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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Mar 20;104(12):5241-5. Epub 2007 Mar 12.

Innateness and culture in the evolution of language.

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  • 1School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh, 40 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LL, United Kingdom. simon@ling.ed.ac.uk


Human language arises from biological evolution, individual learning, and cultural transmission, but the interaction of these three processes has not been widely studied. We set out a formal framework for analyzing cultural transmission, which allows us to investigate how innate learning biases are related to universal properties of language. We show that cultural transmission can magnify weak biases into strong linguistic universals, undermining one of the arguments for strong innate constraints on language learning. As a consequence, the strength of innate biases can be shielded from natural selection, allowing these genes to drift. Furthermore, even when there is no natural selection, cultural transmission can produce apparent adaptations. Cultural transmission thus provides an alternative to traditional nativist and adaptationist explanations for the properties of human languages.

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