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Evolution of Brain and Language


  • Several parts of this review were adapted from my contribution to the IIAS International Seminar on Language, Evolution, and the Brain held in Kyoto, Japan in April 2007 (Schoenemann, 2009). I wish to thank John Holland for inviting me to the Language Evolution Workshop at the Santa Fe Institute in March 2007, which served as the genesis for thinking about language from a complex adaptive system approach. I also thank Nick Ellis for organizing the Language as a Complex Adaptive System Conference and the special issue of Language Learning devoted to this topic. This article has also benefited from various discussions with William Wang, James Minett, Vince Sarich, Jim Hurford, Morten Christensen, and Terry Deacon, as well as from suggestions by Nick Ellis, Diane Larsen-Freeman, and two anonymous reviewers.

concerning this article should be addressed to P. Thomas Schoenemann, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 47405. Internet:


The evolution of language and the evolution of the brain are tightly interlinked. Language evolution represents a special kind of adaptation, in part because language is a complex behavior (as opposed to a physical feature) but also because changes are adaptive only to the extent that they increase either one's understanding of others, or one's understanding to others. Evolutionary changes in the human brain that are thought to be relevant to language are reviewed. The extent to which these changes are a cause or consequence of language evolution is a good question, but it is argued that the process may best be viewed as a complex adaptive system, in which cultural learning interacts with biology iteratively over time to produce language.