complex discourse that emerged in the last three decades around the all-important question of the origin and evolution of human language. We will work our way from the different interpretations of the question, through some of the answers discussed in the literature, to the perspective that I've been developing in my linguistic work and together with evolutionary biologist Eva Jablonka: Language is a socially-constructed communication technology of a very particular functional type. Human communities developed the collective ability to invent (a first prototype of) the technology before human individuals acquired the cognitive makeup that makes us efficient speakers today. As language gradually changed social life, individuals began to be selected for their linguistic capacities: First we invented language, then language changed us.
I'm afraid the reading list below will not leave the readers with a strong sense of clarity and coherence. The literature is immense, and the points of consensus very few – even with respect to the formulation of the foundational question. A lot is missing from the list, and some of the papers in it (e.g., Goldberg, Wrangham) are not even about the evolution of language as such. They are there to help construct some of the arguments to be presented in class. I will assume a general understanding of evolutionary theory, especially of evo-devo (West-Eberhard M. J., Developmental plasticity in evolution, 2003, Oxford University Press.)

Day-by-Day Program

Lecture 1: Setting the Multidisciplinary Scene: The History of the Question, the Complexities of Argumentation, the Relationship with Evolutionary Theory, and the Different Interpretations of the "co-" in Co-Evolution

  1. Bickerton, D. (2007). Language evolution: A brief guide for linguists. Lingua 117, 510–526.
  2. Christiansen, M.H. and S. Kirby (2003). Language evolution: The hardest problem in science? In: Christiansen and Kirby (eds.), Language Evolution. Oxford University Press.
  3. Dor, D. and E. Jablonka (to appear) Why we need to move from gene-culture co-evolution to culturally-driven co-evolution. In: Dor, D., C. Knight and J. Lewis (eds.), The social origins of language: Early Society, Communication and polymodality. Oxford University Press.
  4. Fitch, W. T. (2000). The evolution of speech: A comparative review.  Trends in cog. Sci.  4, 7, 258-267.
  5. Tomasello, M., M. Carpenter, J. Call, T. Behne and H. Moll (2005). Understanding  and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28, 675–735.


Lecture 2: Perspectives on Language as an Object of Evolution. The Biolinguistic Program, the Functionalist Perspective, Language as a Communication Technology, Typology

  1. Dor, D. (to appear). The Instruction of Imagination: A General Theory of Language as a Communication Technology. In: Dor, D., C. Knight and J. Lewis (eds.), The social origins of language: Early Society, Communication and polymodality. Oxford University Press.
  2. Evans, N. and S. Levinson (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32, 429–492.
  3. Goldberg, A. (2009). The nature of generalization in language. Cognitive Linguistics 20, 1, 93–127.
  4. Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N. and Fitch, W. T. (2002). The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how does it evolve? Science, 298, 1569–1579.
  5. Jackendoff, R. and S. Pinker (2005). The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language (Reply to Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky). Cognition 97 (2005) 211–225.


Lecture 3: Lessons we Learn from our Relatives: On Chimpanzees, Bonobos and Baboons

  1. Cheney, D.L. and R.M. Seyfarth (2005). Constraints and preadaptations in the earliest stages of language evolution. The Linguistic Review 22, 135–159.
  2. Dunbar, R. (1998). The Social Brain Hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology 6, 5, 178-190.
  3. Savage-Rumbaugh, S., W.M. Fields and P. Segerdahl (2005). Culture Prefigures Cognition in Pan/Homo Bonobos. Theoria, 20, 3.
  4. Tomasello, M. and E. Herrmann (2010). Ape and human cognition: what's the difference? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 1, 3-8.


Lecture 4: Human Life Before Language: Mimesis, Polymodality, Intersubjectivity, Cooking, Alloparenting, Ritual

  1. Blaffer-Hrdy, S. (2001). Mothers and others. (A short piece on the book with the same name.)
  2. Donald, M. (2005). Imitation and Mimesis. In Hurley S. and N. Chater (eds.) Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science, Volume 2: Imitation, Human Development, and Culture. MIT Press, 2005, 14:282-300
  3. Knight, C. (1998). Ritual/speech coevolution: a solution to the problem of deception. In: Hurford, J., Studdert-Kennedy, M. and C. Knight (eds.), Approaches to the evolution of language. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Marwick, B. (2003). Pleistocene exchange networks as evidence for the evolution of language. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13, 1, 67–81.
  5. Wrangham, R. and N. Conklin-Brittain (2003). ‘Cooking as a biological trait`. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology,  Part A 136, 35–46.


Lecture 5: The Emergence and Development of Language and its Speakers 

  1. Arbib, M. A. (2005). From monkey-like action recognition to human language: An evolutionary framework for neurolinguistics. Behavioral and brain sciences 28, 105-167.
  2. Dor, D. and E. Jablonka (2010). Plasticity and canalization in the evolution of linguistic communication: an evolutionary-developmental approach. In: Larson, Richard, Viviane Deprez and Hiroko Yamakido (eds.), The Evolution of Human Language. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Jablonka, E., S. Ginsburg and D. Dor (2012). The co-evolution of language and emotions. Philophical transactions of the Royal Society B, 367, 2152-2159.
  4. Kirby, S. and Christiansen, M. H. (2003). From language learning to language evolution. In Christiansen, M. and Kirby, S. (eds.), Language evolution, 272-294. Oxford University Press.
  5. Lieberman, Philip. (2007). The Evolution of human speech: Its anatomical and neural Bases. Current Anthropology 48, 1, 39-66.