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A Saltationist Approach for the Evolution of Human Cognition and Language

By Susan J. Lanyon


The debate over the evolution of an innate language capacity seems to divide into two principle camps. The neo-Darwinian approach generally argues that human psychological modules, including the language faculty, must have arisen gradually and incrementally having been honed by natural selection. Thus Pinker, when theorizing about language evolution, sees ``no reason to doubt that the principle explanation is the same as for any other complex instinct or organ, Darwin's theory of natural selection" (Pinker, 1994, 333). However, as Knight et al. (2000) have pointed out, little attention has been paid by the neo-Darwinian approach to address the causes of the emergence of novelty. The saltationist approach gleans much of its evidence from the archaeological and paleontological record, which is interpreted as unsupportive of the neo-Darwinian paradigm. Jackendoff (1999) accuses those who do not accept that language arose gradually through natural selection as having been ``forced to devalue evolutionary argumentation". Jackendoff's concern seems to stem from the view that there is only one way that evolution can proceed, through gradual change driven by natural selection. My concern is for the neglect of the vast amount of evidence supporting the theory that modern humans did not emerged in a gradual, step-wise fashion, so there is no reason to believe that cognition and language evolved in this manner. Here I argue that hominins evolved through major evolutionary leaps, which may have numbered only two or three significant mutation ``events". Neoteny (the retention of infant or juvenile growth rates) appears to have been a major force in the evolution of our primate ancestors and this process can explain the sudden emergence of many of the traits that define what it means to be human. Further evidence from the fossil and archaeological record supports a ``sudden" emergence of human cognition and language

Topics: Primatology, Evolution
Publisher: World Scientific
Year: 2006
DOI identifier: 10.1142/9789812774262_0023
OAI identifier:

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