We Talk

by Grant A. Mincy


And Now for Something Totally Different…

Perhaps the greatest trait that separates human beings from other species is our use of language. Though other species communicate, human beings are unique as our language is biologically innate. Our use of language has incredible consequences for our societies – our social organization, perceptions of ourselves, the development of culture and the world future generations will inherit. The greatest use of language in modern society is the development of, and changes to, mass communication. For the first time in human history with the advent of the internet, social media and growing social networks communication costs are at an all time low and we are sharing ideas locally to globally in scale. Falling communication costs, as at every time in our collective history, are allowing us to work around traditional power structures that have historically controlled the amount and type of information we receive. We are now cultivating ideas based on individual and collective interaction with people who hold similar interests.  This allows us to co-ordinate movements based on our interests, convictions and progress. In this discussion I explore the linguistic evolution of human beings, our social and biologically evolving communication systems and consequences for future generations. The use of language, the advent of technology and changing human communication systems are paving the way for enhanced cultural and biological evolution.


Language is a relatively recent development that represents a major transition in the evolution of life (Kirby 2005). Particularly significant about the evolution of language is despite the diversity among linguistic systems there are universals underlying grammar (Kirby 2007). Language is a mechanism that enables mass cultural transmission of information (Kirby 2005). The human linguistic system is incredibly important because it allows for (theoretically) an infinite amount of information to be transmitted. Furthermore, there seems to be no hurdle to tall for human linguistic structure to leap and bound. New words can be developed and the meanings of old words can change to keep pace with cultural evolution (Kirby 2005).

But how did we acquire language, what are our major theories? Charles Darwin in The Decent of Man writes:

I cannot doubt that language owes its origin to the imitation and modification, aided by signs and gestures, of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries.

Darwin echoes many ideas of language acquisition. Early speculation of human linguistic evolution notes the Bow-Wow (language developed as we imitated animals), Pooh-Pooh (first words escaped due to build up of emotion in our central nervous system), Ding-Dong (language developed as humans tried to imitate the noises heard around them in the natural world), and the Yo-He-Ho (cries/grunts from labor produced our first words) theories as the origins of human language (Harris 1996). Mechanistic in nature, still considered insightful and possibly part of the answer, these theories are mainly regarded as irrelevant in the current literature (Firth 1964; Stam 1976).

Perhaps the most famous modern ideas (and debate) of language acquisition come from linguist Noam Chomsky and behaviorist B. F. Skinner – language against verbal behavior. The debate between the two thinkers is one of nature vs. nurture. Chomsky believes that language and grammar acquisition is an innate biological endowment of the human species (Richelle et al., 1976). Chomsky believes it is this innate feature of grammar that allows for the rapid acquisition and creative nature of human language systems. Skinner opposes this biological innateness and stresses that grammar and language are shaped by environmental re-inforcement – that correct use of language is a product of positive re-inforcement and negative re-inforcement will prohibit the future use of incorrect grammar (Richelle et al., 1976).  The debate between the two thinkers and their respective “camps” is still ongoing, though Chomsky has recently adopted more evolutionary explanations for linguistic development (Hauser et al., 2002).

Keeping to the theory of natural selection, however, we can postulate that no matter the mechanism, language evolved as selection pressures required us to exchange technical information. Language enabled our early ancestors to explain where food could be found, describe how to use tools, build fire and provide information on many other subjects that assisted the sustainability of our species (Braak 2013). As time passed, language evolved as a mechanism for providing instruction to subsequent generations. The evolution of language allowed our early ancestors to find their place in a world full of increasing social complexity and provide information about kinship, dominance and alliance – language was vital for the subsistence of our species (Braak 2013) and it still is.

Language, communication, and as a result the development of culture, is what sets human beings apart from other species. Universal grammar is part of our genetic makeup – we are born with a basic template for communication (Chomsky 1959). It is suggested that there is a universal grammar which underlies the structure of all language (McNeill 1966). These linguistic universals are evidence for innate constraints on acquisition of language. In other words, if language is innate and we all share a universal grammar, then that feature may have arisen from biological constraint (Kirby et al., 2007). This leads to inquiry about how our biological evolution created language and furthermore, how language affects us today. The biological evolution of language is further complicated by cultural transmission (Kirby et al., 2007).

Just how we came to have this universal grammar is still a bit of a puzzle. Language is obviously still an acquired skill of the individual – a learned behavior (Kirby 2005). Language variation represents what is learned about human communication, but these variations are not the product of genetic diversity within the human species. This very diversity is exactly what is meant by the seemingly unbounded amount of information that can be transmitted between individuals and the collective (Kirby 2005). This suggests language is indeed a biological endowment – language universals exist and they are both enabled and constrained by or biology (Kirby 1999).

This presents a challenge for the biological sciences: How do we explain or even understand the structure of human language? To start, it is important to discover where linguistic universals even come from. Historically this question has been studied under the lens of biology. This biological inquiry has produced ideas that our linguistic nature is a product of  an innate faculty for acquiring, transmitting and processing information or language (Kirby et al., 2007). Biological evolution is used to explain how language impacts our biological fitness. As a result, this bio-linguistic approach argues that languages are structured and determined by our innate endowment. Kirby et al., (2007) raise a critical objection to this orthodox evolutionary/bio-linguistic approach  arguing that this line of thought treats language as arising from just two adaptive systems: individual learning and biological evolution – while leaving out cultural transmission. Adding cultural transmission to the equation then disturbs prior consensus by providing a mechanism that reduces the need for universals to be the product of strong innateness. Furthermore, cultural transmission suggests adaptations are not necessarily the result of natural selection and that such human communication may even reduce the selection pressures on innate learning mechanisms (Kirby et al., 2007). The authors further explain:

The link between biological predispositions and language structure. Genes (in combination with the non-linguistic environment) give rise to mechanisms for learning and processing language. These determine our innate predispositions with respect to language (our prior linguistic bias). Bias is a property of an individual, but the (universal) structure of human language emerges from the interaction of many individuals over time. Therefore, cultural transmission bridges the link between bias and universals. Although genes code for bias, biological fitness will in part be governed by the extended phenotype (i.e., language structure). To understand language evolution, we must understand this linking mechanism.

To understand our innate biological biases, individual learning experiences and our culture, and how they  impact the use and function of our language, we must try and understand how human communication evolves. Iterated learning and social collaboration are two primary theories that try to do just that.  Kirby (2007) argues, biological adaptation enhances individual learning and that cultural evolution may refine language systems through linguistic selection by the transmission of language from one generation to the next. Cultural transmission and evolution has primarily been studied using iterated learning computer models (Kirby, 2002). Advocates of iterated learning believe that the cultural transmission of language provides more than enough incentive to change language and is, in a sense, more important than biological evolution. Contrary to iterated learning models, however, collaborative models suggest that locally understood language produces a dominant representation of language that moves horizontally throughout a population until an entire community recognizes a shared language/communication system (Steels, 2003). In other words, as opposed to vertical transmission of language from generation to generation, a horizontal use of language instead moves throughout an entire society.

The discussion thus far sheds some interesting light on the “ethological aims” of language development. Our most unique characteristic as a species – language – be it spoken, written, illustrated, gestural and so on has many open questions. There is no real scholarly consensus on the causation or origins of language. We know that it evolved early in our history – be it via “bow wow” or Chomsky’s “Primitism,” however,  we have no scholarly consensus on the environmental controls that allowed for this evolution (Hauser et al., 2002). We do know the function of language, however, as it developed to help exchange technical information (Braak 2013) and serves as a vessel of communication with our fellow humans. Language has developed from its primitive beginnings, however, into a complex system of syntax and grammar, seemingly infinite in forms and a fundamental part of human life. A learned behavior of individuals, shared cultural advancement and innate biological universals have all shaped and progressed the structure of human linguistics.

In order to understand the link between biological universals and the structure of language there must be an account of the severity of innate biases and what these biases have on the language learned by individuals in a population (Kirby et al., 2007). In a 2007 study Kirby et al., use Bayesian inference to provide a framework of experimentation to investigate the innate effects on language learning. Furthermore, to determine expected distribution of languages based on innate bias, the study also looks into the cultural transmission of language. To do so, the authors treat populations as a chain of individuals that learn from the output of one generation while providing input to younger generations thus allowing them to analyze learning as a Markov process (Kirby et al 2007). This is particularly important when dealing with biological and cultural transmission of language. If language evolution is strictly held to what exists now, as opposed to being influenced by all of communication history, then our ideas of innateness or primitivism are in jeopardy.

The results of the Kirby study note that strong universals are not implied by the constraints of language and biological evolution is not the only explanation for the adaptive structure of language (Kirby et al., 2007). Language arises from the interaction between three adaptive systems: Learning, culture and evolution (Kirby et al., 2007). The authors argue that individuals acquire language from mechanisms that are innate to our biology. The biological capacity of learning and communication with other individuals is the mechanism by which language is transmitted culturally throughout a given population (Kirby 2007). It is the process of cultural transmission that has led to universals in language – these universals then directly impact the fitness of individuals that use language. It is this enhanced fitness that leads to further biological and cultural evolution (Kirby 2007).

To understand the implications of these results, perhaps we should investigate iterated and collaborative learning a bit further. The iterated (or individualistic) learning account proposes the evolution of syntax and  semantics can be explained using a biologically dependent model of vertical descent. Though humans have innate learning biases, iterated models suggest cultural transmission of language is a function of vertical, generation-to-generation, acquisition (Fay et al., 2010). On the other hand, collaborative accounts of linguistic evolution emphasize horizontal and bidirectional radiation of language norms. This theory postulates that communication systems originate and evolve because dynamic societies create a population level linguistic outcome. This allows new members to both align with  and contribute to existing linguistic systems (Fay et al., 2010). The collaborative approach then helps explain the continual adaptations of linguistic systems and how they evolve to meet user needs (Fitch 2007). Though different, these theories may be complimentary as iterated learning may contribute to inter-generational transfer of innovation while the collaborative model accounts for innovation among peers (Fay et al., 2010).

Fay et al., (2010) tests the collaborative account in an experimental setting and investigates the origins and evolution of “ad hoc” communication systems. The study investigates how people spontaneously create communication systems without access to their existing language to examine how new communication systems develop and evolve over time.

There are two objectives to the study. The first is to show that human communication systems can evolve via horizontal transmission – that this kind of transfer is practical. Specifically the studies hypothesis is that as communities develop community members will increasingly be able to understand each others signs on a first encounter, these signs will also become increasingly simplified and aligned across members (Fay et al., 2010). The second objective was to test contrasting predictions about the diversity of evolved signs from the iterated learning account and the collaborative account – inter-generational vs. collaborative community signals (Fay et al., 2010).

The experiment included sixty-four undergraduate psychology students who participated in graphical communication where a director (non-verbally) described different concepts while the matcher tried to identify them (Fay et al., 2010). The experiment worked by analogy, where the director illustrated concepts from an ordered list while the matcher tried to identify the referent of each drawing from an unordered list. Like the game Pictionary, participants are not allowed to speak or use text in their drawings (Fay et al., 2010).

The study found that communication systems can develop and evolve in a collaborative, horizontal fashion between human beings. Furthermore, the study noted that these interactions would spread across an entire community, thus lending support to both objectives of the experiment (Fay et al., 2010). The authors were able to show that the collaborative model works in an experimental setting – participants (communities) developed effective and simple sign systems and these systems were developed from the bottom up among participants (horizontal, as opposed to vertical). Furthermore, this communication was explicitly restricted to interacting communities as opposed to being developed across non-interactive communities. The authors suggest that the study presents strong arguments for the collaborative model, stressing that participants developed a wide range of local sign systems, which is at odds with the iterated learning argument that this is passed down among generations (Fay et al 2010)

The authors note that collaborative learning depends solely on  intra-generational processes, liberating it from dependence on generational transmission which makes it rather time effective (Fay et al., 2010). Another implication of the experiment notes that iterated learning is static in nature and works towards fixation, the collaborative model is more dynamic and works against fixation to allow future innovations to be more easily worked into communication (Fay et al., 2010).

Social collaboration and iterated learning may play symbiotic roles in evolution. Adaptations in linguistics may be best understood in regards to social collaboration while iterated learning may better explain the gradual changes in linguistic structure/syntax. Current studies, though, do note that the social collaborative theory can also be used to explain the mechanisms behind linguistic adaptation. As interactions among individuals and groups are necessary to communicate many conceptually related communication systems emerge. Kirby et al., (2010) for example, notes a pair of participants included a fork in all drawings that referred to agricultural concepts.

Another way social collaboration and iterated learning may play symbiotic roles in the evolution of human communication systems is that together it is possible to explain the initial emergence of communication systems where none previously exist. Once a system is established, iterated learning can possibly produce a bias to language acquisition through the generational transfer of information. Seen in this way, learning biases, or linguistic priors, may result from the proto languages established via the social collaboration of earlier generations (Fay et al 2010).

Linguistics and human communication systems offer incredible insight to the creative nature of human beings, spontaneous social order and emerging orders within our societies.

Human Communication & Technology 


As use of language is fundamental to human nature, so too is the motivation for communication. It is human communication that has allowed for technological and societal advancement – it is this advancement that has played a fundamental role in progressing our species both culturally and biologically.  For instance, the development of stone tool technology can be used to map the cultural evolution of our human ancestors (Foley and Lahr 2003). Culture can be treated as a trait, and in doing so, can be studied as a mechanism for how information (and the use of information) is taught, learned and assimilated into society (Foley and Lahr 2003). This can help us understand the evolution of human communication systems.

There is much more to evolution than genetics. Cultural evolution also plays a significant role in the biology of our species. Human groups, in other words, not just individuals, are themselves adaptive units that evolve (Wilson 2007). Human language is also dynamic and can adapt to meet new social norms. Indeed, language itself heavily influences culture.

Language and how we communicate with each other is changing rapidly with the emergence of new information technologies – this change is also global in scale. For the first time in human history, communication costs are incredibly low and the Internet is a mechanism that allows global  communication. For just a few examples: Facebook has more than 175 million active users globally, every minute 10 hours of content are uploaded to the video sharing platform YouTube and the image hosting site Flickr provides access to over 3 billion photographs (Kaplan 2010). Under the collaborative learning model, global communication systems offer an incredible space for linguistic adaptation and evolution.

Social Media is utilized by over 75% of internet users in the forms of social networking, reading/ writing blogs, contributing to reviews on shopping sites (etc) and the number of internet users engaging in social media is continuing to rise (Kaplan 2010). As interest in social media grows, there is also an ongoing trend of collaboration on the Internet. Collaborative projects enable the creation of information by interested users and are incredibly democratic. The online encyclopedia “Wikipedia,” for example, explicitly restricts corporations or governments from uploading information to its online content, instead allowing only individuals to add, remove or change content on the website (Kaplan 2010). Driving this collaborative effort is the idea that the labor of many individuals leads to better availability of information than any single person or actor could individually achieve (Fama 1970). The idea is that collaborative projects lead to more efficient markets. Collaborative projects are greatly changing markets as they are on their way to becoming the main source of information for Internet users.

The collaborative nature of our emerging communication systems has incredible evolutionary implications for society. Historical evidence suggests that community and cultural development is dependent upon active participation from people in their local communities. These engaged citizens then have a significant stake in their communities’ development (Kretzmann & McKnight 1993). Emerging communication technologies and the spread (and ease of access to) information can lead to a transfer of authority from centralized institutions to neighborhood or community organizations (McCook 2000). Human communication systems are playing a fundamental role in empowering people and providing wider benefits to communities (Wilcox 1996). Altruism is alive and well in the Internet age.

To better understand the role that modern communication systems play in our evolution it is important to note the concept of “information ecology.” Information ecology is a system of people, practices, values and technologies in a particular environment (Nardi & O’Day 1999) or community. This idea of information ecology helps us better understand human communication systems and how information moves within them – how is information used, who needs certain types of information, who is impacted by access (or lack there of) of information and what does this mean for our communities? As communication continues its decentralized evolution in the age of the Internet more stakeholders will take active roles in community development, empowering people like never before (Mehra 2009).

An example of this democratization as a result of the Internet is occurring right now in China. Yang (2003) notes that civil society and the Internet are dependent upon each other. The Internet facilitates the activities of a civil society by creating new markets for citizen participation. Civil society facilitates further development of the Internet by creating the social capital (citizens and citizen groups) for communication and interaction (Yang 2003). This co-evolution of the Internet and society has big implications for China’s model of government (even as the Chinese government attempts to  control access to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook), as Yang explains:

The co-evolution of the Internet and civil society means that political control of the Internet in China will have to take the form of control of civil society as well, and vice versa. Both options are open to the state, but the simultaneous control of the Internet and civil society will add to the difficulty and complexity of control. The co-evolutionary process also means that civil society development will facilitate the democratic uses of the Internet as much as the diffusion of the Internet will shape civil society. This scenario may have long-term consequences for the development of the Internet and civil society in China.

The Internet, information technology and falling communication costs provide easy-access to networks both local and global in scale. Communication networks are easily coordinated and create ‘‘virtual public spheres’’ (Langman 2005). Virtual public spheres are places in cyberspace where people and information intersect in virtual communities or subcultures (Langman 2005). communities that are organized and cultivated on the Internet are just as real as the face-to-face interactions humans use on a daily basis. The Internet provides a space where people can acquire and share information as well as interact, debate and negotiate about issues pertaining to society (Langman 2005). The Internet is incredibly empowering – the feedback loop between the Internet and civil society is an engine driving cultural evolution.

As empowering as the Internet is there are still many people who do not have access to the web. This is known as the “digital divide” and it represents a challenge to information science. There is a lot of ongoing research looking into how to close this divide and help those who are most marginalized in society. A lot of work has investigated how to keep communication costs low thus allowing more people to take advantage of the resource – but perhaps a more important goal is to understand how marginalized users incorporate computers and the internet into their daily lives (Mehra 2004). An important research area then for communication and linguistics is how the internet is changing the way we talk to one another, how it naturally advocates pro-social behavior and how this behavior can work to close the digital divide in ways that progress the goals, ideals and practices of people with little to no power or privilege in society.



In this discussion I have accepted that language and grammar are biological universals, acquired skills and learned behaviors. This discussion then notes how language develops through differing models of human collaboration/communication. An area under-explored in the literature though is if the idea of equivalence (two data elements from different vocabularies share a similar meaning) is necessary for linguistic development.

Stimulus equivalence has general relevance to the study of semantics and of language. It is then reasonable to assume a correlation exists between language use and the demonstration of stimulus equivalence. Devany et al (1986) explored this correlation with three groups of children ranging in numerical age and matched  by mental age: developing preschoolers, mentally handicapped children who used speech or signs spontaneously and appropriately, and mentally handicapped children who could not. In the study all of the children were taught a series of four related discrimination’s and were then tested to determine if classes of equivalent stimuli had formed. All of the children who were language-abled  (challenged and normal) formed equivalence classes, none of the language-disabled children, however, were able to do so (Devany et al 1986). This suggests equivalence holds a good deal of relevance to language (Devany et al 1986). The scientific contributions of studies in this area would be enhanced with better documentation of language skills and other subject characteristics (O’Donnel and Saunders 2003). With recent advances in laboratory procedures for establishing the baseline performances necessary for equivalence tests, this research area is poised for rapid growth (O’Donnel and Saunders 2003).

In this discussion I have also explored modern communication systems and online social networks. It would be particularly interesting to investigate just how modern information technologies are impacting how we organize socially. Human evolution is not the sole product of genetic change through time – culture itself has greatly impacted human evolution. Our use of language and our use of culture is what sets us apart from other species. If our culture is defined by collaborative social action, then the rise of global communication, among all tiers of society (aside from the digital divide) will have huge implications for the future of human civilization.

Human beings are fond of organizing in groups. The social environment produced by humans directly effects our biological fitness – fitness is the product of interactions between different groups and of individuals within a group (Wilson 2007). It is this idea that groups are fundamentally important to the human condition that has paved the way for the emergence of a fairly controversial subject in evolutionary biology – group selection. If evolution can work with individuals organisms and groups, however, then groups and symbiotic communities can become higher evolved organisms in their own right (Wilson 2007). This is particularly important for human beings because the cultural transmission of traits can quickly escalate behaviors throughout an entire group. Evolutionary biologists who study cultural evolution acknowledge just how important cultural selection is to human evolution (Wilson 2007).  Our changing communication systems then, accompanied by the collaborative transmission of linguistic norms, are now connecting individuals to multiple groups – some global in scale. Higher-level selection can potentially have very large implications for our societies – socially, economically and biologically.

As human communication has expanded across the globe new symbols/syntax/grammars have developed – from linguistic codes such as html that run the Internet to social phenomenons such as hash-tags (#’s) and emoticons. These new codes and the emergence of globally understood symbols present us with tentative data for an empirical investigation: As we share our ideas publicly are people from different parts of the globe (with no direct communication with one another) using symbols and tags in the same way?  If so, are people more likely communicate with one another?

In other words, if language evolved for us to share technical information and if our language is biologically innate, individually learned and culturally transmitted can virtual cultures and evolutionary processes develop? Is our language faculty and acquisition no longer bound by the natural environment and geography? Is a new order emerging? Is this possible?

I am not qualified enough to suggest some kind of evolutionary study to look into this, nor am I even qualified to say it is even possible. It would be interesting, however, to see if people from totally different cultures – say someone from Knoxville, Tennessee and another from Lesotho, Africa – use tags, hyperlinks and queues on the internet in the same way. If so, will they be led to each other or like minded people on the internet and develop a virtual community? How large can a virtual network get, how specific are the ideals shared – is there a trend to how virtual communities develop and do norms develop or is each circumstance unique?

To investigate a comparative study would be necessary. Comparing blogs from various countries that are concerned with a single topic – cooking, for example – could reveal some interesting results. When writing a blog there are a number of tags and links that can be inserted into a post that will help it show up better on search engines and social media sites. Do people with no formal training tag the same ideas, methods, words, and theories in their writing? Do they tag them the same way (does just one word, or an entire sentence get tagged)? If  so do they build their own networks and possibly begin to communicate with one another?

There is, in my opinion, a lot of exciting work that can be done by studying how information is communicated on the Internet and how this behavior impacts our physical societies.

Information technologies are allowing for revolutions in markets, thus effecting business, government and our evolution. For the first time in human history there is truly global communication. Though it is still a large privilege to have access to the internet, more and more people of many different socio-economic statuses are beginning to talk. As Tim Malone writes in The Future of Work about the coming revolution in business:

The new revolution promises to lead to a further transformation in our thinking about control. Where does power come from? Who should weild it? Who is responsible? Once again the result will be in a world where people have more freedom. A world in which power and control are spread more widely than our industrial aged ancestors would have ever thought possible…

Dispersed physically but connected by technology, workers are now able, on a scale never before imaginable, to make their own decisions using information gathered from many other people and places.

As Malone points out, emerging orders in society will become more and more decentralized and democratic but still highly organized, structured and efficient – it will be progress forward, not reverting back to a “simpler” time. This is possible because communication costs are so low in the age of the Internet.

There has been a constant push throughout human history to decentralize when the time is optimal. The emergence of democracy, for example, shows off this trait. Now, in an era of low communication costs and emerging technologies, we may see enhanced cultural and biological evolution, a stronger push to decentralize and the emergence of small social networks that can cause big changes in how we live our everyday lives. Information technology is beginning to impact our neighborhoods, cities, work places and our governance. We are connected – in short, we talk!

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