The evolution of the narrow faculty of language: The skeptical view and a reasonable conjecture

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18 Scopus citations


Enard et al. (2002) date the last mutation in FOXP2, the gene implicated in some central aspects of human language-crucially including contextsensitive syntax- to ca. 120,000 before the present (B.P.). Traits in modern humans that arguably presuppose the narrow faculty of language can be independently dated to ca. 95,000 to 60,000 B.P. This leaves few generations in between to evolve full-blown syntax. We argue that such a rapid transition cannot be easily accounted for in customary «adaptive» evolutionary terms. We propose that only a brain reorganization, of a drastic and sudden sort, could have given raise to such a state of affairs. Two facts suggest that this reorganization may have been epidemic in origin. First, recent evolutionary accounts for the emergence of broad systems in organisms point in the direction of «horizontal» transmission of nucleic material, often of viral origin (e.g. the origin of the Adaptive Immune System); in situations of this sort, evolutionary rapidity is a consequence of boosting relevant numbers by having not individuals, but entire populations, carry relevantly mutated genetic material. Second, when the formal properties behind context-sensitivity in grammar (e.g. as displayed in syntactic displacement) are studied in Minimalist terms, a surprising parallelism surfaces with the workings of the Adaptive Immunity. Thus we discuss an «immune syntax» scenario that relates these two facts and is also informative both about the putative role of FOXP2 in grammar and the workings of syntax as studied in the Minimalist system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-80
Number of pages54
JournalLingue e Linguaggio
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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