2012-13 Catalog

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Offering Description

Evolution of Human Language


Spring 2013 quarter

Rachel Hastings linguistics, mathematics , Bret Weinstein biology
Fields of Study
biology, cultural studies and linguistics
Preparatory for studies or careers in
biology, linguistics, natural history, language and cultural studies.

Human language is amongst the most complex phenomena ever to arise through Darwinian selection. The human body and brain have been heavily modified at a genetic level to allow language acquisition, processing and speech, yet the evidence is overwhelming that languages evolve and are passed on through a process that is entirely cultural. This has allowed individual languages to change rapidly as populations have spread, diverged and fused over space and time.

The evolution of human language has made our species unique. Once we as individuals acquire language in childhood, massive stores of cultural content can be efficiently transmitted into our developing brains—information that ranges from the factual to the emotional, from the narrative to the instructive. We download our human programming from the living members of our tribes.

Controversies abound about the origins of this language capacity in humans, the relationship between human language and the communication systems of other animals, and the relationship between language and culture. In this program we will study a variety of possible responses to these and other issues relating to the evolution of language. A major focus of our work will be to develop and use critical and analytical thinking in order to propose our own hypotheses in response to linguistic and biological data.

Our study will encompass the two principal meanings of "language evolution": the evolutionary origins of language in humans, and the cultural change in language(s) over time leading to families of languages which are descended from common ancestor languages. These two lines of inquiry will require us to study evolutionary processes more generally. We will discuss ways in which genetic evolution and cultural evolution interact and we will consider theories of linguistic change. We will focus on the multiple evolutionary emergence points of written language, and investigate the cultural diffusion of this trait between populations.

We will read, have lecture, and have detailed seminar and workshop discussions. Students will be expected to generate and defend hypotheses and predictions in a supportive and rigorous environment. We will spend time looking at nature and listening to spoken language to obtain primary data. The program work and assignments will be geared towards generating deep predictive insight. It is best suited to self-motivated students with a deep commitment to comprehending that which is knowable, but unknown.

Academic Website
Online Learning
Hybrid Online Learning < 25% Delivered Online
Greener Store
Required Fees
$200 for an overnight field trip.
Offered During

Program Revisions

Date Revision
January 29th, 2013 Fee has been added.
June 6th, 2012 New program added.