Centre for Philosophy of Science Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab

Mónica Tamariz

Computational and experimental models of the cultural evolution of language

Course description

Humans have developed the only communication systems that are simultaneously symbolic, internally structured, and socially learned, namely languages. If we want to investigate why human languages are the way they are in a comprehensive way, we must look not only at biological-evolutionary innovations in our species related to socio-cognitive capacities such as imitation, intention-awareness, vocal learning or enhanced memory, but also at social and cultural variables. Recent studies show that factors such as social-cognitive biases, the structure of meanings or social-network structure can give rise to and modify key features of languages including systematic regularity, conventional meaning or phonemic categories.

These new findings have been possible thanks to mathematical models, computer simulations and experiments. This course is an introduction to the last two. Computer models can test the effects of variables that would be difficult to manipulate in real life, for instance very large populations or many generations. And experiments with micro-populations learning or using miniature artificial languages allow us to explore the effects of cognitive and social biases on linguistic structure.

Over the five days we will discuss the validity and scope of the methods and study a large variety of example cultural-evolution simulations and experiments from the literature. The course will also include some hands-on exercises about experimental design and result analysis and interpretation.


Day-by-Day Program


Lecture 1: Cultural Evolution. Language. What Computer Models and Experiments Can Tell Us About the Cultural Evolution of Language

  1. Kirby, S. (2001). Spontaneous evolution of linguistic structure: An iterated learning model of the emergence of regularity and irregularity. IEEE Transactions on Evolutionary Computation, 5, 102-110.
  2. Steels, L. & Kaplan, F. (2002). Bootstrapping grounded word semantics. In E. Briscoe (Ed.), Linguistic evolution through language acquisition: formal and computational models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Lecture 2: Computer Models. From Phoneme Categories to Coordinated Communities of Speakers

  1. de Boer, B. (2000). Self-organization in vowel systems. Journal of Phonetics, 28(4), 441-465.
  2. Wedel, A. (2006). Exemplar models, evolution and language change. The Linguistic Review, 23: 247-274.


Lecture 3: Experimental Studies (I): Iterated Learning

  1. Scott-Phillips, T. C. & Kirby, S. (2010). Language evolution in the laboratory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(9), 411-417.
  2. Kalish, M. L., Griffiths, T. L., & Lewandowsky, S. (2007). Iterated learning: Intergenerational knowledge transmission reveals inductive biases. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14(2), 288-294.
  3. Kirby, S. Cornish, H. & Smith, K. (2008). Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: an experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 10681-10686.


Lecture 4: Experimental Studies (II) : Communication

  1. Scott-Phillips, T. C., Kirby, S. & Ritchie, G. R. S. (2009). Signalling signalhood and the emergence of communication. Cognition 113(2), 226-233.
  2. Galantucci, B. (2005). An experimental study of the emergence of human communication systems. Cognitive Science, 29(5), 737–767.
  3. Fay N., Garrod S. Roberts, L. & Swoboda N. (2010) The interactive evolution of human communicative systems. Cognitive Science Vol.34 pp 351-386.


Lecture 5: Integrating Knowledge: What Do We Know and What New Areas Could Be Explored?

  1. Verhoef, T. Kirby, S. & Padden, C. (2011). Cultural emergence of combinatorial structure in an artificial whistled language. In L. Carlson, C. Hoelscher & T.F. Shipley (Eds.), Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Cognitive Science Society, pp. 483-488.
  2. Perfors, A., Navarro, D. J. (2011) Language evolution is shaped by the structure of the world: An iterated learning analysis. In L. Carlson, C. Hoelscher & T. F. Shipley (Eds) Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.