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How Did Human Language Evolve? Scientists Still Don’t Know

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Human language adaptations first appeared in our ancestors

Most scientists think language emerged in stages, as our ancestors evolved the necessary adaptations for speech. (Credit: Sergey Uryadnikov/shutterstock)

Humans have language and other animals don’t. That’s obvious, but how it happened is not. Since Darwin’s time, scientists have puzzled over the evolution of language. They can observe the present-day product: People today have the capacity for language, whether it be spoken, signed or written. And they can infer the starting state: The communication systems of other apes suggest abilities present in our shared ancestor.

But the million-dollar question is what happened in between. How did we transition from ape-like communication to full-fledged human language?

Most scientists think this happened in stages, as our ancestors evolved the adaptations needed for language. In earlier stages, human ancestors would have used a kind of protolanguage — more complex than ape communication, but lacking elements of modern language.

But what exactly was this protolanguage like? That’s where we hit considerable debate. Some researchers argue that our ancestors sang before they spoke. Others claim protolanguage was dominated by pantomimed gestures — a society built on charades.

Here, I’ll do my best to summarize prevailing models for language origins, drawing largely from a 2017 academic review by evolutionary biologist W. Tecumseh Fitch.

But first…

What Makes Language, Language

Before trying to explain how language evolved, we need to clarify exactly what evolved. We must define what language is and how it differs from the communication abilities of our closet evolutionary relatives, the great apes.

In human language, arbitrary sounds and signs represent specific words, which can be learned, invented and infinitely combined within grammatical structures. We can talk about anything we can think — plans, pancakes, politics — including what is not the case: “I have no plans to make pancakes or enter politics.” And many statements have specific meanings that are context dependent. For instance, “How are you?” can be a greeting, not a genuine inquiry. Language allows us to bond with others, or to deceive them. And although our native tongue is not innate, toddlers pick it up without conscious effort.

These qualities make language an extraordinary communication system found exclusively in humans. But the system can be dissected into components, or traits necessary for language. And these emerged at different times in our evolutionary past. Traits shared with other apes likely existed millions of years ago in our common ancestor. The traits we don’t see in other apes probably only emerged in hominins, the evolutionary branch that includes humans and our extinct relatives.

There are at least three elements of language only present in hominins:

First, is a fine-control over our vocal tracts. Other apes are likely born with a more limited repertoire of vocalizations. The difference comes down to how our brains are wired: Humans have direct connections between the neurons controlling our voice box and the motor cortex, the region of our brain responsible for voluntary movements. Brain scans show these connections are lacking in other primates.

Next is our tendency to communicate for the sake of communicating. To encapsulate this, biologist Fitch used the German word Mitteilungsbedürfnis, “the drive to share thoughts.” Whereas chimps use a finite set of calls and gestures to convey the essentials — food, sex and danger — humans talk to bond and exchange ideas, and strive to ensure we’re understood. Most researchers attribute this difference to an idea called “theory of mind,” the understanding that others have thoughts. Chimps demonstrate more limited theory of mind, whereas humans know that other humans think things — and we’re constantly using language to uncover and influence those thoughts.

The last difference is hierarchical syntax. Phrases and sentences have nested structure and these provide meaning beyond the simple sequence of words. For instance, take the sentence: “Chad, who was out to lunch with Tony, was late to the meeting.” Hierarchical syntax processing allows us to correctly interpret that Chad was late to the meeting, even though “Tony” is closer to the verb “was late.” Over 60 years ago and still today, linguist Noam Chomsky proposed hierarchical syntax as the key to language.

So hypotheses for language origins must explain (at least) these three traits: precise vocal learning and control, overtly social communication and hierarchical syntax.

Leading Views on Language Evolution

Now for the fun part: How did these components emerge, and eventually converge, to constitute language?

There are several prevailing views, which differ in terms of the evolutionary pressures favoring language adaptations, the order these adaptations arose and the nature of protolanguage along the way.

Some believe precise vocal control and learning was the first language trait to emerge in hominins — and not for speaking, but for singing. This idea of musical protolanguage comes from Darwin himself and has been modified over the years by different researchers. During this hypothetical singing stage of human evolution, our ancestors’ survival and/or reproductive success would have depended on serenading, in the context of maintaining social bonds, attracting mates or soothing infants. (Given my repulsion for acapella, I’d be evolutionarily unfit for this phase).

An alternate view envisions protolanguage characterized by gesture and pantomime. In this case, syntax and social communication would have preceded vocal prowess. The strength of the gestural hypothesis is that our closest relatives, chimpanzees, exhibit more controlled and variable gestures (over 70 and counting) than calls (4 types and more hard-to-distinguish subtypes). The weakness of this view is, it’s unclear why or how language became so speech-dominate.

Others, convinced that hierarchical syntax emerged last, propose a protolanguage with symbolic words, but no complex, nested sentences. According to this view, our pre-linguistic ancestors talked more like babies — “Water! Thirsty!” — or pop-culture’s image of cavemen — “Me hunt mammoth. Me want sex.”

These models aren’t mutually exclusive. Some researchers integrate them into successive stages, associated with different hominin species. Perhaps between 2 and 4 million years ago, Australopiths like Lucy were gifted singers. By 1.9 million years ago Homo erectus combined gestures and expressive vocalizations into group rituals. And hierarchical syntax only emerged some 200,000- 300,000 years ago with the appearance of our species, Homo sapiens.

This might all sound like speculation (and some scientists dismiss it as such, e.g. this commentary or Chomsky’s quote here). But many researchers beg to differ: Scientific models of language evolution derive from evidence gathered in comparative biology, neuroscience, genetics, linguistics and paleoanthropology. This includes data on how animals communicate, the brain and gene systems underlying language, the complexity of artifacts in the archaeological record and changes in anatomy and brain size, preserved in fossils. Most importantly, the models make predictions for future research — what should be found if that’s really how language origins went down.

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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