In “Self-Domestication and the Evolution of Human Language,” an article for the Berkeley Science Review, Biological Anthropology graduate student Madza Y Farias-Virgens and Anthropology undergraduate student Yevgeniya Sosnovskaya explain the Brain Evolution Laboratory’s research on language evolution. The Brain Evo Lab is investigating the self-domestication hypothesis – perhaps oversimplified as the relaxation of natural selection due to increasingly sociable living experiences – in the context of the evolution of human language. They argue that the increased importance put on cooperation in the evolution of the human species, among other factors, led to a decrease in “stereotyped vocalizations” and the space for more voluntary control of vocalization.
Testing the self-domestication hypothesis, they are researching patterns of genetic change between the domesticated Bengalese finch and its wild ancestor, the white-backed munia. They believe that by looking at these patterns of genetic change among birds, we can use that knowledge to look for patterns of genetic change among humans and other primates in the search for clues about language evolved.
Attention to birdsongs and their potential clues for human language evolution has a long history, as Ms. Farias-Virgens points out and provokes: “Darwin was among the first people to argue for parallels between birdsong and human language. In his book The Descent of Man, he claims that ‘the sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language.’ Was he right?”
Find out more about their research and keep up to date with their progress here
Image by CARTA/Jesse Robie.