Developmental Plasticity and Language: A Comparative Perspective


The growing field of evo-devo is increasingly demonstrating the complexity of steps involved in genetic, intracellular regulatory, and extracellular environmental control of the development of phenotypes. A key result of such work is an account for the remarkable plasticity of organismal form in many species based on relatively minor changes in regulation of highly conserved genes and genetic processes. Accounting for behavioral plasticity is of similar potential interest but has received far less attention. Of particular interest is plasticity in communication systems, where human language represents an ultimate target for research. The present paper considers plasticity of language capabilities in a comparative framework, focusing attention on examples of a remarkable fact: Whereas there exist design features of mature human language that have never been observed to occur in non-humans in the wild, many of these features can be developed to notable extents when non-humans are enculturated through human training (especially with intensive social interaction). These examples of enculturated developmental plasticity across extremely diverse taxa suggest, consistent with the evo-devo theme of highly conserved processes in evolution, that human language is founded in part on cognitive capabilities that are indeed ancient and that even modern humans show self-organized emergence of many language capabilities in the context of rich enculturation, built on the special social/ecological history of the hominin line. Human culture can thus be seen as a regulatory system encouraging language development in the context of a cognitive background with many highly conserved features.

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Topics in Cognitive Science