Saturday, November 01, 2008

Gene-language co-evolution in Melanesia

This paper, authored by fellow UNM anthropologists, looks at the nature of the relationship between genetic and linguistic variation in Melanesia.
Kambiz and Razib have both commented on this paper.

Genetic and Linguistic Coevolution in Northern Island Melanesia

Keith Hunley, Michael Dunn, Eva Lindström, Ger Reesink, Angela Terrill, Meghan E. Healy, George Koki, Françoise R. Friedlaender, Jonathan S. Friedlaender
PLoS Genetics
Abstract: Recent studies have detailed a remarkable degree of genetic and linguistic diversity in Northern Island Melanesia. Here we utilize that diversity to examine two models of genetic and linguistic coevolution. The first model predicts that genetic and linguistic correspondences formed following population splits and isolation at the time of early range expansions into the region. The second is analogous to the genetic model of isolation by distance, and it predicts that genetic and linguistic correspondences formed through continuing genetic and linguistic exchange between neighboring populations. We tested the predictions of the two models by comparing observed and simulated patterns of genetic variation, genetic and linguistic trees, and matrices of genetic, linguistic, and geographic distances. The data consist of 751 autosomal microsatellites and 108 structural linguistic features collected from 33 Northern Island Melanesian populations. The results of the tests indicate that linguistic and genetic exchange have erased any evidence of a splitting and isolation process that might have occurred early in the settlement history of the region. The correlation patterns are also inconsistent with the predictions of the isolation by distance coevolutionary process in the larger Northern Island Melanesian region, but there is strong evidence for the process in the rugged interior of the largest island in the region (New Britain). There we found some of the strongest recorded correlations between genetic, linguistic, and geographic distances. We also found that, throughout the region, linguistic features have generally been less likely to diffuse across population boundaries than genes. The results from our study, based on exceptionally fine-grained data, show that local genetic and linguistic exchange are likely to obscure evidence of the early history of a region, and that language barriers do not particularly hinder genetic exchange. In contrast, global patterns may emphasize more ancient demographic events, including population splits associated with the early colonization of major world regions.

1 comment:

.marioV said...

Nick Chater,
Florencia Reali,
and Morten H. Christiansen
Restrictions on biological adaptation in language evolution
PNAS published online before print January 21, 2009, doi:10.1073/pnas.0807191106
Full Text (PDF)


Language acquisition and processing are governed by genetic constraints. A crucial unresolved question is how far these genetic constraints have coevolved with language, perhaps resulting in a highly specialized and species-specific language “module,” and how much language acquisition and processing redeploy preexisting cognitive machinery. In the present work, we explored the circumstances under which genes encoding language-specific properties could have coevolved with language itself. We present a theoretical model, implemented in computer simulations, of key aspects of the interaction of genes and language. Our results show that genes for language could have coevolved only with highly stable aspects of the linguistic environment; a rapidly changing linguistic environment does not provide a stable target for natural selection. Thus, a biological endowment could not coevolve with properties of language that began as learned cultural conventions, because cultural conventions change much more rapidly than genes. We argue that this rules out the possibility that arbitrary properties of language, including abstract syntactic principles governing phrase structure, case marking, and agreement, have been built into a “language module” by natural selection. The genetic basis of human language acquisition and processing did not coevolve with language, but primarily predates the emergence of language. As suggested by Darwin, the fit between language and its underlying mechanisms arose because language has evolved to fit the human brain, rather than the reverse.

Baldwin effect
cultural evolution
language acquisition
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